Does Shopping at Thrift Stores Contribute to Gentrification? Part 1

A while back, my friend Hannah* and her spouse got to discussing whether thrifting contributes to gentrification and she asked me to do a post addressing this.  Her request seemed especially relevant given my self-proclaimed thriftvangelism.  If thrifting were to become as widespread as my “about me” sidebar says I am working to make it, how does that affect people with minimal resources whose most affordable source of clothing might be thrift shops?

Hannah and I had a great conversation (see below) about some of the issues behind this question.  Although we both enjoy a certain amount of social class privilege now, garage sales and thrift shopping were memorable parts of Hannah’s childhood in a big family that needed to maximize/share/conserve resources, so it’s a topic that she has an intimate familiarity with.  My childhood wasn’t Richie Rich but definitely featured more new clothing purchases, so I knew I had some research and learning to do.

Poverty and clothing is a huge issue intersecting with everything from self image and confidence (the stigma of wearing secondhand, particularly for kids) to cultural/familial attitudes about spending vs. saving to how much you care about style to the context where you live/work/dress.  I can’t pretend to be an expert on all of this, but I did find some relevant observations from self-identified working poor people speaking up about non-poor people going thrift shopping.  I tried splicing these insights into my conversation with Hannah, but basically it turned into a large awkward block of Leah reporting on internet research.

So this is Part 1 – my conversation with Hannah – and next week you’ll get Part 2 – perspectives, via the internet, from other people who’ve experienced poverty. If you identify as poor now or have experienced poverty at some point in your life, please chime in in the comments either here or on Part 2 so we can hear from folks in addition to Hannah (and other than internet strangers commenting on random blog posts from 2011).

Note: we use “hipster” as shorthand for youngish people who generally have resources and love to find “hole in the wall/authentic” places to dress, eat, and live like they’re locals, thus displacing entire neighborhoods that become so “hip” their former residents can no longer afford to live there. This phenomenon is known as gentrification and it is often marked by a racial dynamic – white folks displacing people of color.

 

Hannah: We know the good reasons to thrift – particularly, the value that a person can live out by not buying new (encouraging mass consumption) and instead reusing. What my spouse and I are both nervous about is people who have more freedom in clothes-shopping decisions taking away the best chances of someone who hasn’t any other choice but to thrift for their wardrobe.

For example, that awesome jacket I scored on the Goodwill rack because I want to re-use and didn’t want to pay $100 for a blazer may have prevented someone else from getting that affordable blazer for a job interview for which she has no appropriate clothes and can only buy used.  Is this something you think about? Does it call for a balance? I guess my question would be, what does “ethical” thrifting look like if it’s also class and race conscious?

Leah:  Great question – particularly that last line.  An initial answer is that, thanks to our over-consuming society, thrift stores are not short on wares. You buying that one blazer will not mean someone else is deprived of any chance to buy a secondhand blazer ever – especially accounting for differences in taste, size, etc.  But, when you consider the Brooklyn/hipster/gentrification phenomenon, if EVERYONE started thrift shopping in lieu of buying new things, we’d have a pickle on our hands. Or maybe we wouldn’t, maybe folks would just donate as a way to swap out clothes they were bored with and the cycle would continue…?

But assuming not, in promoting this practice I have to take responsibility for thinking about the logical outgrowth of my thriftvangelism.  (Which was driven, in part, by the classist privilege of many minimalist style blogs – it drove me nuts trying to find websites where a simplified, “quality over quantity” approach to dressing wasn’t absurdly out of reach cost-wise – I’m thinking of minimalist style blogs where the capsule budget is $500 per season!!!)

H: I get that thrift stores aren’t going to “run out;” that’s not what I’m worried about. I am worried about what you accurately named as “hipster,” being that “cool kids” will go pick through the most “in style” clothes, leaving “ugly” stuff for others. Other people might even have more constricted schedules, which means they can only pop in at night after clothes have been picked through by people with the privilege of shopping at better times… maybe not. Who knows.

L:  I think that’s a good point; anecdotally, the last time I saw a young white woman with a tattoo of the state of Alabama on her tricep + Warby Parker style glasses, blunt fringe, and Birks on her feet (aka a hipster), she and her friend were buying decidedly 1980s-style fashion – think prom & prairie dresses.  My impression is that the Hipster aesthetic often diverges from what the rest of the world considers stylish (not a slam, just an observation).

But your point addresses part of what Sheena mentioned from my post on jeans –  if you are a grandma taking care of the kids while the parent(s) work(s), or you are the stay-at-home parent in a one-income household because you can’t make enough in an additional job to pay for daycare, or you are currently unable to find work, or getting a full time job would disqualify you from SSI but not make you enough to live off of, or you are a senior citizen with limited income… you may have some flexibility on when you can hit up a thrift store.  But if you are working 9 to 5 or two jobs and your only nice work pants rip, do you even have time to go thrift that evening after your shift is over and risk not finding your size?

H:  And if that’s a problem, it’s multiplied by ten for harder-to-find sizes.  I wear plus sized clothes. A good name for plus sized professional wear is Lane Bryant. A pair of dress slacks from LB retail price could run $60-80. Ouch. That hurts, but I can actually handle that if I have to every once in awhile. Or, I could go to a thrift store, “get lucky” and find a rare, rare pair of dress slacks that fit me, and pay so much less. I would leave feeling like the universe smiled upon me, but there is an even greater chance that I actually DID take that pair from a woman who can’t currently afford the $60-80. Maybe I scored them as my third pair of dress pants, and she was looking for her first. There’s no way to know, but that is probably much more likely to happen for a plus size woman than for a woman with a more common pants size. Add on top of that the fact that obesity disproportionately affects poor people… eek.

L: Size scarcity is for real. My sister lives near a plus-sized thrift store in Seattle and my response was “WHAT?!! Why don’t we have one of those? Should I start one of those?” Size 6 or 8 might be a more “standard” size but it sure ain’t average for American women – I think we’re a 12 on average, or 14? So where are the double-digit-size donated clothes?? This is becoming less of a problem as more retailers start to offer/specialize in so-called plus-sized clothing, which will then trickle to thrift stores because hello, size 12-28+ women are stylish too.  But it’s still a concern.

This leads us to the last thing you and your spouse talked about…

H: Do we encourage more consumption when clothes become “cheaper” by thrifting? While I *love* reusing instead of consuming more new things, if I am going to spend $100 no matter what, and I discover that thrifting means I can buy 10+ items instead of 3… is there a danger I lose track of what I actually need? Maybe things become even more disposable when you don’t have to pay as much. You obviously don’t treat it like that, but I think this is one of the more “hipster” dangers.

So now something that had the potential to make us less consumerist actually makes some of us more consumerist… because many of us treat our “things” with as much care as the price tag calls for.

L: YES – I worry about this with myself. I try to look at thrifted clothes as just as valuable in my consumption/budget as retail, because otherwise it’s a slippery slope.  And I should remember I need to post more Instagram photos of outfits that are straight up repeats to emphasize that we don’t need a new outfit for every day (a common fallacy in style blogs).

But I admit, I am much more likely to drop $6 on a dress that is not strictly necessary to my summer wardrobe or that might not be a “keeper” because the price point is so low.  I tend to justify it as low-level redistribution of wealth because our Goodwill of North Georgia does stellar job training and placement work and, as their PA system likes to remind you every 5 minutes, each purchase supports this mission (okay, okay, it actually says your *donations* put people to work…but I like to expand that to cover my spending there as well, because donations have to be bought to put people to work!).

For me, just like every other shift towards more conscientious habits and behavior, it’s a matter of practice and continually evaluating my own sense of “need” vs. “want” – a sobering and useful experience for someone who can afford to shop retail even if I choose not to.  If I/thrifters in general are doing this right, it also means there’s enough to go around and those of us with resources aren’t snapping up every great outfit we see.  Figuring out what’s “enough” for your closet and then sticking to a one in/one out rule can go a long way towards this.

H: So maybe it’s not as big of a deal if I take that purple LB blazer, as long as I donate a blue one.  It won’t always work tit for tat, but you know what I mean.

L: Mmhmm – not stockpiling clothes you don’t need so you’re not tying up great finds that other people could be using.

So where did I land after our conversation?  Honestly, I wasn’t feeling that great about my thrifting habit – concluding with “I’ll just not hoard thrifted clothes” sounded pretty hollow in light of the original question.

I’m not so arrogant as to think that my thrift purchases are single-handedly keeping poor people from dressing in style, but part of dealing with my privilege (economic in this case) means acknowledging that trends like gentrification are made up of the actions of lots of individuals like me who justify our behavior with “but one person buying a home/thrifting/patronizing a hip new establishment won’t really change things.”

Lots of people in the comments on the blog posts I’ll reference next week made similar remarks: “There’s nothing wrong with people who aren’t poor thrifting – I do it all the time!”  Self-referential logic like that isn’t really logic at all, and can actually be detrimental.  (See “But I have lots of African-American friends, so I can’t be racist!”)  

In other words, I don’t get a “get out of ethical quandary free” card simply because I’m just one person who feels like finding cute clothes at bargain prices.

 

Spoiler alert: the research I did for next week’s post shifted where I came out on this; for reasons I’ll detail on Tuesday, I’m still okay with thrifting.  But if the prospect of your thrifting contributing to gentrification is a deal-breaker and you still want to shop with reduced environmental impact (or budget impact!), I’d suggest consignment shops or ethical clothing brands.

The former is a better option if you are worried about decreasing choice for folks with fewer resources but you don’t have a ton of resources yourself, or don’t want to blow what you do have on clothes.

If you have more to spend on clothing, check out the growing number of ethical clothing retailers – “ethical” being a catchall for clothing manufacturing practices that adhere to a whole range of environmental, labor, or animal cruelty standards.  They usually cost more but last you longer, and many ethical retailers support the opposite of gentrification by paying workers a living wage so they can stay in and stabilize their own communities.   Bonus: check out this great rundown on several plus-sized ethical clothing retailers. Squeee!!!  Very excited by this list, wasn’t sure I was going to find much.

Thanks, Hannah, for asking the question and getting me thinking and researching!  What do you all think – does thrifting contribute to gentrification?  How?  If your financial resources are limited, how has this affected you?  If you have extra resources to spend on clothing, what do you do to counteract this (or not)? Scroll down to comment!

And don’t forget to check back next week for Part 2.

 
*Hannah Adams Ingram is a PhD candidate at Iliff School of Theology and University of Denver where she studies and writes about theology, education, and social class. When she’s not doing that, she enjoys being with friends, baking, shopping, and watching heartwarming television shows. You can find out more about this preacher and teacher at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hannahingram.

10 thoughts on “Does Shopping at Thrift Stores Contribute to Gentrification? Part 1

  1. I feel defensive reading this. And that tells me that it’s challenging my assumptions! Thanks for getting me thinking. Interested to see Part 2.

    One trend I’ve noticed in my local goodwill is people coming early in the morning and scouring the racks for things they can sell on eBay. I’m trying not to be judgy because maybe that’s their only way of making a living, but somehow I feel like I’m using the thrift store more correctly by going there to personally use the items instead of going there to resell the items. I also feel like they’re negatively affecting the selection by taking so many items on a regular basis. Thoughts? Am I off base?

    1. I love your response, Ginna – thanks for being open to having your views challenged!

      The blog posts I’ll link to in Part 2 (Tuesday) both brought up the same question about resellers – and it’s interesting to see commenters come down on both sides! I think the context provided in Part 2 may inform the conversation as well…but I don’t want to give too much away! Hmm, maybe I should do a post on this to get more conversation going…

      PS “Using the thrift store more correctly” made me laugh because I totally feel that way about certain places/services I frequent. To me it’s sort of “Get off my lawn!” – a cross between negatively judging others and (in my mind) positively defending/preserving things for their intended use.

  2. I’m new to your blog. Today’s blog subject was thoughtful and thought provoking. I’m new to thrift shopping. My sister gave me the idea….and since I’m poor, thrifting is how I can buy better quality clothes at low prices.
    I live in Tucson; an economically depressed city. I suspect that many or most of the Tucson thrifters who shop thrift stores and deep retail discount sales, do so out of financial necessity. There’s very little if any gentrification taking place in Tucson. But….Tucson is a unique place.

    1. Jeanne, welcome to the blog and thanks for commenting! I’m glad your sister recommended thrifting and that it’s a good source of quality clothes. (You might find some of the thrifting strategy posts helpful if you haven’t overused them yet.)
      With the economic depression in Tucson, do you find there is still enough donation of decent clothing to go around? One thing that makes thrifting in Atlanta work well is higher income households donating their excess and I’m curious how it works in a flatter economy.

  3. Great article! As a thrifter, I don’t feel guilty about taking stuff from those who really need it – my tastes run to the fairly eclectic, so not like many other people will want what I like! I also committed a few years ago to shopping ethically, so when I do buy retail, I will buy from companies that ethically produce their goods, either local manufacturers/artisans/designers, or companies that make that commitment (eg. Fluevog shoes is ISO certified world-wide for ethical and environmental production – not a plug, and no kickbacks involved for me!). In those cases, I am happy to support them and pay full price. I do tend to cycle through my clothes (both the full-price and the thrifted stuff), but I always give it away to friends, coworkers and back to the local charities.

    1. Sheila, I love your ethical retail approach! I don’t buy much retail (underwear, socks, and bras) but I’d love to head in that direction with what I do buy.
      I hear you on the eclectic style – mine is tamer now than it used to be so I have to be careful not to fall back on the same logic I used when buying a bright purple and red tulip-covered dress – i.e. that other people won’t like this. Plus it’s definitely possible that someone of lesser means is just as funky as I…

  4. Lots to think about. I do not feel guilty about thrift shopping – there was a discussion about plus size- I am a short woman who wears a 14 petite size. I work in early childhood education and do not make a good deal of money. The point- I am not going to feel guilty about finding some Talbot’s or Lauren pants to look nice for work. One thing about thrifting is that it takes time and effort and skill to find decent things. I work a lot, hit the thrifts when I can and do not and can not afford some of the things new that I buy there.
    The point about “pickers” – people that find things that are sold on ebay is kind of two -fold- maybe they are supporting their family by doing this -finding and selling is work! This is no different than people going to flea markets/garage sales to do the same thing.
    I donate a lot to thrift stores that are in great shape- either I tired of them or do not find a use.
    I guess my point here for me is that I am not going to consider thrift store shopping an evil form of gentrification- I clothed my daughters from babyhood on in thrift and garage sale clothing and they continue doing this into adulthood. The mark up on clothing is astronomical- it is like when you buy a car and the value drops the minute it is off the lot. I feel that way about second hand things- it is being put to use, you got to enjoy someone else’s good taste that they could afford and you are keeping it out of landfill – as most clothing ends up in from young people buying toss away clothing.

    1. Jackie, thanks for commenting! I agree with you about saving clothing from the landfill – I actually have rescued clothing up from the side of the road that was destined for trash pickup that had NOTHING wrong with it. Sigh. And if you’ve seen the palettes of clothing being shipped out from Goodwills to recyclers you need no further persuading!
      You brought up a good point about developing the skill to find great stuff amidst the mountains of donations. It’s another cost of being poor that to buy good clothing at an affordable price you often have to put in more time and energy than someone who can afford to buy retail – plus not everyone enjoys that process! It’s a luxury for me to have this as a hobby and plain luck that I like the hunting involved!

  5. Ooh, I love it when you do these sorts of “think pieces” on your blog. Really fascinating topic.

    I get the logic of wondering whether one’s thrift purchases effectively “take” from needier folk, but ultimately I don’t think this is the right way to think about it. If economically privileged people think of thrift stores as being “for” poor people (side note: in that case, who exactly qualifies as “poor enough” to shop at the thrift store, and who decides?), then thrift stores become the place where poor people “should” shop, i.e., people who are poor are “supposed” to wear secondhand clothes and don’t “deserve” new ones. It becomes just another way of privileged people policing how poor people spend their limited money. (See also: the ways that poor people, mostly women/mothers, are shamed for buying “fancy” food, or on the flip side for NOT buying organic food, etc. — same thing happens with clothing.)

    On the other hand, I can see how prices have recently increased at some of the thrift stores in my area (I’m thinking of Value Village especially), because the store is charging what the market will bear. I think this is where the analogy to gentrification works a little better — not because hipsters and other privileged people are buying up all the clothes, but because they are driving up prices and so people with limited means may end up priced out of a resource they had come to depend on. Hm. That’s a bit uncomfortable, I gotta admit. I look forward to reading your part 2.

    I do worry more about your last point, about whether thrifting can wind up making one more consumerist, take poorer care of one’s clothes, and generally justify having more stuff. Certainly I can relate to the difficulty of sorting out “needs” vs. “wants” when the price point is low for my budget. That’s definitely a work in progress for me.

    I would LOVE to see you post more repeat outfits. Or have some feature that really shows how frequently/how many times a season you are wearing items. I think it’s really common for style bloggers to feel the push to always post something “new,” but I think it would be great if there were more focus on real-life repetition.

    1. Sarah, I’m glad you enjoy these kinds of posts – they’re the longest to write but probably also the most enjoyable. :)
      I want to be clear that I don’t think “only poor people” should thrift – although that’s the way the question often gets phrased in similar posts! Your point about driving up prices and Hannah’s concern about picking through all the good stuff were more what I was worried about. We’ll take a look at both tomorrow – with a mini spotlight on Value Village and other chain thrift stores!
      I have to remind myself of comments like yours when I’m tempted not to Instagram a repeat outfit – I have absolutely no qualms re-wearing but I somehow talk myself into thinking that no one (besides my coworkers who don’t get a choice!) will want to see them. Thanks for proving that the opposite is, in fact, true.

Share your thoughts!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *