Are Thrift Stores Being Gentrified?
an article by Lora Kwon
Dear Asian Youth,
Thrift stores are businesses that sell second-hand products such as clothing and furniture for more affordable prices. In the past, thrifting was a necessity for the underprivileged who could not afford new items. Those who thrifted were often looked down upon for their socioeconomic status as these second-hand stores were never considered fashion-forward. However, thrifting has recently become a huge trend on social media platforms such as TikTok and Youtube, as many teenagers and young adults come to recognize the unique joys of finding one-of-a-kind, vintage clothing for low prices. Not to mention that an explosive number of people are also buying thrifted clothing for the sole purpose of reselling them on platforms such as Depop and Poshmark. According to the 2020 ThredUp Resale Growth Report, the secondhand market is expected to grow from $28 billion in 2019 to $64 billion in 2024.
While the popularization of thrift shopping has dispelled the elitist stigma surrounding second-hand shops, its explosive adoration has also presented unprecedented issues. Primarily, are those choosing to buy second-hand clothing contributing to the gentrification of thrift shops?
Gentrification is when richer individuals increase the value of a lower-income neighborhood by bringing in more prosperous businesses and residents. It often displaces and excludes lower-income people. The fundamental argument for the gentrification of thrift shops is that thrift stores are raising prices to capitalize on the sudden demand. One example is Goodwill, one of the largest thrift chains in America. This was made evident by the changes to Goodwill's valuation guides, manuals provided by Goodwill that help employees price the secondhand items. In 2010, the valuation guide for Goodwill Donors were limited to flat prices, but by 2020, the valuation guide included a range of prices. For example, a sweater in 2010 was estimated at $5, but a sweater in 2020 can cost anywhere from $5-$15. Furthermore, a vast majority of regular thrifters have noted this change in price, as a quick Google search leads to thousands of forums such as this Reddit thread that echo these complaints. While a five-dollar markup might not seem like a big deal, to lower-income individuals, it is the difference between being able to buy any clothing at all. These businesses are marginalizing the communities they were made to help.
Many point out that while thrift shopping for fun may contribute to these higher prices, it is the fault of the company that chooses to capitalize on the sudden demand. This is true to a certain extent, but at the end of the day, these for-profit businesses are simply trying to maximize profit under our capitalistic economy. As their primary customer bases shift towards those who can afford more expensive clothing, these businesses are fully aware that they can raise their prices. Not to mention that even if certain businesses did not try to maximize profit, the sudden surge in demand has already bred competition, and many would still be forced to raise prices in order to keep up. This is especially prevalent in college towns and large cities where higher-income individuals are moving in. While what these companies are doing is by no means moral, it is part of a greater issue of whether ethical consumption under capitalism is even possible. Therefore, it’s inaccurate to completely shift the blame onto these businesses. These businesses are very unlikely to lower their prices just because we ask them to. So, even though those who thrift for fun are not necessarily to blame, they are still contributing to the issue at hand.
However, as easy as it would be to condemn people who choose to thrift as gentrifiers, we cannot ignore how thrift shopping has combated the prevalence of fast fashion. Fast fashion is both environmentally and ethically problematic. As stated by Business Insider, “the fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined.” Furthermore, around 85% of textiles end up at the dump, making the fashion industry one of the biggest contributors to pollution. Shopping second-hand mitigates this pollution, slowing the effects of climate change. Not to mention that as fast fashion companies seek to make greater profiters, many are trying to find cheaper and cheap sources of labor. Subsequently, many are outsourcing their labor to countries that utilize child labor. According to Unicef, around 170 million children are engaged in child labor and because fast fashion requires low-skill labor, it plays an incredibly large role in this terrifying statistic. One report by the Center for Research on Multinational Corporations and the India Committee of the Netherlands found that recruiters in South India coerced parents in impoverished regions to send their daughters to spinning mills through the false promise of housing and food. In reality, most are placed in terrible working conditions comparable to modern-day slavery. Stopping the cycle of fast fashion not only improves the world’s environment but prevents these children from being subjected to such conditions. Therefore, the popularization of thrift stores has incredible benefits despite what it has done to lower-income individuals.
As a result, there is no one solution to the gentrification of thrift stores. However, those of us who are privileged enough to get to choose whether or not to buy second-hand should keep our socioeconomic statuses in mind. For example, overbuying thrifted clothing only to resell them at astronomical rates is incredibly detrimental. While selling the clothing you no longer wear is perfectly understandable, this reselling trend is often allowing people to profit at the expense of lower-income households. Not to mention that we can be more mindful of the communities we are thrifting in, as lower-income areas have a lot more people who need these clothing. Telling people to stop thrifting all together is counterproductive, as it ignores the benefits of thrifting. However, an understanding of the gentrification that resulted from its popularity is crucial in keeping everybody’s privilege in check.
Cover Photo Source: Time Magazine