Thrift Shopping & Class Appropriation: Lillian Kim

The Rise of Thrifting as a Trend

In recent years, we’ve noticed a trend away from fast fashion, toward sustainability. One alternative to the often-pricey sustainable brands that have cropped up all over the Internet is thrift shopping. A cursory search of “Thrift Shopping” and related terms on YouTube yields thousands of results, ranging from hauls to how-to videos on “upcycling,” a.k.a. “creative reuse.” Thrift shopping has been a great way for eco-conscious and fashionable people — and everyone in between — to acquire quality clothing for cheaper prices. Thrift shopping content is trending not only on YouTube, but also on other platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, Tumblr, and Pinterest. This has led to an increased social interest in thrift shopping as a hobby, not just as a financial necessity. Just as eco-consciousness and sustainability have become trends, thrift shopping has become a trend.

Although there are many positives that have come with this trend — from a greater social awareness of sustainability and environmental issues to an increase in sustainable markets — it’s also given rise to a few issues. One of the biggest problems with this trend, and the one I’ll elaborate on a bit more in this article, is gentrification and everything it entails.

The Increasing Inaccessibility of Thrifted and Secondhand Clothing

What is gentrification? The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition explains both what it is and how it occurs:

“The process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, typically displacing current inhabitants in the process.”

While gentrification typically occurs in relation to neighborhoods and physical locations, it can certainly happen with cultural phenomena, which is what’s happened with thrift shopping. But how did this happen? And what does that mean for those of us who want to be ethical and sustainable?

Thrift shopping has, for the most part, followed the basic path of most trends. Public sees, public likes, public consumes. The increased demand leads to an increase in prices. It’s how the market works.

Because it is now more conventional and convenient to thrift shop, the demand for thrift shops has increased. And because of the increased demand, prices continue to rise, while only the “trendy” or higher quality items sell. Reddit users on the “r/Do you guys feel that thrift stores are being gentrified” chain share their experiences of the gradual mark-up of items at thrift stores. One user, MaterialLimit, laments “when Goodwill’s prices were a couple bucks for some jeans and a dollar or two for a shirt,” because “Now it’s closer to $6-$8 for jeans and $3-$5 for shirts.” While this price increase may not seem like much when we consider the cost of the individual item, the difference can quickly add up. Before, five pairs of jeans would have cost about ten dollars; now, with the price increase, five pairs of jeans can add up to thirty dollars or more. The Berkeley Economic Review elaborates on this dilemma:

“The rising popularity of thrifting among more wealthy consumers as an alternative to buying from sustainable and ethical fashion brands reduces the already limited options available to low-income communities when it comes to clothing…This means there are fewer quality items left on the thrift store shelves for those who truly have no other affordable options, say, for buying professional attire that could mean the difference between impressing or crashing at a job interview.”

Another issue that emerges with the rise in thrift shopping is related to reselling. I’m not talking about ThredUp or other online secondhand clothing retailers. Because of the increasing popularity of online shopping, it makes sense that thrift shopping would find a market online. But this is a completely different issue from the type of reselling we see on online platforms such as Depop and other curated shops, or “vintage shops.” On these platforms, curators buy clothing at secondhand stores like Goodwill or Salvation Army and resell them for a higher price. While there’s nothing bad with taking advantage of this new market, this can further contribute to the increasing inaccessibility of thrifted clothing. The result is that populations which rely heavily on the cheaper prices of secondhand clothing find it more and more difficult to afford them.

A Changing Social Perception of Poverty

Okay, so we understand the economic effects of gentrification. So what? We can just stop buying from resellers, or we can donate to impoverished populations, can’t we? Did I really need to write another article about this issue?

The answer is YES!

I’m sure you’ve heard about gentrification and all its negative financial impacts. But have you stopped to consider the social implications of gentrification? Especially as it relates to thrifting?

About ten years back, before thrift shopping was a trend, it was associated with poverty and uncleanliness. It was all the rage to try and look like all your clothes were brand new. Obviously, with the rising social awareness of environmental issues and the popularity of sustainable fashion options, thrift shopping has become a trend. And, as a result, how we as a society view thrift shopping has changed drastically. It’s no longer a taboo associated with poverty and uncleanliness.

Of course, it’s a good thing that we’ve stopped shaming people for wearing secondhand clothes. However, this is not because we as a society are becoming nicer. It’s because we’re participating in class appropriation. That is, we are adopting elements of lower-class culture into our middle- and upper-class culture, while ignoring the social and political implications of that appropriation.

Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, our actions have direct social implications. Rika from Couturesque discusses the class appropriation associated with fashion in general:

“In other words, elitism, with a few drops of creativity, and the right kind of popularity, means that a wealthy and successful person wearing a DHL t-shirt is considered more fashionable than the DHL employee wearing his or her regular work attire. In many cases, the only thing creative about pieces like this is the price tag and the high-fashion apparatus that supports it; if it weren’t for these two things, the trend would still belong to those who had it first. Instead, those who can afford these ‘new’ pieces don their badge of “authenticity,” which ironically is anything but authentic, considering that those who wear the same t-shirt for a living probably couldn’t afford to buy the trendy version.”

This, along with the “deconstruct and reconstruct” concepts of haute couture, relates to the rise of thrift shopping as a trend.

What happens when the DHL t-shirt worn by the wealthy person is considered more fashionable than the DHL t-shirt worn by an employee? In this act of class appropriation, we see the beginnings of the erasure of poverty. Of course, I’m not saying that we want to be able to easily identify someone’s socio-economic standing, but this trend almost implicitly makes poverty fashionable. While we might think that thrift shopping signals a shift away from poverty shaming, what actually happens is that poverty shaming still exists, just in a less overt — and, as a result, more difficult to identify — sense.

What We Can Do

So what does this mean for us as middle-class consumers? Does this mean we should stop thrift shopping altogether? Is there a way to be ethical and eco-conscious and sustainable and shop secondhand? In my search for the right answer, I looked high and low, digging through online articles the way most of us dig through clearance bins at our local thrift store. Unfortunately, most articles don’t offer a practical solution, or, if they do, the conversation is always focused on the individual practices we can adopt.

What these articles often forget is that we are operating within a broken system. Sure, we can effect minor change by showing companies that we prefer sustainable and ethically-produced products, but that’s kind of about it. It’s capitalism we’re talking about.

So, is there anything we can do? Yes! While classism is interconnected with the contemporary discourse surrounding sustainability and ethics — and while this web of issues can seem monolithic and impossible to tackle — there are things we can do.

What we can do is be conscious of our classist privilege when it comes to sustainability and secondhand clothing. Most of us can afford to buy from more expensive brands, and we need to recognize that our behavior as consumers directly influences vulnerable populations.

What we can do is remember that this is not just an individual issue. What I mean is that solving our personal consumer habits will not effect change on a large enough scale. The oil industry has been telling us to pay attention to our carbon footprints, as if it hasn’t been up to them to push for change on a greater scale.

What we can do is take political action. Aside from taking responsibility for the things that are up to us — supporting local businesses, repurposing our old clothes, not buying from unsustainable brands, etc. — we can also vote for environmentally-friendly policies and for politicians who will put our planet first. Hopefully, one day, we won’t even have to question the impact of buying a single t-shirt, because the system will be one that is inevitably ethical and sustainable, one that has sustainability woven into its very fabric.