The Complicated Reality of Thrift Store ‘Gentrification’

Thrift store gentrification describes the phenomenon of affluent shoppers who voluntarily buy merchandise from second-hand clothing stores.

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The Complicated Reality of Thrift Store ‘Gentrification’

“When you yuppie scalpers fill up your shopping carts you fuck over the lower class, designer students, and both,” TikTok user @pheusthefetus says in a video with over 90,000 views checking out a local “gentrified thrift store,” where he points to two pairs of sneakers priced $69.99 and $79.99, not much lower than what he finds later at a local store for brand new. Someone writes “depop sellers landlords,” in the comments, referring to the London-based resale app that brands itself as “peer-to-peer shopping.” “This is fcking gentrification,” reads the caption of another TikTok with over 290,000 complaining about a Depop seller advertising a $50 vest they “probably thrifted for two dollars,” among other wares.

Shopping secondhand in an era of fast fashion might seem like an ethical no-brainer, but enthusiastic thrifters and TikTok influencers often debate the ethics of what many have called “thrift store gentrification.” Thrift store gentrification describes the phenomenon of affluent shoppers who voluntarily buy merchandise from second-hand clothing stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army. When those same shoppers resell that merchandise on Depop or Poshmark at significantly higher prices, the prices at thrift stores then rise to meet the demand, or so popular TikTok videos claim. A store then becomes “gentrified” in the same way a neighborhood might, pushing out low-income buyers to make way for those with a surplus of cash. The discourse around this gentrification also broaches the topic of trendy or particularly good merchandise being bought up by such resellers, thereby denying the low-income communities stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army serve access to this merchandise. The resellers accused of contributing to thrift store gentrification are often called out for mislabeling thrifted children’s clothing as “vintage” to drive seller traffic, Vox reported.

In college student newspapers across the country, young essayists and reporters have tackled the knotty issue of thrift store gentrification in dozens of similar articles. “Resellers surging thrift stores for cool, trendy finds and buying in bulk are ultimately taking away from low-income communities in bulk,” writes Vanessa Delgado for the North Texas Daily. “Thrifting is not wrong but profiting off something that people need in order to maintain their standard of living is.” The debacle of where to buy clothes then is best summed up by a TikTok video from the user @curlie_fries, who rattles off her options in a breathless monologue. “What I’ve learned on TikTok is that I can’t shop at thrift stores because I contribute to the gentrification of thrift store prices,” she says. “But I also shouldn’t shop at fast places like Forever 21 because they use child labor sweat shops.” She can’t afford high fashion either, and can’t shop from Amazon because of Jeff Bezos, so what’s a girl to do?

She can’t afford high fashion either, and can’t shop from Amazon because of Jeff Bezos, so what’s a girl to do?

There is little evidence that suggests thrift shop prices are uniformly rising in response to secondhand clothing trends. Critics of thrift store gentrification have pointed to the slight increases in Goodwill valuation guides from 2010 and 2020, but valuation guides are estimated guidelines for donors to claim a charitable deduction to the IRS, not hard and fast rules for what store merchandise costs. Goodwill also often effectively recreates what Depop sellers do with the store’s merchandise by moving around designer or valued clothes to their 58 boutique locations in states like New York, North Carolina, and Texas.

In a scene from Adam Minter’s 2019 book Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, he visits an Arizona Goodwill that sorts clothes and sends items from name-brand labels like Zara or Brooks Brothers to a nearby boutique location where they’ll sell for much higher, a move designed to beat re-sellers at their own game. The most valuable donations are also sold online, such as a “run-of-the-mill” painting selling for $24,000. In response to claims that Goodwill’s store prices have risen due to re-sellers, a representative for the store told Jezebel that many organizations have sales on goods before merchandise is rotated out, “so there is plenty of opportunity for people to find great merchandise at a price they are comfortable with.”

When Goodwill does open boutiques and raise prices on merchandise, Minter writes, they may face backlash from communities who believe used items should serve the poor. That’s because the idea that used clothing donations can be radically philanthropic has long been drilled into Americans even as such thrift stores can barely sell most of the product they receive on the store floor. But most donated clothing in America does not go to communities that shop in thrift stores, but is fed into a massive international re-sale market. At Goodwill, for example, whatever doesn’t sell in four to five weeks is then sent to an outlet store where items are sold by the pound. If it’s not sold there, HuffPost reports, it will be auctioned off in a bin, then to a textile recycling organization like SMART that will likely turn the clothing into wiping rags or export it overseas, a process which Minter reports costs the company less than the landfill.

The skepticism about the ethics of shopping and selling thrifted clothing emerges in a moment when apps like Depop and Poshmark—sleeker, brand-conscious iterations of clunkier predecessors like Etsy or Ebay— make it easy to turn a closet into an online store. Sites like The Real Real, which specializes in gently used designer clothing, and Rent the Runway, which allows members to rent luxury wardrobes they wouldn’t be able to buy, have further sanitized and glamorized secondhand clothing. A 2020 report from the online consignment shop ThredUp estimates that the secondhand retail market is set to hit $64 billion in the next five years, overtaking the traditional thrift and donation market. And Gen Z, reportedly more concerned with sustainability and eco-conscious than previous generations, is leading the charge. Thrifting is environmentally friendly, it promises a unique wardrobe in a sea of shoddily made SHEIN and Brandy Melville, and at its best, it’s also an experience, with hunts uploaded to TikTok and Youtube by countless influencers.

“The Depop thing is really exciting in my eyes because [it] opens up this future economy of sharing and swapping,” says Taylor Lombardino, a 21-year-old seller from Ridgewood, Queens who sources most of the clothes for her shop Lor Lom Vintage from places like Goodwill by the pound or non-chain thrift stores. “Clothing is not just this disposable, ‘I buy this’ and it’s done. It has a whole new life and becomes something else entirely.”

The history of secondhand clothing becoming a coveted and criticized fashion trend doesn’t begin with young Depop sellers and TikTok influencers showing off their thrift hauls in 2020. For nearly as long as there has been a mainstream marketplace for selling and buying secondhand clothes, young, financially secure people have consumed and resold them. The complicated popularity of thrifting and reselling is part of a decades-long discussion about the co-option and transformation of second-hand clothes by privileged buyers.

In the early 1900s, organizations like The Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries were united in their mission to assist the poor in a way that redefined charity, but also redefined waste. Instead of simply receiving money or food, historian Susan Strasser wrote in Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, these new charities set people up with job opportunities and created stores where they had to pay for clothes and housewares, thereby “freeing themselves from humiliation.”

“Goodwill and the Salvation Army offered poor people, not necessarily the poorest of the poor, a chance to participate in the developing consumer culture by being able to buy things that they would not otherwise be able to buy,” Strasser tells Jezebel.

They also aggressively framed the act of donating one’s old clothes as an inherent act of charity, as most middle-class people to whom Goodwill and Salvation Army targeted for donations were still actively recycling clothing and wares. “In the 19th century, people just didn’t get rid of clothes,” Strasser says. “They didn’t have that many clothes and the clothes were handmade… If you knew how to sew, then you knew how to put a new collar on or new buttons or freshen it up in some way.”

The Industrial Revolution ushered in the future of store-bought clothes, but people still didn’t feel good about throwing away their clothes. Now, a family could give their worn items to a charity organization and know that their goods would have a new life rather than end up in the trash, a new life that would also help poor and immigrant shoppers better assimilate into American, capitalist culture.

“Goodwill and Salvation Army absolutely marketed themselves as, yes, we are going to help all the new immigrants first of all look more American and become more accepted, but to also be able to afford these things,” historian Jennifer Le Zotte and writer of From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies tells Jezebel. Previously, churches would gather and donate used clothing. “They’re saying we’re broadening our charitable scope, [but] they’re also monetizing it in a way that it wasn’t before.”

But that charitable giving also accelerated first-hand purchases, “If you tell a middle-class housewife in 1920, we’re starting to accelerate fashion patterns and there are all these new styles, but your old clothes aren’t worn out yet, that’s okay,” Le Zotte says. “If you donate them, you’ll be helping all these families. Then middle-class housewives can feel happy about buying new flashy fashions.”

Goodwill and Salvation Army stores, as they are today, were still businesses. During the first World War, American households tightened their spending and held onto belongings for longer. In response, Strasser writes, the Salvation Army began to upgrade their stores to increase income by hanging clothes on hangers and displaying goods on racks. 1930s Goodwill manuals gave tips on how to create window displays and recommended outlets be opened on “good shopping streets” instead of poorer areas for good merchandise. “Both organizations sorted out antiques that would attract dealers and collectors; they sold these treasures in special sections, sometimes even special stores,” Strasser notes, describing a strategy that foreshadows what Goodwill would do decades later with specialized boutique stores.

The association of thrift stores and second-hand clothing with poverty persisted, but as Le Zotte wrote there is precedent for buyers of means to shop secondhand and to create new meaning in pre-worn styles. In the 1930s, Surrealist poet André Breton romanticized the items found at flea markets for artistic inspiration infusing markers of poverty with bohemian ideals. In the 1950s, college kids wore raccoon coats formerly popularized by Ivy League college men in the 1920s after the enterprising and hip New York City couple the Salzmans went into business selling them, emphasizing their connection to the decade’s glorious excess.

It was the transformation of America’s post-war fashion industry that would help make secondhand clothing especially desirable and cool among those who could surely afford to buy new. Magazine editors and distribution chains pushed fashion seasons, rapidly increasing the amount of clothes Americans were expected to buy, and new materials like nylon and polyester emphasized comfort and uniformity in retail. “The new identifiability of secondhand clothes, combined with consumer desire for variability and distinction from middle-class tastes, helped brand vintage clothing as fashionable and elite,” Le Zotte wrote. “For many, the cheap, new fabrics and rotating styles flooding the postwar clothing market visually defined the middle class.”

As secondhand clothing grew increasingly popular in the 1970s, critics expressed similar sentiments about thrifting privilege and co-option that critics of Depop do today

For a white middle-class kid disillusioned with social class, second-hand clothes were a shorthand to clearly articulate that feeling. In the 1960s, hippies, bohemians, and beatniks donned a wide variety of second-hand looks, from Wild West-inspired get-ups to thrift shop suits, sometimes as a rejection of a comfortable, 9-to-5 life that would have required them to wear more sensible clothing. “The postwar period, and perhaps ever since that, was marked by a popular rejection of middle-class status,” Le Zotte says. “Sometimes this is in cultural appropriation, wanting to look like or act like a minority group, or with the Beats, it’s wanting to slum it with the working class or like you can’t afford good clothing. And sometimes it’s wanting to show I can afford to buy old vintage clothing that takes more care and expertise and that’s kind of exhibiting higher than middle-class status.”

As secondhand clothing grew increasingly popular in the 1970s, critics expressed similar sentiments about thrifting privilege and co-option that critics of Depop do today. In Nancy L. Fischer’s study “Vintage, the First 40 Years: The Emergence and Persistence of Vintage Style in the United States,” she quotes a 1978 New York Times story on how New York City clothing stores were scrambling for used items, making the secondhand clothing market more competitive. “The spiraling prices of used garments have disconcerted those traditional buyers of secondhand clothing, the poor,” the reporter wrote.

“Recently I observed some young people shopping in a local second hand clothing store… they were junkin’ to dress themselves as unlike the Establishment as possible,” Los Angeles Times columnist Sandra Haggerty wrote in a 1970 edition of her column “On Being Black,” also included in Fischer’s study. “I was amused and reminded of the days when a close girlfriend and I junked, as a means of being like the Establishment. Being the only black and Chicano [students] in a white upper-middle-class school, we needed nothing more to make us ‘unlike’ our classmates.” By the end of the column, she calls out middle America shoppers with available cash for hiking up thrift store prices, since “the downtown look is ‘in’ and uptown is ‘out.’”

Towards the end of the 20th century, an appreciation for second-hand clothing became increasingly normalized. In the 1990s grunge and riot grrrl movements popularized ratty thrifted cardigans and floral dresses as an ironic, anti-consumerist statement. But it was co-opted by the fashion industry, from spreads in Vogue to distressed, thrift-mimicking clothing produced for Urban Outfitters, almost immediately. “We burned it,” Courtney Love once said of receiving a shipment of samples from Marc Jacobs’ infamous grunge collection for Perry Ellis. By the late ’90s, young shoppers had a plethora of options in addition to organizations like Goodwill and the Salvation Army including consignment chain boutiques like Buffalo Exchange and Plato’s Closet.

Today shoppers have apps like Depop and Poshmark, where individuals can start a thrift store online overnight if they want to. Effectively, what Depop sellers are doing are what Ebay sellers did before them, and what consignment shops did before them, and what thrift-savvy sellers like the Salzmans did before them. There will always be a buyer unwilling to wade through charity shops themselves who can fork over the cash for pre-curated second-hand clothing repositioned as fashionable vintage. “At the end of the day, you’re paying for an item that was sourced and photographed and listed and marketed in a way for you to find it and want it,” Lombardino says, describing how some buyers might not be aware that Depop prices reflect this labor.

in the case of thrifting, a more accurate statement might be that there is simply no consumption that can be anti-capitalist

Reselling doesn’t take away merchandise from charity shops that are overloaded to begin with. Thrift stores have come a long way from their philanthropic roots and, after decades, have shed their association with poverty. They also aren’t, however, an oasis in the fast fashion market. A popular refrain in discussions of shopping is to cry that there is “no ethical consumption under capitalism.” But in the case of thrifting, a more accurate statement might be that there is simply no consumption that can be anti-capitalist.

Buying secondhand clothes is still buying more clothes, and donating old clothes and then replacing them with new ones reinforces modern ideas about clothing’s obsolescence, which is exactly what the fashion industry wants. And the global market for donated secondhand clothing, in which most donations are exported from the USA and the UK to countries in Africa, can have an adverse effect on local economies; in 2015 The New York Times reported that Rwanda wanted to reduce the amount of secondhand clothing imported into the country not just to strengthen local manufacturing, but because “wearing hand-me-downs compromises the dignity of its people.” The idea that American clothing donations will exclusively serve local communities in need is a romantic myth, as is the idea that shopping secondhand is a totally public good in defiance of the fast fashion circus.

But are Depop sellers reselling thrifted clothing items for higher prices unethical? The answer might be that it’s only as unethical as the existence of vintage itself. The defining qualities of what makes a secondhand garment vintage today in certain circles might be its coveted time period, or its label, or its quality. But the rebranding of secondhand clothes on apps like Depop, just like the creation of any fashion trend, often happens in context, a socially agreed upon rebranding of used clothing that elevates it into something covetable. Depop stores trail fancy vintage boutiques in repositioning thrift store wares as treasure instead of trash, and there is evidence that vintage boutiques are markers of real, neighborhood gentrification. And while discourse around thrift store gentrification is flawed, it reinvigorates a worthwhile interrogation of what it means for certain secondhand clothing to become trendy.

Depop critics clamor around clothes that don’t meet the mark of what they consider to be “true” vintage, taking offense at boxer shorts sold at an increased price. But the transformation of second-hand clothing or anachronistic dress into admired “vintage” is often a process defined by class and privilege, just like so much of luxury fashion. The secondhand clothing acceptably deemed or celebrated as stylishly “vintage” on the body of a person well celebrated by the fashion industry (thin, white, affluent) won’t necessarily receive the same treatment when worn on those existing in the margins, especially those to whom secondhand stores have always been their main clothing store as Haggerty wrote in her column in the ’70s. It makes sense that theories about thrift store gentrification would alight on a platform like TikTok, where the dances, voices, and music of Black and marginalized creators are often divorced from those who started them and positioned as accessories for white teenagers to wear.

But the history of wearing secondhand clothing is more complicated than rich kids simply play-acting poverty and marginalized identities, reflecting economic and political anxieties of particular eras. It’s hard to not notice parallels between how some anti-consumerist buyers embraced second-hand clothing in the 1960s and ’70s and why Gen Z gravitates towards thrifting. Fast fashion’s ceaseless churn of trends and poor construction ensures that whatever you buy one month will not only be out of style the next year, but likely falling apart in the process. You can opt-out of the hegemony, and get an arguably better-made garment, by wading through your local Goodwill, and a greater understanding of global clothing waste also makes shopping for recycled clothes as a starting point more appealing.

It’s ironic that one of Depop’s biggest and often derided clothing trends is “Y2K style,” all Juicy Couture sweatsuits, mini handbags, and low-rise jeans, all items that flourished in a time of pre-recession, frivolous economic prosperity while the current world burns. Depop sellers and thrift enthusiasts in 2021 are not the first groups of people to transform second-hand clothes into a fashion statement loaded with misplaced nostalgia, and they surely won’t be the last. But there’s no doubt that as long as fast fashion continues on its course, American thrift stores will be overwhelmed with second-hand clothes, waiting to be rediscovered.

(Updated 3/2/22 with new details)

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