The Exploitative Politics of Thrifting

Elodie Arbogast ● The Student Life

My hands swiftly part white hangers as I waltz down a row of pre-loved tees. Pale yellow after stark white, graphic after graphic, I pause at the garments that catch my eye. I glimpse a red t-shirt with Minecraft characters illustrated on the front, pull the shirt from the rack and toss it into the bare shopping cart beside me.

Thrifting is a game I mastered at a young age, since my home city of San Francisco offers an abundance of second-hand stores. I write this with the knowledge that shopping second-hand as a choice is a privilege. And while I do not habitually frequent thrift stores, thrifting remains economically, creatively, and environmentally advantageous.

Put simply, thrifting makes economic sense on an individual level. At one point, low-income individuals were the primary consumers at second-hand stores. As a component of the culture of poverty, thrifting was stigmatized as “dirty” and socially transgressive. As thrifting became trendy, its frugality extended to shoppers of higher socioeconomic statuses.

Thrift stores cater to both my monetary and creative requisites: second-hand stores economize clothing which is a form of creative expression for me. The individuality of pre-loved clothes fosters a self-confidence unparalleled by new, mass-owned clothing.

At retail stores, posters of models and gangly mannequins impose harmful beauty standards throughout the shopping experience. In the absence of these images, thrift stores honor the diversity of people’s bodies and subvert toxic beauty standards.

In addition, thrift stores offer immense environmental advantages. The plague of consumerism – wherein individuals feel they need new clothing for lasting contentment – perpetuates mass-production and mass-waste. The industrial production of material, in conjunction with people’s tendency to seasonally dispose of clothes, is environmentally detrimental. In recycling clothes, second-hand stores encourage environmentally-sustainable living.

However, while thrift stores’ benefits are impressive, the co-option of thrifting by privileged shoppers exacerbates socioeconomic disparities.

The Claremont Colleges host socially and educationally privileged students near San Bernardino County, where the majority of community members do not receive higher education. As Claremont College students continue to shop at local thrift stores, they displace low-income consumers, depriving them of items that they previously depended on.

The mass influx of socio-economically privileged students encourages the expansion of upscale businesses – a transition that displaces locals and perpetuates gentrification.

While a single thrifted purchase may not affect the majority of local shoppers, it is part of a movement that co-opts discount shopping and poaches the items of those who thrift for survival.

In thrifting to “dress poor” (read: wearing hipster distressed jeans, vintage Iron Maiden tees, and Birkenstocks), students avoid confronting their socioeconomic privilege and ironically buy into an expensive performance of counterculture.

After reading, conversing with friends, and finally drafting this article, I wonder: should an individual thrift if they can afford not to? What does accountability mean for the college student moving to a lower-income area to pursue higher education? How do I contextualize the environmental benefits of thrifting with its socioeconomic repercussions?

Left with more questions than answers, I cannot offer a universal conclusion. Everyone chooses how to balance personal desires, local impact, and ecological footprint. Yet, while these choices, in and of themselves, are isolated, their repercussions certainly are not.