Thrifting: Sustainable Fashion or Second-Hand Gentrification?

By: Natalie Margasak (284)

The reason I spent an uncomfortable amount of time sitting on the floor of Manayunk’s Salvation Army was simple: school would start next week and half of my clothes were a year too small. Hidden underneath the rayon halter dress and oversized sweaters on my lap was the find: a pair of extra large Harlem Globetrotters basketball shorts. Huge and shiny, they were adorned with red stars and a few questionable stains. I spotted them in the dense pile of navy blue and black sweatpants and wondered what middle-aged man had once pulled off this audacious look. They looked cool; not for me though. After my initial rejection, the glint of their metallic fabric caught my eye from the overstuffed cart of a high school boy. Would my shorts soon be abducted into resale? After the shorts rolled off his mountainous heap of cargo shorts and graphic tees, they sat on the ground, forgotten for just long enough. I cradled them as I leaned against the warped mirrors leading up to the fitting rooms, waiting for my turn to pull the shower curtain shut, concealing my secret. They were too big for me, but the idea of them re-sold online and worn somewhere far away was enough for them to find their way into my dresser. 

Within our generation’s lifetime, shopping for second-hand items, or “thrifting,” has been on the rise. “Just recently my friends have started doing it,” said Iris McLeary (284), wearing yellow converse from Depop and vintage Levis from Second Mile, a thrift store in West Philly. Feeding this surge is the popularity of “thrift haul” videos as mentioned by Iris, as well as the resale movement. 

This movement inspires the outfits worn by many like Genevieve, a buyer at Buffalo Exchange, which she describes as a “high-tier” resale store in Center City. “All of these recycled styles coming back from the 90s, early 2000s are what inspire me most,” she said while explaining her “grungecore” outfit. “My skirt is pretty plain, I think just a tennis skirt, with shorts built in– just something black to go with my shirt, my statement piece. I have a snakeskin mesh turtleneck underneath, what I would call a grunge t-shirt with a lot of angle scripture on it,” and “practical” converse for a skate to work. Genevieve is a buyer who chooses what clothes to accept from traders in exchange for a small profit or store credit. She selects the clothing to buy based on its quality, seasonality, and if it will sell quickly.  Because she examines and processes clothing all day, she buys a lot from Buffalo Exchange, fueled by the “aspect of environmentalism” that has recently pushed teens “in droves” to her workplace.

“Not to be rude but I would never step out in sweatpants. I want to be seen as trying,” Genevieve said when asked about her look. And a similar desire pushes many high schoolers like me to thrift. “The ones that come from the suburbs usually come in bigger groups because they probably carpooled. Suburb kids have a “mallcore style” which she described as high-waisted denim with Air Forces and a t-shirt. Students who “just come on SEPTA” have a more “streetwear style.” We all come in hopes of curating a cheaper, more sustainable look, and for the gratification that comes with that once-in-a-lifetime find.

But with more online thrifting on platforms like Depop, that find becomes “less rewarding because you’re not searching. It’s not as exciting when you find something cool because you’re looking for that thing,” said Iris.  Those Levis are a quick Depop search away but that moment of unboxing cannot compete with a successful day of scouring the racks. 

“It eliminates the whole point of thrifting, you know, buying clothes at reasonable prices and in an ethical way,” said Ricardo Martinez (284).  How can online shopping for second-hand clothes be unethical?  Online resale removes pieces from local stores, shipping them to a far away buyer. Re-selling has “affected the way low-tier thrift stores price their stuff because they think that everyone is coming in to re-sell so they will price a really dated blouse up just from the brand name” said Genevieve when explaining thrift store “gentrification.”  Those shorts that were once a possible purchase for all the other Salvation Army shoppers and me would soon be available to anyone with an internet connection but for three times the price.

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