Now, more than ever, people are looking to thrift stores to fill their closets. Many new thrifters, too, are opting for secondhand as a more ethical and sustainable option than retail. And the numbers don’t lie: According to online thrift site thredUP’s Annual Resale Report from 2020, 70 percent of women have shopped, or are open to shopping, secondhand. But new interest in old clothes has also opened up a conversation about unwanted secondhand industry side effects, including (but not limited to) a gentrification of the latest way to shop.
Much of the discourse around the gentrification of thrift stores relies on an argument of scarcity—that an increase of thrifters is causing the price of secondhand goods to rise, pricing out economically-disadvantaged people who rely on thrift shops as their primary source of affordable clothing. But this isn’t the full picture, and this issue requires further disquisition to reach what is broken within the circulation system of resources and capital in the secondhand space, before stakeholders can develop just solutions that actually address its issues instead.
The secondhand industry is complex and opaque, and many consumers, even secondhand consumers, lack understanding of how most charity thrift stores function in our current society. Charity thrift stores have been around for centuries. The secondhand clothing industry has long been marketed to consumers as a form of charity but it has always been a business; for as long as they have existed, they have been a mechanism for turning waste into profit—a profit used to fund a specific charitable mission, ranging from cancer research, to job creation, to animal adoption, and more.
Adam Minter, author of Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, writes that this is “a model of charity that could exist only in an era of mass production and consumption.” He goes on to cite a Scientific American article “Jobs from Junk–Wages from Waste,” published in 1932 by Janet B. Wattles, which explains how Goodwill charity shops take the burden of “unused goods in the attic” off Americans’ hands, all for the benefit of charity and job creation.
Charity shops identified early on that clothing is a fast-moving, abundant consumer good. People will readily donate old clothing—for free—out of eagerness to consume more, newer, and trendier. But many consumers still believe that their clothing donations go directly to people in need in their local communities. The fact is: most charity shops don’t work that way.
They turn your waste, i.e. donated clothing, into a resource they use to fund their mission. But the charitable causes under their missions vary widely. The vast majority of them do not exist for the purpose of providing affordable clothing to communities, nor to be sustainable or recycle clothing. (At least not primarily.)
Take Goodwill, for example. Goodwill’s mission is to create jobs. The Goodwill Industries of Greater New York and Northern NJ, Inc. sums up the role that clothing plays in their operation perfectly in its annual report, writing, “Retail is our fuel. Our retail stores exist to support our mission. Without them we cannot continue to provide training, coaching, placement and other services for people on their journey to finding employment.”
As Elizabeth Cline, Atmos columnist and author of The Conscious Closet, says, it’s firstly important that people investigate the mission of various charity shops before they engage with them as donors or shoppers. Cline writes, “If you want your clothing donations to have a positive impact, start by giving to a mission you believe in.” If you are passionate about job programs, Goodwill is a great option, but if you would prefer your clothing go directly to the economically-disadvantaged members of your community, you should determine if there is another organization—like a local homeless or crisis shelter—whose mission aligns with your values and is accepting donations of used goods.
We’re asking, do all stakeholders—clothing donors, sorters, charity shop employees, thrifters, resellers, and beyond—have fair levels of risk, resources, and potential gains in this ecosystem?
Supply and Demand
So, are prices in thrift stores rising because of increased thrifters? Anecdotally, people might say that price tags at thrift stores are increasing, but most thrift store employees actually claim there has been a squeeze on store profit margins that does not track on pace with inflation over the years.
One thing, supply-wise, is abundantly clear: There is no shortage of secondhand clothing. There is so much used clothing in the market that, on average, only about 10-20 percent of what is donated to national charity shops resells in those stores. The secondhand clothing that doesn’t sell in U.S. charity shops—and charity shops across the Global North—is usually exported to places like Accra, Ghana. Liz Ricketts, the co-founder of the OR Foundation—a nonprofit that conducts research on the global secondhand industry, specifically focused on Kantamanto Market, the largest secondhand market in Accra—weighed in on what this supply and demand equation looks like outside of the U.S.
“There is no shortage of secondhand clothing because otherwise they [thrift stores in the Global North] wouldn’t be selling it on a global market. There is so much clothing that charity shops are constantly cycling through it in the stores and then baling up even more for export,” Ricketts says.
And on the demand side, desire for the latest piece of vintage is not causing prices to rise across the board either. Both small and large scale secondhand businesses actually describe tightening profits and increased competition in the industry. Sustainable fashion blogger Leah Wise managed a thrift store in Charlottesville, Virginia for five years and says that the shop has “maintained almost the same price list for 27 years in spite of the value of the dollar almost halving in that time period,” which means, in real economic terms, the store has lowered its prices.
Likewise, the Goodwill Industries Valuation Guide, which provides an estimate for items commonly sold in Goodwill stores, shows something similar. In 2010, the guide valued a shirt/blouse at $4, and in 2020 the guide values a shirt/blouse at $2-12. Adjusted for inflation, $1.00 in 2010 is equal to $1.19 in 2020. So, these valuation comparisons don’t reflect an across-the-board increase of prices that are in line with inflation. In fact, stores are now using a range of valuation, and sometimes that value is higher ten years later on, and sometimes it is lower, even halved.
And while average prices vary across nationwide chain thrift stores (and there are exceptions for certain labels), Goodwill’s thrift store prices seem to fall in line with that average valuation model. For example, the average price of a blouse at a local Goodwill in a small city in southeast Iowa is $3.88. And in Secondhand, Adam Minter describes the Goodwill sorting room at the Goodwill of Southern Arizona—which has 47 percent of the thrift market in the region—as having large bins for “$2.99 brands,” where they sort in-house labels from mass retailers like Target, Old Navy, and Kohls, saying, “If a sorter picks up a top from Old Navy, for example, it’s priced $2.99—no exceptions.”
Katy Gaul-Stigge, the CEO of Goodwill Industries of Greater New York and Northern New Jersey, told Fortune that even with modernization in their region’s thrift stores—additions like Apple Pay, fresh branding, an Instagram presence, and influencer partnerships—their stores were just keeping up with the market. The article says their stores have done a solid business because of the so-called “shift to thrift” in consumer behavior trends, but because of the reality of high competition of clothing retail in general, sales and profits have still been stuck at around the same level for several years.
And while the technology-focused changes described in those stores do change the character of those thrift shops, which might feel like the textbook definition of gentrification, these changes aren’t caused by an influx of new thrifters or resellers—rather they represent thrift stores doing everything they can to innovate in an increasingly tough retail environment, caused by many external factors, including the gentrification of major cities, and whole neighborhoods and communities.
Ultimately, an increased number of people shopping secondhand is not unilaterally driving up the price of secondhand goods in thrift stores, rather, secondhand clothing is overabundant and available at a wide variety of prices. An increase of thrifters isn’t causing material scarcity of affordable clothing for people who need to access it, either. Rather, there is so much used clothing in the market that 80 percent of it is doomed to be waste, headed for landfills across the globe.
It is true that clothing available in secondhand stores is inarguably of lower quality than it was decades ago. And some shoppers might think they are experiencing lower-quality clothing because another thrifter picked those racks clean, but it is more likely due to the quality of secondhand clothing on the whole declining—and significantly. “And if the quality of what is available is our concern—which I think it should be—then I think we should instead be talking about what is produced and purchased new in the first place. That would be a conversation about how to define and legislate ‘quality’ from a manufacturing perspective,” Ricketts weighs in.
Quality clothing at affordable prices should never be a luxury for anyone. But there are more effective ways to critique these very real systemic economic issues that don’t involve blaming thrifters and resellers for their growing presence in the secondhand industry. Because in reality, fewer secondhand shoppers would not solve any of the problems facing the fashion industry on a large enough scale.
Building a More Cooperative System
The reality is: Without the new influx of thrifters or resellers shopping in charity shops, too many people would still be economically disadvantaged, thrift store prices would not shift dramatically, and 80 percent of used clothing would still be headed to landfill each year. These are serious problems, but their roots are in our society—not in our thrift stores.
Rather than putting boxes around who should and who should not shop at thrift stores, or blaming thrifters and resellers for gentrification, the entire secondhand industry should instead dig deeper and discuss systemic solutions that can actually address justice and equity in our shared secondhand space, and work to build a secondhand fashion system that is more cooperative.
Because ultimately when we discuss the idea of thrift shops gentrifying, what we’re really identifying is unfairness detected in the way profit and power is distributed amongst the stakeholders of the thrift shop, not a scarcity of material goods. We’re asking, do all stakeholders—clothing donors, sorters, charity shop employees, thrifters, resellers, and beyond—have fair levels of risk, resources, and potential gains in this ecosystem?
“What this conversation about the gentrification of thrifting is really revealing is that the reverse supply chain is a supply chain. If we’re talking about a circular economy of materials, don’t we also need to be talking about a circulation of capital? How do we ensure that the value various people gain from selling clothing circulates all throughout the supply chain, for example, all the way back to the people who make the clothing,” says Ricketts.
So, what could a more cooperative system look like? For example, in Kantamanto Market, importers and retailers shoulder 100 percent of the risk of purchasing an imported secondhand clothing bale. They must pay the upfront cost, sort through the bale, deal with the waste, and then attempt to sell the remaining product within the market. But sometimes resellers will shop the stalls at Kantamanto Market, just as resellers in the U.S. shop the racks of Goodwill. And, just like in the U.S., many of those resellers in Accra are young and skilled with social media. By curating selections, laundering a piece, styling it on a nice background, marketing it on social media, and then ultimately reselling it, those resellers can make a significant mark-up on the item compared to the price they paid for it in Kantamanto Market.
“And on one hand, I think that’s really positive because, then, less clothing is going into the landfills in Accra, or into the oceans,” Ricketts says. The dark reality is that forty percent of what arrives at Kantamanto Market today leaves as it came: waste. “But it does feel unfair at some point. The resellers can have more economic gain because of their social media skills without bearing the risk that the importers and sellers at Kantamanto do.”
To make this relationship more equitable, the OR Foundation is trying to connect the younger generation of secondhand resellers with those who own businesses in Kantamanto Market, and encouraging those resellers to share their expertise about how to sell things online, photograph items, or even how to better display them for sale within the stalls of the market. “That’s a much more interesting conversation to me,” Rickets says. “How do we bring everyone’s skills and interests together to make sure that the ultimate goal—that the clothing lasts and is reused—is achieved, and create a system where value is shared more equitably?”
This model of connecting tech-savvy, younger resellers with business owners in Kantamanto Market who have decades of experience but more financial burden, is a great example of a more cooperative secondhand space. And with more community conversation and engagement, other solutions are possible.
For example, thrifters who are passionate about providing accessible work-appropriate clothing for economically-disadvantaged members of their community could work with local charity shops to start a designated career closet. Initiatives like this take community engagement, and an avid thrifter who is a frequent customer of the shop could be just the solution to bring that initiative to fruition.
And, building off the example supplied by the OR Foundation, could resellers in the U.S. who use the charity shop to source goods for their small business in turn give back to the community as a way of resharing that value? For example, resellers are often skilled and knowledgeable about caring for secondhand goods, styling, mending, and upcycling pieces. Is there a way to share that value with other charity shop customers who have stake in the secondhand goods, creating more equity among the community and thrift shop stakeholders?
Society should not replicate the power dynamics of the retail economy—where those who have the most means take whatever profit they can for themselves—within the secondhand industry. As shoppers divest from retail and shift to secondhand, they must commit to building something better. Rather than disengaging from secondhand shopping, they should instead engage with the industry more: use their position in this space—their access and ability—to help create opportunities that benefit all people in the secondhand supply chain. Because, if we replace our scarcity mindset with one focused on opportunities for cooperation, this moment of industry growth and increased engagement could be a chance to build a more fair future for secondhand fashion, all its stakeholders, and the planet.