Last week I shared the conversation my friend Hannah and I had about whether thrifting contributes to gentrification. I mentioned in the intro to that post that it seemed disingenuous to write about whether my thrift habit negatively affects those with limited resources without including the voices of the people in question. Hannah grew up using thrift stores as an affordable means of clothing a large family looking to conserve resources, but I also wanted to include other voices. Plus, I needed to educate myself more on the subject. Hence, Part Deux.
Since most of the low income people I know IRL are experiencing longterm homelessness and therefore get their clothes from clothing closets, not thrift stores, I went a-searching on the internets for self-described poor/working poor folks voicing their opinions on the subject.
Of the many blog posts I found that address this question – the vast majority slanted pro-thrifting-for-all – these two were the only ones I found where people self-identifying as poor, working class, or having experienced poverty weighed in in the comments. The following are excerpted from the comments sections of Should Only Poor People Shop at Thrift Stores? and Are Thrift Stores Just for Poor People?
The first comment I found highlighted the exact phenomenon Hannah was worried about. Living through a period of bad credit/poverty/homelessness, Christina noted that she and her husband
would go into thrift stores, and all of the good things were always gone, it was frustrating walking around with holes in your pants unable to find a pair (ANY pair that was age-appropriate) in your size.
But she also felt like it was okay in general for non-poor folks to thrift if they were thoughtful about it:
It opens up hangers for more clothing, however, it would be nice if people wouldn’t buy the “LAST” of certain items (brand names in each size, trendy things, item in a size group), and if they limited it to clothing, books, and knick-knacks [skip over furniture, shoes]. This way the under-privileged can have something to get, as well.
(This is another gold reason not to snatch up all of something even if it’s a staple you love and will eveeeeeentually, probably, use.)
Christina also had a great point about the importance of location: if thrift stores aren’t common in your area and it would be difficult or cost-prohibitive for someone with few resources to travel to affordable clothing stores, “just please donate, and maybe buy one item here and there… or give the cashier extra money and tell them it’s for the next person.”
Leslie Mays, on the other hand, felt differently:
Thrift store prices are EXACTLY the same as Wal-mart, and the stuff at Wal-mart hasn’t been used! Go ahead and shop at the thrift store. I’m going to shop at Wal-mart, ashamed of their reputation, but in need of their prices!
(Obviously pricing varies depending on your locale, but as far as my local Goodwills go, she’s spot on.)
Other commenters (both living in poverty and not) mentioned the stigma associated with buying used when you are of limited means and noted that in their communities they saw folks shopping at Walmart, Target, the dollar store, etc. to get something new rather than buying used. It’s not a universal stigma – I see a lot of low-income immigrant families in my local Goodwill – but it’s definitely there.
To Hannah and Christina’s point about only the “ugly” clothing being left – I’m not sure when or where Christina’s period of poverty occurred, but I think if you live in a metro area with a franchised thrift store (e.g. Goodwill, Salvation Army), it’s less likely that their clothes will be “picked over” for good stuff simply due to sheer donation volume. I attribute this to the explosion of fast fashion and the resulting scramble by upscale retailers to compete with shorter turnarounds and higher production rates – both of which may have significantly increased since Christina’s experience.
For example, if I’m at an Atlanta metro area Goodwill for an hour, at least 2 racks of new-to-the-floor clothes come out. In that same time, I may find one quality piece that fits my closet, my size, and my style, but I will likely thriftstagram 20 more good quality pieces that don’t and that may still be there the next time I shop. (To address the size scarcity portion of our initial conversation – I do often see/Instagram great plus-size finds, but admittedly, the volume is not as high as non-plus-size clothing.)
From another comment, Kay’s conversation with a Goodwill manager revealed that their business model actually relies on more than poor people shopping both to make money and to move product: “[the manager] mentioned that the thrift stores would go out of business if only the poor shopped there…and that they wouldn’t have any place to put the donations coming in everyday.”
This brings up a bigger question: are thrift stores meant to provide affordable clothing for people in poverty? Or are they meant to address poverty through other means – either through making sales that funds outreach (soup kitchens, discount drug prescription programs) or that tackle the root of the problem by providing employment, job training, and other services designed to boost people out of poverty?
Smaller, local thrift stores may in fact exist primarily to provide low-cost clothing to those who need it. Several independent thrift store volunteers or employees chimed in to say that they welcome people of all income levels and many have separate mechanisms for getting clothes to low income shoppers (vouchers, setting aside all new-with-tags items for “free” shopping, etc.), so ask your local store what their mission/approach is if you’re worried that you’re scooping up the good stuff.
Turning to large thrift franchises:
- The Salvation Army explicitly raises money to fund other outreach and thus encourages shoppers of all income levels.
- Goodwill’s mission is “To Put People to Work“; in addition to employing people at their stores, their profits fund job training and placement, entrepreneurial support, etc. They specifically state that both donations and purchases help accomplish this mission (more below).
- America’s Thrift exists to support several faith-oriented ministries (which explains why they play really heinous Christian pop music while you shop), particularly drug/alcohol recovery programs. They market themselves not so much to families squeaking by but to middle class folks looking for funky Halloween costumes or “thrifty treasures” like luxury handbags and antique Porsche car models. Additionally, they highlight the fact that putting 8,000 new items on the floor every day means there’s ample opportunity for everyone to get first crack at new finds.
- Value Village/Savers is for-profit and owned by Walmart, so although it’s still an environmental good to buy used by shopping there, you don’t have the “I’m supporting a social service” excuse to shop. On the other hand, I’ve heard prices are considerably higher (is this true, VV shoppers?) – so many folks on a tight budget may be priced out of their stores by design.
- Junior League, Assistance League, etc. also operate in order to raise funds for their missions. Here’s a wrinkle, though – Assistance League of Atlanta in particular mentions both “helping those at risk” and “stretching your dollars,” plus their new merchandise is only stocked once a week, making it harder for folks on time-limited schedules (and easier for resellers) to get the goods. Consider shopping later in the week to avoid taking great finds that others haven’t had a chance to peruse. (Also visit their home page and wait for the fourth slide…it’s worth it, I promise!)
In the Sally/Goodwill/America’s Thrift model, as commenter “cares” observed, sales “usually fund programs with the money you spend… That shirt wasn’t meant to be bought by a poor person, it was just meant to be bought.”
This becomes more obvious when you look at my regional Goodwill’s ad campaigns – they want middle/upper class people like me to donate, sure, but they also want us to shop: check out the copy on the “shop” tab on the Goodwill of North Georgia website, and the image:
This might be the crux of Hannah’s original question. At least for Goodwill of North Georgia (mileage may vary for your regional Goodwill – please share below!), their marketing and expansion over the last decade points to a very intentional shift towards getting people with means to shop there and fund their mission. And their prices have definitely risen with their growth.
The original intent of Goodwill way back in 1902 was primarily to provide employment as a means out of poverty, but a secondary aim was to provide affordable clothing either to those employed at Goodwill or others in need. Founder Rev. Edward Helms described Goodwill Industries as “a provider of employment, training and rehabilitation for people of limited employability, and a source of temporary assistance for individuals whose resources were depleted.”
That same page on the national Goodwill site admits that “times have changed” and it seems that they, too, have shifted away from providing affordable clothes to people of limited means in order to raise as much money as possible for job training and placement.
similarly, the Salvation Army thrift store started out as a way to provide employment opportunities and affordable household goods for those in need, but now markets mostly to the people with enough resources to donate and then shop to score a deal or an antique find.
Giving someone the leverage they need to become gainfully employed so they no longer have to rely on thrift stores is obviously a better long term strategy, for lots of reasons, than merely providing clothing assistance. But that level of financial stability doesn’t happen over night; and people often continue to need inexpensive shopping options so they can spend money on other necessities.
So where has that shopping opportunity that Hannah, Christina, and other resource-tight families relied on gone? (Gentrificaaaaaation….) The latest Goodwill to open up near me is about a mile from a mall with a Marshall’s and a Burlington Coat Factory, and two miles from a Walmart – both easily accessible by foot or bus. But that’s not necessarily the case in other neighborhoods.
And Walmart prices aren’t always as cheap as the $1 or $2 you hear about from some smaller thrift stores, meaning the latter is still the best bet for affordable clothes. (Let us note in passing that the Walmart in question is a recent build that displaced a whole shopping center including the largest, cheapest thrift store around. The thrift store moved up the road, closer to a lower-income community, but is now in a location harder to access on foot.)
So in some important sense thrift stores are contributing to gentrification, and they are calculating at least in part on middle class people like me shopping there (and not batting an eye when shirt prices go from $5 to $7) to support their model.
Having digested all of this, I think I come down at a combination of Christina’s comments and Kay’s. If a thrift store is one of the only affordable (and accessible) options for low-price clothing in a given community, I’m going to stay away from it or shop rarely, carefully, and minimally, while donating or paying for someone else’s purchase. If a thrift store is a large franchise geared toward fundraising for programs I want to support and I can determine it hasn’t displaced all other affordable shopping opportunities, I’m gonna patronize the heck out of it.
Determining which is which is going to require asking some questions of the store managers/owners as to their mission and evaluating the neighborhood for other low-priced options. But a little elbow grease is worth it to me to be informed about how my actions are affecting people who don’t enjoy my economic privilege.
This first draft of an approach is not perfect (feel free to point out any gaping holes you see in the comments below!) and it will probably curtail my spontaneous thrift drivebys (which will make my spouse happy). I also realize this approach works really conveniently for me since I’ve basically described shopping at Goodwill of North Georgia, which has a large network of stores and has been very good to me in terms of finds.
It’s a start, though.
What do y’all think after reading a little more about the observations of additional people in need of low-cost clothes and the intent behind different thrift stores? Scroll down to comment. And again, if you currently identify as poor or in the past have lived in poverty, please share your insights – even if you think I’m a neurotic middle class privileged person way overestimating her economic leve rage or ethical influence!