The Gentrification of Thrifting: Philanthropy vs. Profit

Thrifting started off as a highly stigmatized resource for people with lower incomes — but it’s quickly becoming more mainstream. Now thrifting is being marketed as an ethical alternative to fast fashion and the narrative is that these two customer segments (the poor and the ecoconscious) are fighting for the same resources.

As thrifting becomes more popular, people argue that it’s also becoming less accessible for those it was meant to serve. People often point out that as thrifting becomes gentrified and the customer demographics shift from low income families to affluent teens the clothes are becoming both physically and financially inaccessible for those who really need them. The argument is that thrift stores are now understocked and overpriced. But with growing climate anxiety some reject the idea that we should discourage people from buying second hand. After all, it keeps clothes out of landfills while lowering the demand for fast fashion (which in turn saves water and reduces chemical pollution).

This conversation has become a battle between the competing interests of two groups:
01 the less fortunate who use thrifting as a means of survival
02 the more affluent who do it for fun, for environmental reasons, or to make a profit by reselling their finds.

But that might be an oversimplification. I’m not suggesting that people who are poor can’t or don’t thrift for other reasons. I’m also not suggesting that people who thrift for environmental reasons are inherently privileged and committing a moral wrong by stealing from the poor.

In fact, a few of the arguments used to support the idea that the market can’t be shared are often fallacies or misrepresentations. Like the idea that there’s a shortage of secondhand clothes is false and so the idea that thrift stores are being forced to raise their prices due to scarce inventory is also false.

The truth is that there’s a surplus of secondhand clothes available and thrift stores aren’t raising their prices because they need to — it seems like they might be doing it simply because they can. As their new pricing model has begun to isolate their original target demographic it feels like these stores are shifting away from philanthropy and towards profit. But is this the fault of the consumer, or that of the company?

Dead White Men’s Clothes & The Myth of Scarcity

In Ghana secondhand clothes from Western countries like Europe and America are referred to as obroni wawu (dead white men’s clothes) — they go by a similar name in Kenya. The truth is that most clothes donated to thrift stores aren’t sold locally and many of them end up being shipped and sold in foreign countries. There’s no shortage of secondhand clothes — despite the rise of thrifting, there’s still an excess available. The reason we don’t see thrift stores overflowing is because the overflow is being sent to Africa.

The dominant mindset about thrift stores hasn’t caught up with modern times and doesn’t reflect what thrift stores are today. I think it’s part of the group consciousness that thrift stores exist primarily as a safe haven for disenfranchised local families. When we donate our clothes I think many of us believe we’re putting them directly in the hands of a poor family across town — but that’s not usually what’s happening.

The idea that resources are being stolen from local poor people when others go thrifting would suggest that resources are becoming scarce — but they’re not. It’s the opposite. There are too many clothes for thrift stores to sell domestically and they’ve had to open up new avenues to get rid of them all.

Most clothes aren’t sold domestically. Despite being donated, some clothes still end up in landfills, others are recycled and repurposed into rags and insulation, some are sold per pound to outlet stores and others end up being exported to places like Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, Uganda & Tanzania. There’s even a group called SMART (Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association) that deals specifically with the international trade of second hand clothes and the textile recycling industry.

We have entire industries that are built on exporting our clothing to other countries. There is no clothing shortage. But if thrift stores aren’t struggling for inventory, that begs the question — why are prices rising?

My mom would bring my siblings and I thrifting when we were younger and when I compare the prices of clothes back then to clothing now — it’s undeniable that prices have gone up.
This sentiment is shared by many others who have a long history of thrifting and those who still rely on thrift stores for high quality clothes at a decent price.
But recently the prices haven’t been so decent.

People put forth the theory that it must be the influx of new customers who don’t value thrifting as a means of survival but instead regard is as a trend, an easy way to make money or an ethical alternative to shopping at Forever21. I’ve repeatedly seen it argued that thrift stores must not be able to keep up with the demand and are raising their prices.
But this isn’t true. The truth is that there isn’t enough demand to keep up with the influx of clothes.

So then why are thrift stores raising their prices?

To be honest, I couldn’t find a clear answer. My guess is it’s either simply because they see an opportunity for profit and are dropping their philanthropic spirit, or it’s somehow linked to an increase in tariffs.

We live in a global market. You can live in Canada and have a phone made in China. Or you can live in Kenya and have a dead white man’s clothes from America.

According to a British charity named Oxfam, at least 70% of Europe’s donated clothes end up in Africa — and some people in that continent are starting to resent it because they’re not able to build their own domestic apparel or textile industries. Local manufacturers can’t compete with the prices of secondhand clothing resellers in their countries.

When given the choice between a domestic product that costs a little more or a foreign import that costs 95% less many people choose cheaper option. And so within that context our second hand clothes become a matter of contention between domestic entrepreneurs in African countries seeking to manufacture their own goods versus those seeking to resell foreign goods.

But the governments of many African countries are more interested in stimulating local economies and are moving forward with a plan to ban foreign clothing imports and incentivize their people to spend money in their domestic economies instead of putting their money in foreign pockets. African countries have begun putting steep tariffs on second-hand clothing imports which makes it more expensive and more difficult for Western countries to send clothes to the African continents. The SMART Association is lobbying against the increased tariffs while some thrift stores are figuring out how to boost their domestic sales so as not to be overwhelmed by clothes they can’t sell. We have so many excess clothes that it’s now become an international issue.

With the inability to rehome these garments it baffles me why thrift stores are continuing to raise their prices, especially when many of these clothes are donated for free (some clothes are bought from charities). And when clothes are sent overseas or sold to wholesalers they can be sold for as little as 99 cents per pound and yet in store, they’re charging what feels like regular price for a lot of items.

People tend to blame clothing resellers, affluent people and influencers for stealing clothes from poor people and driving up prices in thrift stores without mentioning that we have so many clothes they’re spilling into other countries and feeding their economies. There’s more than enough to go around so I’m not sure why prices would be going up.

Is it the thrift stores being affected by the African tariffs or is it an opportunistic price increase as thrift stores see their product becoming more popular? I’m not sure.

Of course, the economic law of supply and demand dictates that as demand increases and supply remains the same, the prices of a product will rise. But there’s an almost nauseating surplus of goods that need to sold, and as most of these stores offer these clothes under the guise of charity it’s still strange that they would opt to deter people from purchasing used goods — especially as African countries begin to resist them.

Thrift stores seem to be charging more because they’re now aware that people will pay more and they’re taking advantage. The demographics and culture of thrifting are changing and the business is changing to reflect that.

But I can’t help but feel resistance to the idea that our best solution is to tell people to stop thrifting.

A Shift in Ethics.

As our conversation around clothing is changing to be more geared towards the environmentally friendly and ethical practices, the issue of cost can become secondary and I’m not trying to dismiss the importance of accessibility. However, I have to question if it’s worth discouraging thrifting for the sake of lower prices if it means discouraging a cultural shift where people are beginning to embrace the idea of more circular, ethical fashion practices while coming to view clothing as less disposable.

We have entire industries that are built-on exporting our waste to other countries. That alone highlights the extent of this problem.

Right now, our attitudes towards consumption are unhealthy and disregard the interests of the environment and other global citizens. Even thrifting can’t keep up with the way we shop and that’s alarming. I think it’s unfair that our domestic issues are causing international problems, but it feels like we’ve dug ourselves so far into a hole that it’s unclear how we’ll begin to dig our way out. Of course shifting the culture towards more mindful consumption habits is helpful but I also wonder how we’ll manage all of this logistically.

People are finally beginning to embrace more ethical consumption, but ethical brands are priced as a luxury — which is why many people turn to thrifting.

I thrift for several reasons, one of them being the environment. A pair of $200 jeans from Reformation is too much but if given the choice between $10 jeggings from Urban Planet and a $10 pair of jeans from Value Village — I’m inclined to choose the more sustainable, more unique option.

Right now ethical clothing is still extremely expensive and arguably inaccessible even to many of the people who aren’t thrifting out of absolute necessity. The only reason a lot of fast fashion clothes are cheap is because they’re being made in excess and are being produced unethically.

The idea that we have to choose between clothing the poor abusing garment workers and the planet feels like a false dichotomy. I hope it is.

My questions are, how can we shift towards more conscious consumption while also stimulating the local economy so that less people are living in poverty and more people can afford the ethical clothes making it to market?

What will we do with all of these excess clothes when other countries stop taking them?

And how do we get our cultural consumption under control while creating a more circular fashion industry?

To be honest, I’m not sure how to tackle some of these questions but I believe our solution lies somewhere in their answers. The apparel industry we have right now is broken and someone needs to fix it.

I guess that’s us.

Thrifting started off as a highly stigmatized resource for people with lower incomes — but it’s become much different today. Now thrifting is being marketed as an ethical alternative to fast fashion, but we also need to acknowledge how thrift stores are becoming glorified dumping grounds for our unwanted clothing and we’re harming people locally, globally and environmentally. We need to encourage the reuse and recycling of clothing and textiles while also being mindful of how many new products we’re putting into an industry that is already overwhelmed.

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