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Thrift Shopping Might Not Be So Ethical Afterall

There's more to consider than sustainability


If you’ve spent any time on TikTok recently, you’ve probably come across at least a few ‘thrift flipping’ tutorials. 

The trend has massively grown in popularity, and at first glance, it’ll probably seem like the end-all solution to a sustainable wardrobe. If you’re not familiar with thrift flipping, it’s pretty simple: it means buying larger items from thrift shops and altering them to your liking. 

The typically thin thrift flippers rejoice in transforming baggy jeans into super slim ones, deeming the trick ethical and sustainable. While that’s partially true, the trend hasn’t come without criticism. The hashtag #thriftflip, which currently has over 900 million views on TikTok, has garnered a lot of backlash for being fatphobic. 

For many, the ‘before’ and ‘after’ tutorials echo the way society thinks about large clothes and the bodies that fit them. The videos describe the initial garments as ugly, deeming them ‘fixed’ and attractive after the transformation into smaller size, a symptom of size discrimination. 

As it turns out, practices like thrift flipping—and thrifting large garments for upcycling purposes in general—contribute to the decline of plus-size items availability in thrift stores. This then adds up to the already preexisting limited size selection in those shops, making it even more challenging for plus size consumers to find their right size.

And this isn’t the only problem with thrifting. 

The practice has been catapulted to exponential heights in recent years for its ethical and environmental benefits. A movement that’s been led by Gen Z, dubbed the most socially-conscious generation, who are adopting secondhand fashion faster than any other age group, with 40 percent in 2019

More and more people are choosing thrift shopping as an alternative to fast fashion. With a rising concern around the fashion industry’s impact on the planet, secondhand and vintage have become the ultimate resort to reduce consumerism and the amount of clothing in circulation. 

It has been proven that if everyone bought one used item instead of new for the duration of 2019, it would save 5.7 billion pounds of CO2, 25 billion gallons of water and 449 million pounds of waste according to a 2020 ThredUp report.

Although that makes it a sustainability solution, there is a dark side to thrift shopping that’s not very often talked about. 

Thrifting’s recent rise in popularity sparked increases among high-income shoppers. What was once exclusive to low-income individuals—who thrift out of necessity—has now become a common habit for a new wave of affluent consumers. Some do it to save money, some do it for environmental reasons, and some profit off the low-prices by reselling cheap items at a markup on resale platforms like Depop and Poshmark. 

In either case, thrifting can be a form of taking advantage of income inequality, which is resulting in thrift stores gentrification. Forced to choose between accommodating an increase in demand or catering to lower-income customers, shops are raising prices like never before, which means certain shoppers are no longer able to afford thrift items.  

Stores even resorted to opening swankier storefronts to match their new customers’ lifestyle. So much that the secondhand market—combining resale platforms, donations, and thrift stores—has grown to the value of $28 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $64 billion by 2024.

Needless to say: thrifting might be a great option to shop sustainably, but it doesn’t come without consequence. 

It’s time to rethink our thrifting habits and start shopping more mindfully. If you come from a privileged financial situation, shopping at vintage or consignment stores is an equally sustainable option that doesn’t harm lower-income communities.


Main image Courtesy of @excreament

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