Thrifting has grown more popular in the past few years, and I personally still get surprised by how ‘popular’ it has grown. Not long ago, thirteen year old me was insecure about the second-hand backpack I wore to school with my khaki pants from Goodwill. My mother and I often sought out thrift stores since our economic situation was tight. Admitting to buying my uniform second hand came at the high price of embarrassment. Now, the face of thrifting has morphed into something unrecognizable. The people who thrift and the reasons why they thrift have changed throughout the past few years. While it’s interesting to observe this change in thrifting popularity and perception, it’s more important to discuss the socioeconomic and classist problems that stem from it, namely the gentrification of thrifting.
But What is Gentrification?
To ensure clarity and clear up common misconceptions, it’s important to understand what the term “gentrification” actually means. While certain readers live in a neighborhood that has been or is in the process of being gentrified, other readers may not have been exposed to gentrification in their hometowns. It’s relevant that people learn about this process since it’s seen in pretty much every urban area of America, especially in Los Angeles. Gentrification is defined as “the process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, typically displacing current inhabitants in the process,” according to a quick Google search.
However, this definition is watered down and not an accurate representation of what gentrification does to communities. Affordable housing is already a major issue in L.A. Therefore, low-income residents who inhabit these neighborhoods are kicked out of their communities by wealthier people moving in and increasing the cost of housing in the area. Residents are then faced with the crisis of having to find affordable housing again. The individuals and the overall culture that once existed in these neighborhoods transform into a gentrified area that includes “trendy” bars, cafes, restaurants, and stores.
Unfortunately, there’s debate on whether gentrification is real and if it’s ‘actually bad.’ Politics and academia tend to prioritize statistics and economic change over the lives of people who were affected by these changes. I invite you to look at the urban displacement map created by the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge (CNK) at UCLA Luskin to see how L.A. neighborhoods have gentrified with time. I also recommend you do your own research on gentrification to have a more elaborate understanding of what it is.
The gentrification of various neighborhoods can also be seen on social media, especially on Instagram and TikTok. There’s a good chance some of the posts you’ve seen online that are in rather aesthetic restaurants or shops are in gentrified neighborhoods that did not have these shops before. This results in a constant cycle where the lives of people who live in these gentrified neighborhoods get upturned just so that younger and well off people can visit certain areas for disposable purposes.
How is Gentrification Seen in Thrifting?
A good question to ask in regards to thrifting is: why are YOU thrifting? Is it to save money, find unique, vintage pieces, or to pass time? There’s no right or wrong answer to this question. And I, a second-year college student, am not the arbiter of thrifting. However, this question is meant to put things into perspective about gentrification in thrifting. You, my lovely and hopefully curious reader may see thrifting as an option, but for others thrifting is necessary.
In recent years, thrifting has become quite popular for various reasons. Could be our obsession with other time periods. Could be our obsession with saving money. Or it could be the capitalist obsession of finding new ways to consume while standing out from the crowd. Whatever the reason is, thrift stores have become much more crowded with younger and often more affluent customers.
Due to the rush of more affluent individuals at thrift stores, thrift stores raise their prices and see a decline in nice clothing hanging on their racks.
Something that I’ve actually seen recently is ‘name brand’ items being more expensive than no-name items. For example, a pair of Levi jeans are going to be priced higher than jeans missing a name tag. I think this differentiation for name brand products is how thrift stores are adapting to the change of clientele. Customers are more likely to buy a product that’s vintage AND name brand, so it’s beneficial for stores to raise the prices of these name brands since they know someone is going to buy it eventually. The general rise in demand for thrifted clothing is another reason why major thrift stores raise the prices of their products. They’re capitalizing off the popularity and are trying to reel in more money.
In recent years, people have turned to thrifting to be more sustainable consumers. However, this spike in thrifting leads to resources being taken away from low-income individuals. Thus, less desirable produces remain in stores. As a result, people might turn to affordable fast fashion stores such as Shein or Romwe to get nicer clothing. Much like thrifting, there is then increased demand for fast fashion that we all know destroys the environment and exploits workers.
There’s the alternative to thrift stores, which is vintage boutiques. Vintage boutiques are often small businesses who have more ‘hand-picked’ clothing, where the owner or employees have more control over what they place in their racks. While vintage boutiques can be a good alternative to thrift stores, the difference between vintage boutiques and thrift stores shrink as communities become more gentrified. In the end, vintage boutiques look like more expensive versions of thrift stores that lower-income communities don’t have access to either.
Another form of gentrification in thrifting is reselling. Reselling is when someone goes to a thrift store/ vintage boutique just to buy products that they are going to resell for a higher price. These products are often sold on Depop, ThredUP, or Poshmark. This is a much more obvious form of taking resources away from communities for personal gain. Reselling is also just ripping other people off at the same time since they may not know that the cute ceramic tea set you’re selling online for $40 dollars actually cost $5 at Goodwill. An additional issue with reselling is taking items away from plus size individuals who already struggle with finding clothes and selling them online as ‘oversized shirts’. It’s already known that sustainable fashion lacks in creating plus size clothing, so thrifting is often the main solution for plus size individuals as well.
After attempting to explain gentrification in thrifting, I do want to remind you that thrifting still is important and beneficial in other aspects of society. By thrifting, you prevent plastics from entering the landfill and water, you avoid buying directly from big corporations that have been exploiting and trapping poor countries for centuries, and you can possibly support a small business at the same time. My goal isn’t to bully you to stop thrifting; my goal is to make you more conscious about where you are thrifting and how you are impacting other communities. In the end, it can be difficult to choose where to ethically buy clothes, but with research and practice, being a conscious buyer can be fun too!
So What Can I Do to Avoid Gentrifying Thrifting?
While it’s important to learn about this issue, it’s even more important to learn about what you can do to not participate in the gentrification of thrifting. I’m going to provide a small list of sustainable shopping habits that you can partake in whenever!
Do you really need that band tee or those jeans that look exactly like your other pants? Or do you want to get it just because it’s cheap AND cute? Try to reduce how much you consume since it gives the environment and your wallet a break. You also avoid taking the resources that other folks need, which is the most important part about reduction. I feel it’s pretty easy to reduce your consumption of clothing since a majority of us are stuck at home.
Instead of engaging in retail therapy all the time, rediscover your love for the closet you already have! Maybe do a closet cleanse and discover old pieces that you used to love but don’t wear anymore. To avoid studying for exams in the pandemic, I randomly create outfits and have fashion shows in my room.
And if you find a lot of pieces in your closet that aren’t really your style, upcycle them! Unravel has plenty of posts on our Instagram and blog that show how to upcycle pieces. I personally suck at embroidery and crocheting, but I am pretty handy with scissors and safety pins. Sometimes cropping a shirt you somewhat like really transforms how it looks. You can also iron on designs onto shirts or pants to create looks unique to you. Upcycling is the more entertaining step in avoiding the gentrification of thrifting since you can create pieces that are truly unique.
And if you really need to get a certain piece of clothing, say a blouse or skirt for an interview, see if you can borrow from friends. After all, sharing is caring! When you’re able to share clothing with others, you are able to multiply the size of your wardrobe and pieces you can wear. You also avoid buying items from thrift stores or major companies. (For legal reasons, I have no idea what the other form of borrowing is and I GUESS I have to condone it.)
5. Shop Small
Shopping small can mean supporting small businesses or independently owned second-hand stores. However, I say supporting small businesses, especially BIPOC owned businesses, has more benefits to it compared to shopping at independently owned second-hand stores. It can be rather difficult for a small business to pick up speed and become successful, especially during this pandemic since it feels like many people are opening up small businesses. Try to support a small business that is found online versus an independently owned thrift store so that you can avoid the possibility of taking away resources. Supporting small businesses means that you are paying an actual human being’s groceries and appreciating the artwork or clothing that they make at the same time. Independently owned thrift stores that are online or in-person are also more likely to receive more foot traffic or online orders since more people turn to thrifting anyways.
6. Shop Sustainable Brands
This topic can get complicated quickly since there are many brands out there that adore greenwashing. Greenwashing is when a big corporation pretends to care about the environment but really they’re just lying to the consumer’s face to gain a sense of trust. Unravel definitely explores this topic in detail! But if you feel confident that a certain sustainable brand is not greenwashing and actually makes eco-friendly products, then buy those! Sustainable brands are often more expensive, but for valid reasons. They use eco-friendly products and creation methods and do not exploit labor. So the price you are paying goes directly to the brand using ethical production methods and materials.
Even if you can’t participate in any of these tips and still buy an item from fast fashion, don’t worry. You don’t deserve to be shamed for trying your best and still buying something from a company that isn’t environmentally friendly. We need to stop blaming each other and the consumer and instead redirect our energy to the corporations that cause us to have this consumer conflict. While we can’t afford to always shop ethically, these corporations can afford to pay their employees liveable wages and use products that don’t destroy the environment - they just don’t want to.
But you still have the power to stick it to corporations by being a mindful shopper and doing what you can with your financial situation!