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Thrift Shopping: Eco-logical or socio-implausible?

I strut into school wearing my new jacket. The shiny blue fabric complements the worn-out zipper, which makes it look vintage and cool. I am proud of my new possession. But what made this jacket unique was that I had bought it for $3 at my local thrift store. 

My sister and I have gone to thrift stores for the past few years, and we always find one or two things we can repurpose. I remember listening to Macklemore’s song “Thrift Shop” and thinking I wanted to try it. If Macklemore said something was cool it had to be, right? Suddenly, instead of thrifting being “unclean” or looked down on, thrifting was trendy. 

I felt good about my purchases because I saved money, and I was also reusing someone’s unwanted clothes. I wanted to do my part to decrease textile waste. The average American throws away about 70 pounds of clothes each year. This waste has detrimental effects on our climate because each item of clothing thrown away represents energy and hundreds of gallons of water wasted. 

But this year, my sister and I were disappointed when made our annual trip to the store. The store, which is usually filled with clothes, was picked through. Countless teenagers filled up the aisles with their carts overflowing. A t-shirt that would typically cost $1 was now listed for $3. That’s a 300% increase in price. 

Where did the boom in thrifting come from?

According to an IBIS World Industry report, the 2008 financial crisis caused thrift stores to open more shops as people were looking for affordable clothes. Moreover, Tik Tok, the popular video-sharing app, has recently made thrift shopping and “DIY” clothes trendy. Emma Chamberlain, a social media influencer, made a youtube video called “Thrift With Me” with close to 7 million views. 

Now, young people will cut up and sew plus-sized clothing to make it more fashionable and fit smaller-sized bodies. However, cutting plus-sized clothing takes away the larger sizes for people who need them. As the demographics of shoppers change to include a greater quantity of wealthier teenagers, so have the prices. According to a 2019 report by ThredUp, the percent of Gen Z that bought second-hand apparel has nearly doubled from 2016 to 2019. With this increase in demand comes an increase in cost. The report also predicts that the second-hand market will double, from $24 billion in 2018 to $51 billion in 2024. 

For my sister and me, the price increases at the Savers in our town were slightly annoying. For the people who can’t afford to shop elsewhere, it could be the choice between putting clothes on their backs or food on their table. It’s a privilege to choose thrifting, and some people don’t buy clothes for aesthetics, but out of necessity. 

After some research into these price hikes, my sister and I realized how we contributed to the harmful gentrification of thrift stores. Not only were we potentially taking clothes away from people who need them, but we were also increasing pricing at stores like Savers and Goodwill. We didn’t want to shop exclusively at fast fashion brands because of their detrimental effect on the climate and reports of large corporations abusing their workers. Still, we also couldn’t afford to shop solely at Eco-Friendly (but pricey) brands like Stella McCartney that charge $400 for a plain white t-shirt. 

So where did that leave us – can you shop affordably and still look cute while doing it?

I reached out to my good friend and resident thrifting expert, Celia Dorsey. She loves to flip clothes and has a unique sense of style. “I like to express myself through clothing,” said Celia. She saw Emma Chamberlin’s thrifting videos and thought it looked super cool. “I started doing more research and the more research I did, the more I didn’t want to shop fast fashion. I stopped shopping at malls and started going to more thrift stores.”

She likes to “thrift flip” the clothes she buys, which involves altering the clothes in some way to fit her style or size better. Her favorite pieces include a denim jacket and a pair of jeans she painted, and two t-shirts she split in half and sewed together. 

However, Celia also realized that thrifting wasn’t a perfect replacement for fast fashion. Celia said, “I’ve been trying to educate myself on what thrifting actually means and who actually needs it because I have the privilege of choosing second-hand. I have to recognize that it is a privilege to shop second hand.”

Celia believes that it is near impossible to purchase clothes that are 100% ethical. “I don’t want to blame thrifters for Savers jacking up prices. That’s capitalism, it’s supply and demand,” said Celia, “It’s a harsh reality to confront.” 

Now, Celia works hard to reuse the clothes she already has. “The most sustainable options are things in my closet. I’ll thrift flip those things to make them more my style now,” she declared. She recommends shopping at thrift or consignment stores closer to your home and not in lower-income neighborhoods where thrift stores are needed more. She also recommends remaining conscientious of who may need the item that you’re buying. “I love a good oversized sweatshirt, but I’m not going to go get the biggest sweatshirt because there are people who need them,” said Celia. 

Celia uses websites like Good on You and B Corporation to research the brands you buy to understand their principles and labor policies. According to McKinsey and Company, nine out of ten Gen Z consumers believe companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues. As a new generation, we have to ensure that corporations uphold the values that we think are vital to building a better society. It is crucial for the planet and everyone living on it that you spend your money on things you can feel good about. 

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Julia Temple
Contributor at The Commoner | + posts

Julia Temple is a recent high school graduate of Noble and Greenough School in Massachusetts. Julia will be starting Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in the Fall of 2021. She is currently taking a gap year focused on personal and professional development, volunteering, and travel. Julia discovered her passion for social justice and international relations through her work with Model United Nations and Journalism. In her free time, Julia enjoys reading science fiction books and walking her dog, Jolie.

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Amos

As a larger person I have trouble at thrift stores now. Years ago I would be able to buy clothes because nobody needed XXL clothes. I didn’t realise that younger people buy bigger sizes to cut them to make new clothes I am glad new gens are thrift shopping but this author makes good point’s about remember plus-sized people.

[…] all, to win the race against everyone else striving for these same goals. After all, we live in a capitalistic Western-world nation that usually measures success in terms of wealth and power. This concept might be better summed up […]

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