Thrifting: Sustainability at the Expense of the Vulnerable?

Thrifting may be a more sustainable alternative but does the benefit to the environment outweigh the disadvantages it could bring?

Over the past decade, it’s no secret that thrifting has taken an entirely new life form. From 2nd Street Bundles, Jalan Jalan Japan, we’re witnessing how thrifting has vastly expanded into the predominant fashion culture and is growing much faster than the broader retail sector.

What is Thrifting?

Thrifting is the act of shopping at a thrift store or a flea market in hopes of finding an interesting item at a much lower price. The larger philosophy permeates the act of thrifting as celebrating the recycling of formerly-owned items. What was once carried with negative reactions and considered only suitable for the poor, thrifting has trickled its way up to the upper-middle-class hipsters and fashion bloggers.

Fast Fashion, Thrifting, and Sustainability

Believe it or not, the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world contributing to almost 10% of mankind’s carbon emissions. Hence, today, more than ever, the importance of climate change and sustainability has been recognised by consumers. According to McKinsey’s The State of Fashion 2019 report, ‘nine in ten Gen Z consumers believe companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues.’

Many consumers' shopping motivations have changed, driving new demand for thrifting.

It should be noted that the companies behind fast fashion brands haven’t been blind to the impact of these environmental interests and changes in consumer choices.

Fast fashion brands have begun to be more transparent about their garment supply chains, techniques, and some have also started to roll out their own sustainable and ethical clothing lines, which are of course way more expensive than their regular garments. 

For many, thrifting then becomes a natural response.

A view of what a typical thrift shop looks like.

Thrifting as a Sustainable Solution

It’s no secret that over the past years, the fast fashion industry has faced persistent scrutiny over controversies in regard to the poor and unethical treatment of workers in their garment factories. Not to mention, the unsafe conditions of these factories. 

These findings have sparked conversations within the global consumer base about the ethics of fast fashion consumption, discouraging the practice in favour of circular fashion. Therefore, opting to thrift rather than purchasing from fast fashion brands is a form of protest. Thrifting keeps clothing in the cycle of use and consumption much longer than fast fashion, and it forces many brands to put less money into producing more and new clothing. 

However, it’s important to highlight the other side of today's thrifting culture — one that’s often ignored or forgotten.

The Hidden Effects of Thrifting to the Vulnerable

Lately, the term gentrification has been increasingly used and applied to the idea of second hand and thrift shopping.

What Is Gentrification?

So what does gentrification even mean?

Gentrification refers to the development and alteration of lower-income neighbourhoods through the process of moving wealth and affluence into them, whether it be through businesses, non-native residents, etc. Now you may be wondering as to how this relates to thrifting.

In this article on ‘The Gentrification of Thrifting’, sustainability is becoming a trend and more wealthy people are turning to thrifting. As a result, lower-income people who’ve been relying on thrift stores and second-hand shops for their clothes and household items for years, now find it difficult to find good and affordable products due to the lack of options.

A thrift shop filled with furniture

Thrifting and Reselling Could Result in Lack of Clothing

Another issue within the thrifting paradigm in the world of online reselling. 

For many young entrepreneurial-minded individuals, online platforms like Carousell, Depop, and even FB Marketplace, have become very lucrative platforms when it comes to reselling second-hand clothes and shoes.

This increase in demand means that much larger thrift and charity shops have also started getting themselves involved in the profit game and are hiking up the prices of many of their garments.

The cumulative effect of this kind of inflation makes thrifting less cost-effective for many who rely on thrifting as their main source of clothing. This cycle increases the possibility that those who once relied on thrifting for the bulk of their clothing to become more reliant on fast fashion where they can shop on-trend and at similar prices because many thrift stores' remaining garments that aren’t snatched by resellers would end up being priced on par with fast fashion garments.

Are online selling platforms a type of alternatives for thrift shops or does it kill thrift shops completely?

When many of us place fast fashion shopping habits into the second-hand shopping setting or get caught up in the profit games, it changes the accessibility and inclusivity of thrifting. Thrifting is meant to give new life to a once loved garment instead of being placed at the back of the next person’s wardrobe. 

A great tip I personally use when shopping is to have a one-in-one-out policy in my wardrobe. This helps me keep a running list of my wants and needs based on what I've recently removed from my wardrobe and avoids the unnecessary purchases of garments. Now, by no means am I condemning thrifting or the culture around it. 

Thrifting is usually very community-oriented and is one of the most sustainable ways to shop. The point of this article is to highlight the other side of the thrifting culture in hopes to understand the complexity of the situation so that we may make the most educated consumption choices in the future.

Kaif Razvi is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences at Taylor's University. He is also a member of Taylor’s Sky Adventure Club and is the co-founder of Arkib Studios, a freelance photography and videography company.