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The Ethics of Thrifting

Written by Sidney London

December 9, 2022

Thrifting was one of my favorite pastimes when I was home in Bethesda, Maryland.  How could it not be? I could find unique pieces for bargain prices. Sometimes I would thrift alone, sometimes with friends. I can recount one time in particular when I was in the car with my friends on our way to our favorite thrift store: Unique. I brought up an issue I had been grappling with over my countless trips to the thrift store: was thrifting ethical? I always felt slightly guilty doing it. When I walked into the thrift store, there would be people that were my age, clearly there for the same reason as me: to find cool clothes. That being said, there were often different people there. People shopping for their children, people shopping for a work uniform, people looking for their Sunday church outfit. Therefore, I often wondered: am I taking clothes from people who genuinely need the lower price tag?

When I brought this issue up in the car ride over, my friends had two varying perspectives on the matter. My one friend took my side, endorsing the fact that it likely is not ethical for us to be thrifting. There were people out there who needed the lower priced clothing. My other friend, however, disagreed with us. She explained how thrift stores generate profit off of the clothes we buy, and how if we don’t buy these clothes, they are thrown into a dumpster. There was such an excess of clothes, she explained, that us buying them surely would not make a dent. There seems to be logic on both sides of the spectrum.

In a sustainable fashion blog entitled the Imperfect Idealist, author Lily Fang responds to arguments that thrifting has now become gentrified. She outlines the four main points made by people who subscribe to this view to be the following: prices are rising in thrift stores due to demand, thrifting “for fun” takes clothes away from those who need them, thrift hauls encourage overconsumption, and reselling makes thrifting inaccessible to those who need (Fang). While the points made are valid, there is information that must be further examined before reaching a conclusion. For example, yes, thrift prices have risen. This does not necessarily mean that this can be entirely attributed to an increased demand in thrifting. Inflation in our economy has also risen, and likely contributed to this. Also, with prices in thrift stores rising, does this mean that workers were paid more? No. In fact, Goodwill pays its disabled workers so grossly below minimum wage, and it is heavily illegal. An article by the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program reveals disabled workers were only paid 22 cents an hour in 2013 (Schecter). This pay disparity remains true today. While prices may be rising, this does not mean we can entirely attribute this to a demand in thrifting, and beyond that, thrift stores have not been ethically handling this increase in demand with an increase in worker wages.

Fang also comments on the rising popularity of reselling. Notably, the author highlights how resellers are actually not at competition with thrift stores. She explains if “you find a black dress in the thrift store, to get that dress, you [have] to get to the thrift store, sift through racks and racks of clothing, try on a bunch of things, wait in line to check out, and go home. If that same dress is in a reseller’s shop, you don’t have to do any of that. You’re paying for two different shopping experiences, so resellers and thrift shops aren’t necessarily direct competitors” (Fang). This therefore debunks the myth that resellers are also wrongly profiting off of the thrifting industry. Instead, the two are not competing with each other.

I also find it notable to address the fact that thrifting combats the rapidly increasing world of fast fashion. Not only does it promote sustainable fashion, but by buying second hand, you do not endorse fast fashion companies that so rapidly produce clothes, and not only exploit our environment, but also sometimes exploit its workers as well. While thrift stores are intended to provide clothes for low-income people, only 20% of the clothes that are donated are actually sold. That leaves a whopping 80% to be either thrown away or sold to developing countries, and doing so often puts local textile workers out of business (Rosenburg). Therefore, you could make the argument that by thrifting, you are actually saving clothes from its inevitable fate of ending up in a landfill.

In conclusion, yes we certainly can raise issues with thrifting. In some cases, we can argue it has been gentrified, and it now is a commodity accessed by the upper class when it was intended to be accessed by the lower class. However, for these arguments, there are counterarguments about the ethicality of the thrifting industry to begin with. I will not say one way or another if thrifting is ethical. I will say, however, that there does seem to be ethical concerns we can raise on both sides of the spectrum. If one side outweighs the other is for you to decide.

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