The Gentrification of Thrifting: Is Thrifting + Reselling Ethical?

September 16, 2020

thrift store in boston

Thrifting has become incredibly popular over the years, and critics argue that this popularity has led to the gentrification of thrifting. Basically, that means that it’s been made inaccessible to the working class, and taken over by the middle- and upper-class. 

While thrifting is usually encouraged for environmental reasons, some people are now claiming that we should stop thrifting or stop reselling, as it’s hurting these low-income communities.

While I think these arguments come from good hearts and real concerns, I don’t think they get to the root of the issue. So, I want to explore the ethics of thrifting and reselling in this post, plus give some tips for thrifting consciously.

Before we dive in, I want to note that I don’t have much of a personal stake in this—I do try to thrift when I need to buy clothes, but I don’t go often, and I’m not a reseller (I have resold my own clothes in the past, but haven’t thrifted to resell).

I feel that resellers have been mischaracterized in a lot of recent content on thrifting, so I’ll be be including a mini interview segment with an actual reseller. Please stick around to learn more about the other side of reselling!

If you’re a more visual/auditory learner, here’s a YouTube video version of this post:

Common Criticisms of Thrifting (and Reselling)

A lot of criticism of thrifting (and reselling) has surfaced recently, so let’s start with the four main thrifting issues that have been called out.

1. Prices are rising due to demand.

There’s no doubt that prices generally have been on the rise. If we take a look at the 2010 and 2020 Goodwill Valuation Guides, we’ll see that Goodwill now recommends ranges instead of a flat base price. The upper end of the 2020 range is often 3 times as much as the 2010 base price. 

A side-by-side of the 2010 and 2020 Goodwill Valuation Guides
Left is 2010, right is 2020

People blame the rising prices on the popularity of thrifting, but I think it’s a lot more complicated than that.

The argument is that increased demand leads to scarcity, which results in increased prices. The thing is that most thrift stores have a huge excess of clothing. Only 20% of clothes donated to thrift stores is actually sold—the rest is thrown away or sold to developing countries, where it puts local textile workers out of jobs. So in this case, higher demand isn’t actually leading to scarcity, so the demand isn’t directly causing higher prices.

We have to take a step back and think about some other potential factors, like increased operating costs. We can’t forget inflation, which is around 19% accumulated over 10 years. This means that the value of $10 in 2010 is about $12 now.

Beyond that, thrift stores’ rent has certainly gone up, and we like to hope that employees’ salaries have gone up (though corporate thrift stores have a lot of labor issues, which we’ll talk about later). It’s only normal that prices have increased at least a little.

But of course, some people are witnessing larger jumps that can’t necessarily be explained by inflation. In that case, I think we have to look at the decisions of these stores’ corporate offices. The 2020 Goodwill Valuation Guide shows, with their ranges, shows that Goodwill wants to get the maximum possible payment for their product. Sometimes, people will even notice that Goodwill prices an item with original tags higher than the price on that tag, which is kind of outrageous. 

Instead of blaming individuals for thrifting, maybe we should blame corporate greed. After all, the CEO of Goodwill made $730,000 in 2018, all while paying workers with disabilities sometimes less than a dollar an hour!

Headline reads: CEO of Goodwill Raked in Almost $730k in Salary While Paying Employees with Disabilities Pennies

Keep in mind that there even more external factors for the affordability of thrifting, including the stagnant minimum wage in the US. If hourly wages aren’t going up, then everything becomes more expensive with inflation.

Overall, I don’t think it’s entirely clear where we should be pointing fingers, but I don’t think increased demand is the biggest culprit for these higher prices. 

2. Thrifting “for fun” takes clothes away from those in need.

I already kind of addressed this argument in the previous point, but to reiterate: there’s generally a huge excess of clothing at thrift stores, so there’s more than enough to go around.

You might argue though that higher demand is leading to scarcity of “the good stuff.” Maybe all the leftover clothing is actually ratty and gross. But Leah Wise, a sustainability blogger and former thrift store manager, says that most of the excess items are in good condition, at least in suburban and urban stores. In her low-volume thrift store, they didn’t even have space to put out 30% of the sellable items. 

Of course, if you’re going to low-income or rural neighborhoods, you might actually have a scarcity issue. That’s why it’s important to be mindful of where you shop. But if you’re thrifting the suburbs or the city, scarcity isn’t usually a problem.

Also keep in mind that people from different income brackets are sometimes looking for different things. I’m definitely not trying to say that lower-income people can’t have nice things, or don’t want them. But if you’re thrifting out of absolute necessity vs. thrifting for fun, you’re probably not purchasing the same things—some things are just too impractical. Those of us who thrift for fun probably like to think that we “need” what we buy, but did we actually need that ridiculously sequined jacket or a shirt with a cat shooting lasers out of its eyes? Probably not.

A ridiculously sequined jacket I wish I bought in a thrift store
I honestly regret not buying this jacket sometimes, but it was $30 and insanely impractical…

3. Thrift hauls encourage overconsumption.

This criticism gets at the culture around mainstream thrifting. All these huge thrift hauls on YouTube aren’t really about shopping in an environmentally conscious way. It’s only promoting overconsumption and the idea that we need endless closets. 

I actually wonder if sometimes people go thrifting just for the content, and not because they actually need clothes. I also wonder how much of that clothing they actually wear. 

I’m not saying that every thrift haul video is bad—I actually have one myself on my channel, but it’s a review of all the clothes I bought in a year, and it’s not excessive. If you’re sharing a reasonable amount of clothing and encouraging people to buy secondhand, there’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s just another thing to buy literal cartfuls of clothing because it’s cheap or trendy, show it off, and then never actually use it. In that case, someone else might’ve benefited from it more, especially if you’re buying high-demand, popular pieces.

Of course, buying lots of clothes does support the charity behind the shop, so we can’t say this is entirely bad, but the overall message of overconsumption is unhealthy. We don’t know what these people are doing with these clothing hauls, and they could just be throwing them away. All of this only reinforces the idea of high-turnover, disposable fashion.

A screenshot of some huge thrift haul video results on YouTube

4. Reselling makes thrifting inaccessible to those in need.

To be fair, I actually used to think reselling was questionable, but now I’ve changed my mind, and I’ll explain why. 

When it comes to reselling, people often make the same arguments that we’ve covered: one, that resellers contribute to rising prices, and two, that they’re taking away clothes from low-income communities. Things become a little more complex when we’re talking about reselling vs. thrifting as individuals, though.

I again don’t think we can directly blame any group for the increased prices, for the reasons I mentioned already. You might make the argument, however, that resellers show that people can and will pay more for secondhand items, leading stores to raise prices. But you could also argue that the items in a thrift shop vs. a reseller’s shop are almost different items, even if they’re exactly the same. 

Let me explain. Say you find a black dress in the thrift store. To get that dress, you had to get to the thrift store, sift through racks and racks of clothing, try on a bunch of things, wait in line to check out, and go home. If that same dress is in a reseller’s shop, you don’t have to do any of that. You’re paying for two different shopping experiences, so resellers and thrift shops aren’t necessarily direct competitors. 

A graphic of the many steps you have to take to get clothing at a thrift store
All the steps you have to go through to get a thrifted item.

Okay, but what about the resellers who overprice their products or scam people? This is obviously a problem—it’s not really that related to thrifting, but let’s talk about it. 

It’s first important to point out that resold products should be marked up, at least enough to account for the time and labor put into getting the item, cleaning or repairing it, listing it online, and interacting with potential buyers. Otherwise, resellers would be operating at a loss. 

Also, keep in mind that most reselling platforms charge commission and shipping fees, so the price you pay isn’t anywhere near what the reseller is getting. Poshmark, for instance, takes a 20% cut (with a minimum $3), and you must use their shipping labels ($7). So if I list an item at $10, the buyer pays $17, and I only get $7. 

Of course, there are some questionable sellers who try to sell Walmart pants for $40, or try to pass off a 5-year-old sweater as “vintage.” That’s just scammy. But, we need to understand that there’s a difference between ripping people off and running a legitimate business. 

But what about resellers “taking away” clothing from the local community? Since resellers tend to buy more than individuals, isn’t that a problem? Again, there’s still such an excess of wearable clothing in thrift shops, so I don’t think this is cause for concern. Unless, of course, you’re literally buying entire sections of the store, like all the kid’s shoes. Or, if you’re shopping at low-volume stores and actually taking all the nice pieces. When in doubt, you can always speak to the manager and ask about their stock.

In some ways, reselling can also make secondhand clothing more accessible. At this point, I actually want to bring on a reseller to chat with us about her experience running her business, how it’s impacted her life, and some benefits of reselling. 

Interview with Jade from LavenderHazeLA

Jade of LavenderHazeLA

A big thank you to Jade for taking the time to chat with us!

First, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your reselling business? 

My name is Jade, and I’m on Depop and Instagram as @LavenderHazeLA. I’m 23 years old, and am from Los Angeles. I’ve been reselling my clothing and thrifted clothing on different platforms since I was 11 years old.

Nowadays, I’m primarily on Etsy and Depop, where I work as sort of a personal stylist. I curate boxes based on my favorite 90s TV characters and Instagram fashion bloggers, which is so much fun. I put these together with clothing that I source from thrift and consignment stores, as well as online marketplaces.

I’m starting my last year of undergrad at UCLA this fall, and I’m very lucky that my reselling business has kept me afloat during my six years as a college student, from community college to UCLA. I was even able to quit my retail job to focus on school.

What inspired you to get into thrifting and reselling?

Thrifting has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember—my mom would bring me thrifting all around Los Angeles as a child. We would shop secondhand for home goods and clothing we needed, but my favorites were always the stationery and toys.

As far as reselling, I was inspired to get into it mainly on Facebook, when I was in middle school. I noticed girls trading and selling their clothing, and I thought it was a creative way to get more trendy clothing, as my family didn’t have much money to buy new often.

After selling my preowned clothing and upcycling some thrifted items while in school, I officially started my reselling business my first year of community college in 2016. I was inspired to do so after watching The True Cost documentary on Netflix, and learning more about the fashion industry in fashion school. I felt that there needed to be a change, and that secondhand clothing needed to be accessible and cool for young people. I started selling on eBay and from there it has evolved a lot into what it is now.

How has thrifting and reselling impacted your life?

Before I was even really cognizant of the importance of buying secondhand for sustainability, I definitely feel like thrifting helped me to develop my own style. I couldn’t follow all the trends growing up because I was limited to what I could find thrifting, but that led to me finding styles and silhouettes that I felt were true to me.

As far as reselling, I think it gave me purpose in one of the most confusing points of my life. I was just starting college, getting out of an abusive relationship, and was completely dissatisfied with an industry I thought I wanted to be a part of for a career. I realized I could have an impact on something that was important to me, and create an income for myself, allowing me to focus on college and transferring to university. Now, as my business evolves, it’s helped me identify my creative and professional strengths.

Twiggy 60s inspired style bundle
An example of a Twiggy 60s-inspired style bundle

Last question: I feel like the reselling community has been unfairly criticized lately, and we don’t often hear about the positive side of the community. What is one way you feel that reselling has positively impacted local communities or the sustainability movement? 

This has been definitely a hot topic lately and it’s discouraged me in certain ways. I do believe, however, that there are a lot of positives for individuals, communities, and the overall sustainability movement.

Firstly, if we want folks to shop secondhand, I believe it’s important we make these items as accessible as possible to as many people possible. Not everyone has a thrift store near them, or is able to stand for the amount of time it takes to shift through clothing. Resellers are doing the work of finding items, repairing items, and populating them on marketplaces where someone can purchase them, instead of buying new.

Secondly, many resellers are lower and middle class people operating small businesses, who like myself, use this income to get them through college, stay home with children or an elderly parent, or have a flexible work schedule (which is especially important for people with disabilities). I hope more people will see the value in it and even try it out for themselves. 

Back to me: again, a big thank you to Jade for sharing her thoughts and experience with us. Please check out her Depop and Instagram! If you’re interested in her bundles, she also has a YouTube video on her styling process.

I hope that mini-interview segment gave you a better understanding of reselling, and how it can be a legitimate way to earn a living, and increase accessibility to secondhand items.

And just to offer another perspective, to try to be objective: I can understand why some people find reselling questionable. You might also argue that taking an item from a thrift store and raising the price to resell online (even to a fair price) is making the item less accessible, as there are some who can no longer afford it. While it’s now more accessible to people who can’t physically go to thrift stores, there are still some trade-offs. That said, I don’t know if this is cause for major concern, as there’s still so much unsold clothing in general. At the end of the day, I don’t think reselling is problematic, if resellers are sourcing their items mindfully.

Benefits of the Normalization of Thrifting

Eva B thrift store in Montreal, Canada - it's very quirky, and there bras hanging from the ceiling
The coolest thrift store in Montréal: Eva B

Next, I wanted to talk a little about the history of thrifting, and how its normalization can actually be a good thing. TIME Magazine reports that back in the day:

there was a stigma attached to wearing used clothes that had been owned by a stranger. Not only were the items themselves a sign of a lack of money, but there was also bias against the people selling them. Used clothes were often available from pushcarts predominantly started by Jewish immigrants, whose professional options were often constrained by anti-Semitism. That prejudice rubbed off on their wares. For example, the May 3, 1884, issue of the Saturday Evening Post ran a satirical story about a girl who got smallpox from a dress she bought from a Jewish-owned resale shop. 

That got dark really fast…But this definitely shows us that thrifting and reselling have historically been stigmatized. I actually wonder whether the negative opinions of reselling actually derive from this historical stigma.

Nowadays, there still may be some stigma attached to thrifting, but it’s definitely more accepted. People who grew up low-income often mention how they used to be ashamed to thrift. People have mentioned literally hiding in stores when they saw people they knew, or how their parents used to make them call Goodwill “the Boutique,” so that other kids wouldn’t know they shopped secondhand. (This is based on some comments on Sarah Hawkinson’s video on the ethics of thrifting). But basically, now that thrifting is normalized, people tend to feel less ashamed about it. 

(It’s obviously icky that thrifting is only “cool” when wealthier people do it, but I do think the normalization of thrifting still has some benefits).

We also can’t forget that charities are often behind thrift stores—the stores themselves aren’t necessarily the charities. Shopping there helps support their programs. For instance, at Out of the Closet, a thrift store chain, they say that: Ninety-six cents of every dollar collected at our stores directly fund AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s HIV/AIDS programs and their new housing services, as well as on-site pharmacies and free HIV testing. 

A screenshot of the Out of the Closet charity "about" page

Of course, the big corporate giants like Goodwill and Salvation Army have a lot of controversies and might not be as charitable as we think, so this doesn’t always apply. But if you’re shopping at a store backed by a reputable organization, your dollars are probably doing a lot of good for the community. This includes resellers, who often help stores reach their fundraising goals!

I think the question of pricing often comes down to the stores themselves. They need to find an equilibrium between offering affordable clothing to low-income families (if that’s even their goal) AND being able to generate money for their programs.

4 Tips to Thrift More Consciously

In general, I really don’t see a problem with thrifting or reselling, but there are ways to be especially mindful of populations in need. My 4 tips are:

1. As individuals, buy what you need and know you’ll wear.

This helps ensure that you’re not stuck in this endless cycle of overconsumption and disposable fashion.

2. If you want to be super careful, shop at consignment or vintage stores.

Some people have recommended buying from a sustainable brand if you can afford it, instead of going to thrift stores. I disagree with that, as shopping secondhand is always better sustainability-wise than buying new, even from an ethical brand. Also, given the excess amounts of clothing, it’s clear that we need more people to buy used clothing.

If you’re especially worried about “taking clothes away” from the needy, there’s a better solution. Just avoid stores in low-income neighborhoods, and instead shop at higher-end consignment or vintage stores (thanks to Jade for this tip!).

Of course, there are merits of shopping from a sustainable brand, as we do want to support companies doing good. If that’s what you want to prioritize, that’s totally cool too.

trying on bright blue pants in a thrift store
Thought these pants were super cool, but didn’t end up getting them because I didn’t think I’d actually wear them.

3. Avoid buying high-need items in low stock.

There are some items that are in higher demand, and those tend to be:

  • Plus size clothes
  • Professional clothes
  • Winter jackets
  • Kid’s clothes

I don’t necessarily see a problem with buying these things “for fun” if you’ll actually wear them, but try to be mindful of the stock available, and maybe don’t purchase them in bulk. Again, you can always ask the store manager if you want to learn about general trends in the stock. You can also talk to them to find out when they throw things out, as you can then feel more certain that you’re not “taking things away” from others.

People have also suggested going to the $1 bins in thrift stores, if you’re planning to buy in bulk. This is usually the final stop for items before they’re tossed out or shipped to developing countries.

Also, this should go without saying, but don’t take advantage of free clothing charities if you aren’t actually low-income. There are some organizations that offer free professional clothes or prom dresses, and those are specifically targeted towards people in need. Going there when you can pay for your own clothes is just wrong.

4. If you need to donate clothes, choose reputable, local orgs.

Donating is not necessarily the best way to clean out your closet, as we know that most clothing in thrift stores is thrown away. I have a whole post on how to get rid of clothes responsibly, and some alternative ideas are using FB marketplace or a site like to give clothes away.

If you’ve exhausted those other options though, try to donate to small organizations that you know are doing good in your community, like homeless shelters or domestic violence centers.

Final Thoughts

The gentrification of thrifting is a pretty complicated topic, and I think a lot of recent criticism doesn’t capture its nuance. At the end of the day, I don’t think mainstream thrifting or reselling are as problematic as they’ve been made out to be. 

Secondhand shopping is always better for the planet and can help support organizations doing important community work. Reselling also gives people a flexible way to earn a living, and can make it easier for people to buy used clothing. This is of course my opinion based on my research, so if you have a different one, please feel free to share.

I also want to clarify that I’m definitely not trying to minimize the impact of these rising secondhand prices. While I don’t think the rising prices are any particular group’s fault, the fact is that prices are rising, and that thrifting is becoming less accessible to some communities. 

I don’t have a good solution to those rising prices, other than to maybe try to give your clothes directly to people in need, through community events or local organizations. And I always want to emphasize that we should never shame people for buying fast fashion, as sometimes that’s the only affordable option.

Let me know if you have more ideas in the comments, as I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Other posts you may enjoy:

7 Common Misconceptions About Sustainable Fashion
Sustainable or Greenwashing? How to Evaluate Fashion Brands
Is Everlane *Actually* Ethical and Sustainable?

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  • Nina | Lemons and Luggage September 16, 2020 at 12:36 pm

    Great post, Lily! I think we have talked about this in the past, and I am not really a fan of reselling. The people that I’ve seen do it seem to be from pretty affluent families so it just seems wrong to me. I like the different perspective that you shared here, and your arguments that thrifting isn’t actually an issue have definitely convinced me. I’m still on the fence about reselling, but I guess as with everything it really depends on the individual.

    • Lily September 16, 2020 at 1:38 pm

      Yes, totally understand your thoughts, Nina! We did chat about it briefly a bit ago, and I still thought that reselling was questionable overall at that time. I agree that it can be pretty situational – I remember you bringing up influencers buying clothes to resell at inflated prices, because of their fame. If they’re actually buying up a ton of stuff and leaving nothing for the community, that’s really sad, especially since they didn’t necessarily “need” that money. At the same time, they might be getting people to buy things that could’ve been thrown away, or even introducing people to buying secondhand. It’s very complicated!

  • Kezzie September 20, 2020 at 6:17 pm

    Ah, this was super interesting to read! I saw you write about this on IG and wanted to come over for a look. I think I am with you on this on what your conclusion is- yes, I do think reselling at high mark ups if you have a job anyway, is cheeky, but for those who it is their prime source of income, well, if it is allowing the item to come to a wider audience in order for it not to go into landfill, then that’s great. I bought two really nice items (in fact, which I wore on Friday) from a charity shop in Hexham and both of them had been on the regular floor for a while before being relegated to the bargain £1 floor. I spotted them instantly as they are my aesthetic- one was a beautiful mauve cotton loose top from Comptoir de Cottoniers which is an expensive shop. Yet, no one had bought it when it was in the shop (and this charity shop is fairly cheap anyway) – I bought it because I liked it, but if a reseller had bought it and sold it on, then it hadn’t been sold originally so it would be ok if an audience who knew its worth was able to have the option to buy. That said, I would hate for someone of low income to not be able to get something that they might have got because it had been bought avariciously for resell.

    Bootsales are often another good place for people of low income to obtain items at reasonable prices here in the Uk.

    • Lily September 21, 2020 at 1:10 pm

      Thanks for visiting, Kezzie! I’ve heard of Comptoir des Cottoniers, and the top you bought sounds beautiful! I agree that sometimes some really lovely finds (that are inexpensive) still don’t get picked up. I’m glad the top has now found a loving home 🙂

      I’ve never heard of bootsales, but I looked them up, and they sound fun! Kind of like a flea market? I loved going to those in France.

  • Kim October 9, 2020 at 8:50 pm

    Just want to chime in as a reseller! I think it would help if more people understood the process. It takes both time and money to resell: the costs aren’t that much but they add up: gas, packing materials, cleaning and repair products, and the items themselves. The selling platforms also usually take about 15 or 20 percent of the selling price and of the postage price.

    There’s a lot of time involved: spending part of a day shopping, then cleaning everything and doing small repairs, arranging and photographing, and then choosing, cropping, and uploading photos. There’s figuring out pricing, measuring and weighing each thing, filling out listing forms and writing appealing copy, choosing SEO terms, and finally putting each thing away safely for storage until it sells. Then there’s answering customer questions, and when something sells, there’s packaging, labelling, and taking it to the post office. More vaguely, there’s the “service and expertise” of knowing what to look for and trying to choose things people will be happy to buy.

    Goodwill and the people who donate to them are providing me with a job. When people buy things for themselves, as I also do, it’s great fun but it isn’t giving someone a job. I don’t make very much money but I’m glad to be able to do this for a living!

    • Lily October 9, 2020 at 8:55 pm

      Thanks for chiming in, Kim! Absolutely – I know reselling is a ton of work, and platforms take a big cut. I always try to emphasize this when talking about reselling, as many people don’t realize this, and think it’s price gouging when resellers actually aren’t making much. Thanks for making secondhand clothing more accessible and helping people find what they’re looking for!

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    I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it). I also try to advocate for the planet & its people.
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