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.