The Gentrification of Thrifting

Hey Macklemore, can we go thrift shopping?

 

Ah yes, 2012: the year the whole world learned how awesome thrift stores are. The wildly popular Macklemore & Ryan Lewis hit “Thrift Shop” is both an absolute banger and, believe it or not, a fascinating social commentary on wealth. Rather than endorsing the hip hop “flex culture” that celebrates spending as much money as possible on clothes, “Thrift Shop” celebrates secondhand shopping: a way to look fresh without breaking your bank. And sure enough, the release of this song in 2012 accompanied a cultural shift in how we view thrift stores.  The effects of this shift have persisted to the present day: a thrift store is no longer just a place for the very poor to buy clothes, but also an outlet where anyone can create unique looks for cheap.

Thrifting is great for a large number of reasons, and it’s become even more trendy recently thanks to social media. However, its fairly recent boost in popularity has had unexpected consequences. I’d like to examine these consequences through the lens of a seemingly unrelated term: gentrification.

Google defines gentrification generally as “the process of making someone or something more refined, polite, or respectable.” The term is most commonly applied to housing and community development. In most contexts, gentrification is not a good thing at all. This old article from the CDC defines gentrification in housing as “the transformation of neighborhoods from low value to high value.” The author continues:

 [Gentrification] has the potential to cause the displacement of long-time residents and businesses. Displacement happens when long-time or original neighborhood residents move from a gentrified area because of higher rents, mortgages, and property taxes. This is a housing, economic, and health issue that affects a community’s history and culture and reduces social capital. It often shifts a neighborhood’s characteristics (e.g., racial/ethnic composition and household income) by adding new stores and resources in previously run-down neighborhoods.

Have you ever seen the construction of a nice, expensive high-rise apartment building in an old neighborhood of run-down duplexes? That’s gentrification. As soon as it becomes profitable, developers will create upper-class housing in lower-class neighborhoods, with the hope of attracting new residents with new money to “breathe life into the neighborhood.” This, as the article points out, leads to higher rents, mortgages, and property taxes—often more than longtime residents are able to pay.

From a business perspective, gentrification makes sense: attract the consumers that will bring in the money. And it can have some positive effects, such as lower crime rates, better business, and increased economic development in gentrified areas. But does better business justify displacing residents that have called their neighborhood home for years? I think not. Inexpensive housing is a much-needed and limited resource, and gentrification takes that resource away from those that can’t live without it. Not to mention, gentrification often has a racial dimension as well: the revamping of neighborhoods in urban areas attracts wealthier white couples and college students from the suburbs to the cities, displacing the communities of color that have existed there for years. Not good.

So, what does any of this have to do with thrifting? Well, let’s examine thrift stores in terms of need. Secondhand shopping is an inexpensive way to acquire a necessity: clothing. Many low-income families have shopped at thrift stores for years (before it was cool) as a way of saving money. In addition, people with large or unique body types often have trouble finding cute clothes that fit for reasonable prices. Thrift stores provide both size and style variety unavailable to plus-sized consumers at most traditional clothing stores. In addition, as this article from the Berkeley Economic Review points out, the poor are disproportionately more overweight than the rich, and many plus-sized consumers may rely on the low prices that thrift stores offer.

However, as I’ve mentioned, there has been a shift throughout the last 10 years in our cultural perception of thrifting, especially among Generation Z. As mentioned earlier, Goodwill is no longer the “poor man’s” store, but rather a popular place to create new looks and hang out with friends. Various social media trends have reinforced this: we young people don’t have much money, after all, so why should we pay big bucks to be trendy?  Additionally, thrifting presents an inexpensive alternative to fast fashion, an industry that has long shown to be unethical and unsustainable. Instead of buying a crop top from Forever 21, you can buy one secondhand from a thrift store for half the price. Everybody wins, right?

Well, not exactly. Culturally, thrifting has become “more refined, polite, or respectable:” gentrified. And like housing gentrification, there are some positive effects to this. For one, it’s no longer shameful to go to thrift stores to buy clothes, even if thrifted looks are the only ones you can afford. Secondly, as thrifting becomes more popular, so do donations to thrift stores, and this donation-thrifting cycle benefits everybody and keeps clothing out of landfills. (yay!) Thirdly, a lot of thrift stores (i.e. Goodwill) are nonprofits that put money into poor communities. It’s far better to support a cause that helps people rather than one that takes advantage of them.

However, thrifting does have some negative consequences that we may need to consider. Let’s not forget that secondhand clothes are the only clothes many people can afford. Upper- or middle-class teens and young adults buying thrifted clothing to be trendy may take valuable resources away from people that need them. Yes, there are a lot of clothes to choose from on that thrift store rack, but you and I both know that not everything on that rack is actually wearable. You buying that charcoal gray pencil skirt for a night on the town may prevent someone with half your income from buying that same skirt for a job interview.

In addition, buying oversized secondhand clothes takes clothing options away from people who can only fit into plus sizes. That 3XL sweater may make you look like Billie Eilish, but it also might be the only thing on the rack that someone can wear. Perhaps it’s best to leave it there for someone who needs it.

Lastly, as thrifting becomes more popular, prices go up. This is the same consequence as housing gentrification: the rising prices of formerly inexpensive resources make these resources inaccessible to the people that need them most.

I’m not here to make you feel bad for thrifting. Heck, half of my closet is stuff I’ve found at thrift stores. I’m personally under the impression that thrifting has far more positive consequences than negative ones, and I don’t think that the considerations I’ve listed here should stop us from buying secondhand clothes. 

But if we have resources like money, time, and awareness at our disposal, it’s our duty to be courteous of when and where and how we thrift so as not to take resources away from those who don’t have what we have. Maybe you can schedule your friendship thrift shop date a couple of days after the store restocks their selection. Or perhaps you could choose to avoid thrift stores in low-income areas so that residents there get the best pick of items they may need. 

The important principle to remember: what society views as “cool” and “good” is constantly changing. We must not let trends take away from people’s needs.