The Ethics of Secondhand Clothing

Secondhand Clothing is without a doubt the more ethical choice, especially as compared to fast fashion. As with most things, however, the ethical nuances of the rise in thrift stores are deserving of further consideration.

See Also: What is Minimalism? A Beginner’s Guide

By Amanda Schroeder

You have probably come across the phrase, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It is a bit dramatic, but the basic premise is that everyone has good intentions, yet that doesn’t necessarily lead to a good outcome. Whether you really believe that everyone has good intentions or not, we can all find examples in our lives where this rings true. As environmental allies, the outcome of our actions, no matter the intent, is something we need to pay close attention to.

Of course, we all approach our lives with the best intentions as eco-conscious consumers. But we need to continue to look at our habits and analyze the effects they have on the greater ecosystem. This is how we started our journey as advocates for the environment, and we need to continue to in order to move forward into a society that protects people and the planet. 

The general public is becoming increasingly aware of the devastation caused by the fashion industry. Conscious consumers are finding inventive ways to buy clothing that doesn’t come with a slew of negative impacts on people and the environment. But with this pivot to secondhand shopping comes a more insidious side effect: the gentrification of secondhand shopping and its effects on low-income communities.  

To understand the gentrification of thrifting, we need to acknowledge what gentrification is and who started secondhand shopping first. Gentrification is classically defined as the process of changing the character of a neighborhood through the influx of more wealthy individuals and businesses. Gentrification can also be more widely applied to include markets or trends.

Why exactly is gentrification negative? Because gentrification does not leave room for the people and systems that existed before it. It displaces businesses and families and destroys culture and community. To argue that gentrification is positive is to argue that wealthy people have a place in the world, a call to any land or thing they want, and others do not. We need systems that build equity, not trample over those at a disadvantage. 

Now, let’s consider the gentrification of secondhand shopping. Low-income communities rely on secondhand clothing as a financial necessity, not as one of many options. Members of low-income families describe being humiliated at school for wearing previously used clothing as children. The thrift store was not a trendy place to be seen even a decade ago. That is, until recently when secondhand shopping hit main markets. Now the same children that harassed their classmates for wearing secondhand clothing are queuing up outside of Wasteland. 

The term “fast fashion” – where clothing is made as cheaply as possible with the intent to be bought en masse at a low cost – has become a part of the vernacular in recent years. Plenty of fast-fashion brands responded by sprouting up eco-friendly campaigns with simple clothing in muted colors that oozed the feel of “minimalism.”

Entire companies emerged with business models built around sustainability. Sustainable brands touting web infographics on how much carbon you save by purchasing their clothing could be seen adorning the Instagram posts of celebrities. Now understanding the implication of their fast-fashion habits, many recovered Forever 21 -ers flocked to thrift stores to score unique clothing at dirt cheap prices without the associated guilt.

Often enthralled by how cheap secondhand clothing could be purchased for, they began procuring massive amounts. If it’s wearable, cheap, and guilt-free, why not take it?

Curated secondhand clothing shops since have been sprouting up, touting unique secondhand pieces at inflated prices. Many places come by these higher quality pieces by buying consumers’ old clothing off them, either offering them store credit or cash. And why donate your clothing when you can sell it for some spare change? 

Because of this, thrift stores like Savers and Goodwill have had to raise their prices to stay open as wealthy consumers begin frequenting curated thrift stores that provide customers with a boutique experience. Between increases in prices and decreases in quality goods that are now being sold to boutique-style thrift markets, traditional secondhand stores are suffering. 

Another micro-economy emerged out of the increased demand for secondhand fashion. The social media savvy have started side-hustling by scouring thrift stores for cheap but unique or high quality finds, then selling them on places like Etsy or Depop at an inflated price. Most people find this as a way to make some petty cash on the side, but others have turned this into a full-blown business, with marketing strategies and employees. 

These trends with wealthy consumers, though spawning from dreams of an eco-conscious future where we can still buy products for slave labor prices without the direct association, are slowly creating a system that excludes low-income communities from the markets they previously relied upon due to price inflation. As more curated secondhand businesses arise, it becomes increasingly harder to get quality secondhand clothing at the prices they were once found at. 

To clarify, no one is trying to argue that buying a vintage band tee from a twenty-something on Instagram is hurting anyone. And it’s infinitely better than regularly shopping at fast-fashion retailers that spin out low-quality clothing at the cost of people and the environment. You are of course doing less harm shopping secondhand. But this shift to the secondhand economy does have an impact on those who rely on secondhand products as a financial necessity. 

If you’re wondering what can be done, please consider this: the core of sustainability is to use what you need and leave the rest. The overbuying of used clothing is just a mutated third arm grown out of hyper-consumerism. If we want to change the systems that exploit our communities and the environments they live in, we need to change our habits, not just redirect their focus. Understanding how your actions ripple into the greater world is essential in understanding environmentalism and stepping away from consumerist trends. 

So please consider secondhand when you need to buy something. And if you want to splurge on something cool, go for it. Just remember that just because it’s cheap and wearable, doesn’t mean you need to have it. And keep in mind that a truly sustainable future is one where we learn to live with what we have instead of perpetually craving more.