Emelyn Rodgers, an Environmental Studies student at Carleton University is a big thrifter. She first discovered thrifting when she was in high school. Now, years later, the entirety of her wardrobe is thrifted.
“I kind-of started backing away from fast fashion and just started thrifting more and more,” Rodgers said.
“I think it’s important for our environment. Our consumption as human beings is insane. How much we consume and how much we buy and how much we produce. So I think that thrifting is a tiny thing that we can do to just better ourselves,” she added.
Rodgers isn’t alone in turning to the practice of thrifting for buying clothing.
Thrifting, the act of buying previously owned/used goods, has become increasingly popular, especially among younger generations, to the point where it could be considered a trend.
On TikTok, the hashtag ‘thrift’ has 1.2 billion views and the tag ‘thrifting’ has 707.7 million views.
“We’re doing a lot more to help with the environment than a lot of other generations…As well, a lot of us work jobs where it’s hard to afford things. [Thrifting’s] a cheaper alternative, which is why I think a lot of us are turning to it,” says Isabelle Chasse, another young thrifter from Ottawa.
Thrifting isn’t by any means a new practice. Traditional thrift stores such as The Salvation Army and Goodwill have been operating in Canada for decades. The first version of Salvation Army thrift stores in Canada started in Toronto in 1908, then called salvage work.
This recent rise in popularity, hand in hand with the prevalence of social media and the internet, has resulted in people finding new, innovative ways of recycling their used clothing and accessories.
‘Insta-thrifting’ is a new method of thrifting over the app Instagram, which has popped up over the past year. This new means of thrifting provides an alternative to traditional thrift stores.
According to both buyers and sellers, the method has many perks but also presents new challenges to the thrifting industry as it becomes a more common way of second-hand shopping, such as concerns over upcycling and the gentrification of thrifting.
So, the question becomes, is the practice of Insta-thrifting a good contribution to the thrifting industry and to sustainable fashion overall?
First of all, what is Insta-thrifting?
Instagram accounts, typically run by individuals, are dedicated to advertising used apparel. The accounts post photos of the item and used the caption to describe the article, including size, condition, brand, and price, as well as hashtags to advertise and promote it.
Instagram users who see the post and are interested in the item can then comment, or direct message the selling account to buy the item.
@nuthrifts is an Ottawa-based Instagram thrift store, run by a 20-year-old Carleton University student, Taylor Huelsekopf.
Huelsekopf started her account in August 2020, as a way to clear out her closet and make a bit of money.
“It’s important to me to stay sustainable and find little ways in my life that I can follow that,” Huelsekopf said.
On her account, Huelsekopf sells her barely used, and sometimes even brand new, clothes for much less than the original price, usually around $20-$30. She also posts some of her roommates’ clothes that they want to get rid of as well.
Though her prices may be higher than those of traditional thrift stores, she says that the quality is better.
“They’re getting these good clothes in basically perfect condition for a lot cheaper than they would find in [the original] store.”
Despite the slightly higher thrift pricing, she still has interested buyers.
When an item of hers receives a comment or direct message of interest, she moves on to arrange payment and delivery. Typically, she accepts payment by cash or e-transfer, but due to COVID-19, she finds e-transfer preferable. Drop-offs and meet-ups are how the exchanges are made.
Why has Insta-thrifting become so popular?
The popularity of thrifting over Instagram appears to lie in its efficiency.
“It definitely, a hundred per cent saves time,” Rodgers said.
“Pre-COVID-19 times, it was kind of like go to ATM, get 20 bucks, and then you go to meet someone at a coffee shop downtown or something, and then you just do an exchange.”
“If you’re going to Value Village, that’s a big store. Going through everything to find one item, that’s hard. It’s not like you go into a store like Zara where you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m looking for bell-bottom jeans, do you have this?’ Going on Instagram, you find a little thrift post and you’re like, ‘I’ve been looking for a pair of bell-bottoms for a while,’” she added.
From a selling standpoint, Huelsekopf agreed with Rodgers, saying it eliminates the need to get to a thrift store to donate, sell, or bargain.
“For the seller, it’s super convenient. All you need is an account and somebody to take pictures of the clothes, or you in the clothes, and then you post it.”
“There’s no monkey in the middle. It’s you selling straight to the buyer,” she added.
As a buyer, Chasse says she prefers Insta-thrifting to more traditional methods because big businesses or corporations aren’t involved.
“I find it better in some ways, because this way I’m supporting someone that can actually use it as opposed to like Value Village, where you’re supporting the business, who, you know, you donate and they write it off on their taxes,” she said.
Huelsekopf went on to talk about how another benefit of Insta-thrifting is tailored fashion sense. Buyers can find accounts tailored to their style, allowing for a more personalized thrifting experience.
“I have my own sense of fashion and other people do as well…people who share the same fashion sense as us, they know when they come to our Instagram account, what they’re getting… they say, ‘I like the fashion sense of this account. I like the pieces that are on it.’”
The dangers of Insta-thrifting.
Despite these perks of Insta-thrifting, the method has its own causes for concern. One challenge is the safety of selling over social media.
Rodgers offers her safety advice when it comes to meeting up with people from the internet to make exchanges.
“I would suggest bringing a friend, like if you aren't feeling comfortable meet in a public place. Meet at like a coffee shop or somewhere where people can see. If you don't have a friend with you, tell someone, ‘Hey, I'm going to go meet someone to buy something’ and then just text them when you're home safe…there’s precautions that you can take to make it safe.”
Chasse says it’s something she’s not too concerned about.
“l haven’t had any issues…like, worst case, if I drive out somewhere and they don't have it, or like they gave me a wrong address, I just drive home.”
Another challenge confronting Insta-thrifting is the issue of the gentrification of thrifting and up-cycling.
Many people on the internet are critical of individuals reselling clothing online, because some thrifters go out and find good quality items in thrift stores solely to resell them for a higher price than they found it for in the thrift store, a practice known as up-cycling.
Some concerns surrounding this, include making thrifting less financially accessible to lower-income shoppers and having thrift stores being cleared out by people wanting to resell on the internet, resulting in thrift stores being too picked over for people who rely on traditional thrifting.
Huelsekopf talks about how her business deals with these controversial practices.
“I still donate to stores even having my account. And I would never inflate the prices. There’s one account I follow and they'll take thrifted pieces and bring them into their own up-cycling store and charge for a lot more than they bought it for. I don't necessarily agree with that. I mean, that's not what I'm trying to do.”
@ottawathrifter, owned by Kera Lee Briggs, who in addition to selling her own clothes, partakes in the practice of selling items she finds at the thrift store.
She talks about her process of doing so, and why she doesn’t think there’s an issue with it.
“If you're buying a shirt for $3, you definitely shouldn't be selling it for $70. I let people know that I only increase 30-40 per cent. I make sure that I'm not going to the same thrift store every time. I rotate them. I make sure that like, I'm not clearing out their stores. But as long as you're refilling [thrift stores] and slowing fast fashion, I think it's ethical,” she said.
Georgia Evans, a Carleton student and environmental activist with Climate Action Carleton, is in agreement that a contribution to slow fashion is better than a contribution to fast fashion, but that up-cycling is still a concern.
“In terms of a sustainability standpoint, I mean, I am all in favour of people not going out to buy new clothes and buying stuff… there's more than enough to go around. I think that if every piece of secondhand clothing became a subject to up-cycling, then that would be an issue.”
“I'm concerned that it's going to become too gentrified over time…As it becomes more popular, you'll get better items not being available at a low cost. And people will be kind of concerned about, you know, low income. There’s very little dignity in saying that people can just take whatever's left,” she added.
Huelsekopf says she believes differently.
“I don't think this new wave of thrifting is necessarily diminishing the old way. I think we're always going to end up having places that sell for cheap for people who rely on that for their clothing. The same way, like food banks are never going to die out. I don't think thrift stores will necessarily die out either.”
Chasse contributed to the debate around gentrification.
“I feel like a lot of people try to like gate-keep thrifting because like, you're not poor enough to thrift. I don't really believe that. I don't think that you shouldn't be excluded just because you can afford to buy fast fashion clothes, because fast fashion contributes to a lot of issues.”
Evans added that despite having mixed feelings about people who up-cycle, that the problem of gentrification also lies with the big corporations, who have also been inflating prices in traditional thrift stores.
“It's not just individual responsibility, either. These big corporations like Value Village and Goodwill, they also have to hold themselves accountable.”
Chasse says that she believes the issue of the gentrification of traditional thrift stores will fix itself.
“I think eventually [thrift companies] will realize that there's a bigger market online. So if they don't lower their prices, they're going to lose a lot more business.”
As Insta-thrifting and other online thrift innovations continue to become more established, these effects of social media on the thrifting industry will become clearer, both positive and negative.
“Online thrifting has a bit of a way to come before I would say that it's balanced and for the greater good,” said Huelsekopf about the future of Insta-thrifting.
“I'm interested to see how the new shop tab that Instagram has implemented will go about, and accelerate these trends,” Evans said.