Thrift Shopping – What’s the Value?

Thrift Shopping – What’s the Value?


“Cannot people realize how large an income is thrift?” 

– Cicero

One of the most common phrases I hear concerning eco fashion sounds something like this…”I would love to but it’s just too expensive. I don’t have $100 for a single shirt.” Me either! And, I hear you. Due to the intrinsic nature of sustainable fashion – using biodegradable fabrics, handloomed, fair wages, fair trade and organic farming, small batch items, etc etc. the price of eco fashion does sit higher than what you find at any fast fashion retailer, for good reason.

My sister recently secured a new job which required a contemporary business wardrobe – something she hadn’t needed until now. She asked if I knew any places to buy a couple of suit pieces. I instantly started rattling on about some of my favorite ethical brands. She said “no, no, no” I have a budget of $300 for an entire wardrobe.” My immediate response was the extol the virtues of ethical fashion and why it was more important than stocking her closet full of fast fashion pieces but this got me nowhere, and left her feeling dismayed. A couple days later while combing through my local thrift store, it hit me. Of course – second-hand! Why hadn’t I thought of that earlier? It is the quickest way to transition into a more eco friendly lifestyle. And she could easily find her professional attire while staying well under budget!

But, what really is the value of thrifting? Does it honestly save you some moola while providing for your closet must-haves? And, why does it seem that thrift shopping is so popular when it has been around for as long as any of us can remember?

Thrift store, charity shop, second-hand store, and consignment shop are just a few of the names used to describe brick and mortar shops that sell used clothing and other second-hand goods including household items. There aren’t any precise records detailing the first second-hand shop but it’s safe to say they have been around for centuries. What may have started as a barter business, in many societies, may have grown into the commercialization of products with industrialization and the chance to make a steady revenue source off of unwanted goods. What is known about the rise of these particular stores comes mostly from attitudes stretching as far back as the American colonial days. Second-hand goods were seen as unclean, undependable and carried with it a heavy slant of racism. Pushed to the margins of society and economic status, many Jews took up the practice of running pawn shops which at the time, throughout the 18th & 19th centuries, were a combination of money lending and second-hand goods. Something the general public associated with vice and disavowed. But, with the influx of immigrants into the United States so too came the demand for appearing as if one “belonged”. Newly arrived immigrants, eager to fit into the American way of life, in both activity and dress, frequented Jewish second-hand shops, also known as junk stores.

While that may seem like a good launching point for the proliferation of second-hand shops it wasn’t until Christian organizations rebranded the business before they became more socially acceptable. Organizations such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill rose to prominence lending shoppers peace of mind in the face of ethnic prejudice but also work for those who otherwise may not have had any. “The Goodwill Industries takes wasted things donated by the public and employs wasted men and women to bring both things and persons back to usefulness and well-being.” As the 20th century approached, with the rise of industrialism more goods than ever were being produced at lower cost. Paired with a population swell and decreased dwelling sizes second-hand shops became more widespread and the social acceptance continued to rise. Understanding the need for marketing and branding the term thrift-store was born as a way to distance itself from the connotation of junk store and from the Jewish association. Furthermore, understanding that many women were attracted to the cleanliness, orderliness and availability of goods at department stores, many organizations rebranded the stores employing tactics such as fashion shows and repurposing items so as to appear new. With the Christian “sanitization” of the industry second-hand shops became widespread among all socioeconomic backgrounds and continued to grow throughout the 20th century keeping pace with consumer consumption.

World War II saw an emphasis put on thriftiness and charity as a way of showing one’s Patriotism but the economic boom in the 1950’s demonstrated a return to department stores that lasted for decades. Paired with the rise of fast fashion in the 1980’s and 1990’s thrift stores were somewhat pushed to the margins and in essence became a calling card for counter culture. No longer were large organizations such as The Goodwill or Salvation Army mainstream, although their revenues remained steady or continued to rise, but boutique thrift-stores came into mainstream offering each counter culture their own ‘style’. So why now have thrift-stores become so popular once again?

There are two factors which stick out the most. First, the rise of boutique second hand stores which vary from vintage depending on decade but also offer luxury goods which have become synonymous with the current consumer culture. No longer does one have to be a millionaire to afford a designer bag or coat. They simply have to wait until it hits their local store. The second factor comes with the rise of the internet. Stores have moved off the street and into every home. Accessibility becomes a simple click of the button and the opening of a package. This somewhat harkens back to the original rebranding with the need to sanitize goods. Without having to comb through a dimly lit stores, and masses of clothing, one can simply peruse online and have the item show up at their door neatly folded in a box. With the rise of online thrifting we have once again distanced ourselves from the intrinsic nature of second-hand goods while also opening the door for unique one of a kind pieces from around the world.

While both of these factors have played an enormous role in the current popularity of thrift stores the recent economic climate has also played a large roll paired with the rise in environmentalism. Data indicates consumer concern regarding the environment, especially in the fashion industry. The rise of fast fashion has created an untenable hardship on natural resources and consumers wallets. Environmental factors aside, the throwaway attitude towards clothing, no matter how inexpensively produced, ends up costing consumers more. A 2015 Forbes article found that 3.5 percent of families expenses were allocated to clothing which may not sound like a lot until you factor in the sheer bulk of what is owned. The decrease in clothing prices means we buy more at lower prices. Many of these items remain unworn, or simply gather dust. In turn, more storage space is required which leads to the organization business and need for a hundred bins to keep things organized. If organization space is just simply exhausted we turn to bigger houses, apartments or even storage facilities. In essence, as the article by Emma Johnson points out, hoarding is expensive. Shopping has become a timely and costly sport around the world.

So how can thrifting help? Putting aside the many benefits thrifting has on the environment; thrifting offers two amazing advantages: it saves you money, often up to 75% off retail prices. But that’s not the only way it saves you money. Whether you choose to browse through a brick and mortar store or online, thrifting forces you to truly focus on what you need for your wardrobe. Not everything you want is going to be readily available but, this is a good thing. Do you really need two pairs of black work pants or four button downs? However, there is never a shortage of selection as clothing is increasingly bought and donated at a breakneck speed. But, choosing well will not only help save money but will also hone your own personal style – something which has sincerely been missing with the rise of fast fashion. And, you don’t need me to tell you how dressing smartly and uniquely can help you stand out whether at home, on the streets, or even at the office.


*This article relies heavily on and paraphrases portions from ‘“Not Charity, but a Chance”: Philanthropic Capitalism and the Rise of American Thrift Stores, 1894–1930′ by Jennifer Le Zotte originally published in The New England Quarterly, Volume 86, Issue 2, June 2013 p. 169 – 195

**If you’re like me and like to nerd out over the history of the fashion industry, in particular thrift stores, I would highly recommend reading the entire article. Jennifer does a fantastic job of relaying the entire history of the emergence of American thrift stores, all of which could not be covered in this article. 

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