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The Gentrification of Thrifting

The Gentrification of Thrifting

It’s the first day of middle school. I’ve tied my locs into a half up half down type thing with two space buns at the front of my head. Last week was back to school shopping, and my sister and I had spent a whopping sixty dollars (collectively) on what we felt was the coolest lot of clothes from the thrift store. The best part, however, was picking out my outfit the night before. I laid the ensemble gingerly on the living room couch and wallowed in my creativity. Enthusiastically, I had picked a pleather skirt, a crisp button up shirt, and a bowtie. (What can I say? I was messing around with my gender expression).

To this day I don’t think I’ve ever felt more genuinely confident than in that moment- full of  unadulterated poise (mixed with a tinge of arrogance, of course). I truly thought I was the “It Girl”. I go to school and plop down at my desk in homeroom and turn to make eye contact with a mousy girl. “I like your outfit,” she says. I beam. “Where’d you get it from?” This is the moment. This is how I impress her. I puff my chest up. “The thrift store!” Her smile falters, and her face contorts into a crinkled expression of disgust as she snaps her head back to the front. The girl is suddenly engrossed in whatever the teacher was saying the entire time. She never spoke to me again.

In the past, those who were dependent on thrifting were made fun of for being poor and having to wear used clothes. Now, due to platforms like Youtube and TikTok,  thrifting is seen as a trendy pastime. Take, for instance, if you search the term “thrift haul” into Youtube, a slew of young white teens pop up, adorned by colorful thumbnails and heaps of clothes in the background.  On TikTok, expertly edited videos of preppy teens flaunting their thrifted finds  are among the most popular categories on the app. Collectively, this genre of videos have garnered millions and millions of views. Well, what exactly makes such a replicable video format so engaging? Is it the ability to live vicariously through these shoppers? Maybe it’s the unpredictability of what goods the person might snag. Either way, thrifting becoming trendy seems fairly harmless, correct? In theory, sure. But how exactly did thrifting become trendy in the first place?

With fast fashion’s exponential growth and Generation Z’s ever growing concerns with climate change, many were seeking a safer way to participate in the fleeting clothing trends our peers had to offer. Stores like Forever 21, Shein, AliExpress and Fashion Nova (some of the biggest fast fashion conglomerates globally) have had drastic impacts on our environment. The industry alone accounts for 10% of all carbon emissions, is the second largest consumer of our water supply, and pollutes the ocean with microplastics.

What exactly makes a company a fast fashion business? For starters, there is an extremely short turnaround between when a trend is seen in celebrity media and when it hits the shelves (or websites) of these brands. The clothing is made with cheap labor and cheap materials that degrade after a few wears, then is sold for unethically low prices. Offshore manufacturing and complex supply chains that don’t aid in customer visibility and transparency is also another facet of these fast fashion companies. These brands tend to make a limited quantity of a garment as well so that customers are more likely to buy impulsively, and won’t likely occur again. The main pull, however, is that the prices and convenience of shopping online makes these brands incredibly accessible to those of us who may not make a lot of money (namely high-schoolers and college students). 

To directly mitigate this, a push towards thrifting was made. The attraction of thrifting was that people could now participate in new trends at a lower price, but help reduce clothing waste as well. To make thrifting more convenient, online second hand sellers like Depop, Poshmark, and ThreadUp were created and have exponentially grown in popularity. This is where the “gentrification” begins. These platforms allow users to sell whatever they want at any price they want. Naturally, those with an already sizable online following migrated to these platforms and began selling their clothing at marked up prices. Individuals now thrift exclusively for the purpose of reselling the items at higher prices, effectively now serving a more privileged demographic since they often want to acquire a large range of clothing rather than buying what actually fits themselves.

To compensate for this phenomenon, traditional thrift stores are raising their prices, yet again ostracizing the demographic for whom thrifting was originally for: lower income people who need clothing and other household necessities. In addition to thrifting and reselling being seen as trendy and profitable, the act of DIY-ing and upcycling clothing is also very popular. To relate this back to “gentrification” these upcycling projects almost always rely on buying oversized garments so that there is enough fabric to work with. The depletion of the stock of locally sourced thrift stores also disproportionately impacts the lower class.

The “gentrification” of thrifting is an intersectional issue that affects many overlapping groups of people in multiple ways. There is no black and white answer or solution, nor is there a “bad guy” in this situation. As a person who frequents thrift stores, it is interesting to see the patterns and effects of these new phonemes. The delicate balance between supply and demand, environmental impact, and independent entrepreneurial pursuits is definitely something to keep and eye out for and think about as we shop in the future.

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