OPINION: Careless thrifting encourages the gentrification of low-income communities

Multiple shirts hang in a closet.
Many thrift stores have increased prices in order to cater to their wealthier customers. (Regan Rudman • The Student Life)

Thrifting has only grown more popular over the past few years. Many of my friends visit thrift stores as they scramble to revamp their wardrobes while saving money for college; others decide to switch to thrifting as the fight against climate change gains traction. Unfortunately, this seemingly well-intentioned, sustainable shopping is coupled with a darker theme — thrift store gentrification

Thrift stores’ low prices have begun to serve as an appealing invite even to more economically advantaged shoppers. Additionally, Gen Z is the largest age group to adapt to the trend of secondhand fashion, with around forty percent of its members having purchased secondhand items in 2019. As a Gen Zer who attended an expensive private high school, I can attest to this data with my own experience — thrifting was definitely a trend among my higher-income peers. 

Because of this ongoing generational trend, thrift stores are forced to choose between accommodating an increase in demand or catering to lower-income shoppers. While some might argue that everyone should value saving money if they can, affluent shoppers must be mindful of their impact on economically disadvantaged communities — specifically, the way in which their shopping habits may inadvertently contribute to thrift store gentrification. 

As interest in thrifting increases among high-income shoppers, so do prices. Any curious internet connoisseur can do a quick search and find pages full of consumers complaining about price increases on eBay, Reddit and other websites. The fact that an increase in prices aligns with an increase in high-income consumerism does not surprise me, nor does it strike me as a coincidence. 

The rising expenses — combined with affluent shoppers who monopolize thrift culture — serve only to gentrify communities that benefit from thrift stores’ lower prices. For example, large thrift store chains such as Goodwill and The Salvation Army have swiftly increased prices to accommodate their wealthier shoppers, thus excluding certain shoppers from being able to afford items and profiting off of income inequality.

The Goodwill many of my wealthier peers shop at even sells items like pants and shirts for up to $30. Comparatively, the thrift store I volunteered at last summer is located in a much less affluent part of town and draws far fewer consumers — the prices there never extended beyond $5 and went as low as 50 cents. Unfortunately, many people aren’t as lucky as the ones who visited the place I worked at — often, the only accessible thrift stores are the ones undergoing gentrification.

Keeping these statistics in mind, I encourage those who can afford to shop at places other than thrift stores to do so. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many households into tight financial situations because of job loss, illness or other related issues, affluent shoppers should make the effort to help out their communities by thrifting mindfully. 

However, there are those who still argue against the idea that there should be constraints on thrifting. One argument made against limiting thrifting is that thrifting is more environmentally sustainable than shopping at value chains or department stores. According to ThredUP, it would have been possible to save 5.7 billion pounds of CO2e, 25 billion gallons of water and 449 million pounds of waste if everyone bought one used item in 2019. I agree with this statement, and I have definitely thrifted out of care for the environment rather than out of necessity.

However, if someone has the means to mindfully thrift, they can shop environmentally while still paying attention to thrift store gentrification. Some ways in which they can do this include planning out what they want to buy before visiting thrift stores, thus ensuring that they are only buying what they really want and are limiting the number of purchases they make at a given time, and alternating the locations at which they shop. 

It’s also important to consider the differences between general secondhand thrift stores, like Goodwill, and higher end shops such as vintage boutiques and upscale consignment stores. The latter two are much more pricey but are equally sustainable alternatives. This idea of mindful thrifting, rather than limiting thrifting to certain populations entirely, ensures that people can shop sustainably while still limiting the harm done to lower-income consumers.

Another argument for thrifting concerns the idea of reselling, specifically upcycling. Upcycling is a process in which resellers make alterations to used items before selling them for typically a higher price than what they were purchased for. Many people I know run home businesses either to occupy themselves over quarantine or to prepare some funds for college, and they often thrift in order to save money on cheaper materials that they can then alter. They often sell these upcycled items on popular sites such as Depop, which caters to consumers interested in buying used items online and operates as a way for people to sell items individually rather than under a specific brand or company name. 

Unfortunately, issues with upcycling still remain prevalent in the thrifting industry. For starters, upcyclers sometimes purchase items like plus-sized clothing from thrift stores in order to gather more material for their crafts at a lower price, arguing that the money they use to make purchases helps to keep thrift stores afloat. However, from my experience, thrift stores already receive very few plus-size donations, and it’s unethical to deliberately search for items with which to make a profit when they are already mostly unavailable to consumers who need them. 

At the thrift store I volunteered at, the other volunteers often made comments about needing more menswear and plus-size donations. Once again, while upcycling is a fun craft that encourages sustainable purchases, thrifters should be aware of the communities they are depriving of options when they shop for items they don’t need.

Additionally, although many people only thrift to upcycle, I also know a few peers who have resold thrifted items without making alterations at all for higher prices than what they originally paid. Because thrift stores primarily benefit low-income communities who need those affordable prices, purely reselling instead of upcycling items bought from thrift stores marginalizes those communities by removing items they might want to use. While it’s OK for affluent shoppers to thrift every once in a while, it’s important to remember whom they might be harming in the process and what purposes they might be using those purchased items for.

Here are some takeaways to remember for ethical thrifting: it’s OK to thrift, but thrifters should try to do some research beforehand. This can include making a list of desired items instead of picking and choosing upon arrival at the store, seeing which stores have a large amount of donations and investigating whether some areas of donation (e.g., menswear) are better left alone. If a thrifter plans to use resale apps like Depop, they should make sure to upcycle outfits instead of pure reselling. 

Keep in mind that thrifting is a good alternative to other methods of shopping, but only when conducted appropriately. Those who can afford to do so should actively strive to prevent the gentrification of low-income communities. Remember that there is always the option to donate to thrift stores as well.

Jadyn Lee SC ’24 is from Monterey Park, California. She loves superhero films and can’t wait for the new “Black Widow” movie to come out!

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