Ethical Thrifting: How to thrift with a conscience

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According to the National Association of Resale Professionals, the United States is currently home to more than 25,000 resale, consignment and not for profit resale shops, all of which make up a multi-billion dollar yearly industry. This thrift shopping industry is growing rapidly; research from the retail analytics firm GlobalData states that in 2019, the resale market was growing 21 times faster than the retail market. Younger generations tend to fuel this growth, using thrifting as a way to be more environmentally conscious, spend time with friends and find a unique sense of style, all while saving money. On the surface, thrift shopping is beneficial in many aspects. But for shopping secondhand to be entirely favorable over shopping new, a little more thought is required.  

The biggest ethical concern regarding thrift shopping comes from a supply and demand standpoint: If wealthier people that can afford to buy their clothes new instead choose to shop secondhand, what does that leave for people of lower income levels?

The biggest ethical concern regarding thrift shopping comes from a supply and demand standpoint: If wealthier people that can afford to buy their clothes new instead choose to shop secondhand, what does that leave for people of lower income levels? There is some validity to this question. In areas with very few thrift stores around and a large lower-income demographic, there may not be enough secondhand clothing to go around. In this case, there are fewer quality clothing items for people who truly need them, having no other affordable or within-budget options. But more often than not, suburban and urban thrift stores receive plenty of donations. (Rural thrift stores are more likely to be considered low volume regarding secondhand clothing stock.) A store that is constantly getting new donations benefits from having more customers to keep the cycle of stock moving. Fears of “stealing from the poor” often stem from a good-hearted place but do not accurately portray the situation.  

From a buyer’s perspective, there are some products that are better to leave for those who cannot afford to buy new. Extremely durable clothing, weatherproof clothing, winter coats and other similar items are often expensive when bought new but greatly needed by lower income and homeless communities. Additionally, large sizes are often rare to come by in thrift stores. If you don’t consider yourself to be low income and notice extremely slim-pickings for such necessities in your local thrift stores, you may want to instead shop new or through online resale platforms. This will alleviate concerns regarding extreme need without eliminating the possibility of secondhand shopping for anyone not explicitly low income. If you truly fear disrupting the supply and demand chain of secondhand clothing in your community, you may want to donate your clothes to local thrift stores, in addition to buying from them, effectively contributing to the cycle of stock instead of simply reducing it.  

And for what it’s worth, it is not easy to differentiate between who is shopping secondhand because they need to and who is shopping secondhand because they prefer to. As long as you feel good about the ethics of your personal shopping habits, it’s better not to stereotype or categorize other shoppers. Gatekeeping the thrifting community will harm the industry in the long run, by increasing stigma and thus reducing the demand for secondhand stores. 

Illustration by Dionel de Borja/The Daily Campus

If you live in an area with a high volume of secondhand clothing for sale, there are plenty of reasons to shop for clothes in thrift stores rather than buying new. First of all, thrifting is the recycling of the clothing world, reducing the amount of raw materials used in the fashion industry. Moreover, shopping secondhand reduces the popularity of fast fashion, which is not environmentally sustainable and often exploits workers. If you donate your used clothes (that are in decent condition) in addition to thrifting, you strengthen the industry as well. Finally, the increasing popularity of shopping secondhand normalizes buying used clothes overall. As long as you put a few seconds of thought into what you’re buying and where you’re buying it, thrifting is a great option for maintaining your wardrobe.  

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