Shopping second hand helps fight fast fashion, but with the rise of online resale, does buying vintage really stitch the gap between poverty and sustainability?
Joss Arnott // Staff Writer
There’s a certain magic to thrift shopping. I can still remember the first T-shirt I picked out at Value Village as a kid. My Dad let my sister and I each pick out something to buy. My sister bought a bronze grail with a single word written on it: Greg. I found a bright blue shirt, which had the words “just be glad I’m not your kid” written on it in the most horrific red font I have ever seen. Even then, I realized how preciously tacky that T-shirt was, and I loved it.
Thrift shopping has become increasingly popular over the last few years, and because of this, prices soared, meaning good finds are few and far between. The new faces of the resale economy are vintage stores operating on massive websites like Thread Up and even Instagram storefronts. “There have been huge changes in all aspects of the industry,” says Julian Goto, an alumni of Capilano’s business program and a former independent reseller. “When I started thrifting, I might have been the only younger person in the entire Value Village.”
The thrift industry is on track to becoming a 64 billion dollar industry by 2024. “Resale is exploding,” reads a report from Forbes. Of that projected $64 billion, over half is attributed to the emerging resale market. It’s important to realize that resale isn’t Thrifting with a capital T. It’s an up-sale; people hunt through thrift stores, search the dump, or buy from other resellers to find the perfect items, then they sell these pieces at a massive markup in price. “I think the vintage clothing industry will continue to grow and expand,” says Goto. “I think it’s just getting started.”
Thrift shopping wasn’t always about sweet scores or tacky tees—it began with resellers like the Salvation Army and Goodwill at the turn of the twentieth century. While the buying and selling of used goods is an ancient practice, this was something new. Goodwill, and other businesses like it, combined good Christian values, philanthropy, and the American dream to create something reminiscent of the modern-day thrift store. They succeeded by copying department store models, branding ‘thrifting’ as an act of charity and offering goods that were both clean and cheap. This slowly removed some of the stigma from resale that had plagued the practice for centuries. These stores were also a pseudo-gateway into American capitalism for the lower class, especially immigrants who couldn’t afford to shop at traditional retail stores.
Throughout the twentieth century, the reselling industry continued to grow and adapt, from flea markets in 1930s New York to the 90s grunge scene in Seattle. In her book From Goodwill to Grunge, Jennifer Le Zotte relates early flea markets to Dadaism: “these anti-consumer, consumer venues were roughly analogous to ‘anti-art’ art movements of the time such as Dada or surrealism.” Over the course of a century, vintage as a brand identity slowly began to emerge. Yet wherever vintage clothing appears in history, it’s always seen as a sign of individualism and counterculture. “Reacting against perceived democratization of fashion, ‘vintage clothing’ became a sort of brand,” says Le Zotte in her book, “one that distinguished its elite wearer from the presumably conformist middle class.”
It seems that vintage always comes in waves, a sign of rebellion or poverty. “The change over the past decade is crazy when I actually think about it,” says Goto. “When I started, people were still weird about buying a used vintage item. I had to ensure that I washed it and it was sanitary and all that, even pre-COVID.” Even today, when you go thrift shopping you’re looking for the diamond in the rough. The stigma surrounding resale has existed for a long time. Back before businesses like the Salvation Army revolutionized the industry, resale was primarily run by Jewish immigrants. These immigrants sold their wares in pawnshops and from pushcarts. Resale was seen as something shameful thanks to heavy anti-semitism, to the point where a story called “The Blue Silk” was run in a local New York paper. The story involves a young woman buying a blue dress from a Jewish-run pawn shop. The woman is publicly shamed for wearing a used dress, she then contracts smallpox from the dress and promptly dies. Even after thrift shopping was turned into a Christian enterprise, the purchasing of used clothing was still seen as shameful by those of the upper and middle class. Only those who couldn’t afford the latest fashions stooped to shopping at thrift stores. Capitalism allows for no pride in poverty. While the resale industry was modernized in the 1900s, it was still associated with the poor until very recently.
In the last five years or so, thrift shopping has gone about something of a renaissance. History churns on repetition as thrifting is thrust into the mainstream once again. “I don’t go to Value Village much anymore,” says Goto, “but I can guarantee there will be loads of young kids shopping these days. They know what they’re looking for and they know what it sells for.”
It’s hard to go anywhere, online or in real life, without seeing a pair of mom jeans or a ripped jacket from the ’80s. While supporting the resale industry is a good thing, there’s still an ethical dilemma that comes along with thrifting; the impact it has on the people that the stores were actually started for. Prices are rising in thrift stores across the continent; coats that used to go for a few dollars are quickly becoming a lot more expensive. “In the past year alone, there has been a major uptick in new sellers,” said Marria Busch, who runs an online resale business called Rag and Bone Sisters Vintage. “It is always good to have more people saving items, the downside is it makes it hard for the average person to find fun stuff for a great price,” Busch added.
While the rising resale economy is bad for the lower class, it’s good for the environment. The resale industry is, in many ways, the antithesis of fast fashion. Fast fashion is a new innovation of the retail industry that places new styles above all else; new clothing designs get created and shipped to stores in as little as five weeks. Brands like H&M, The Gap, Uniqlo, Fashion Nova, Urban Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret and Zara capitalize on trends on the fly. In the last two decades, the fast fashion fad has exploded—clothes made to be worn once and then promptly disposed of, made cheap and sold cheap. The problem is that fast fashion isn’t cheap. Globalization lets fashion labels outsource labour to developing countries for a fraction of the cost. Unsafe working environments and low pay are just a few of the shining pillars that support the industry. You don’t pay the real price for fast fashion, someone else does.
Even if you were to set aside the deplorable ethics of fast fashion’s effect on workplaces, the environmental damage caused by the fashion industry is so massive it’s actually hard to quantifiably grasp. According to a report by the Ellen McArthur Foundation, it’s estimated that “a full garbage truck of clothes is burned or sent to a landfill every second.” Waste isn’t the only environmental problem. Water is a huge issue. The Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group put out a report in 2017 that shows the fashion industry consumed 79 billion cubic meters of water in a single year, “enough to fill nearly 32 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.” The group also estimates that this number will increase by another 50 percent by 2030.
For consumers who aren’t interested in supporting fast fashion, thrifting is a viable solution. Thrift shopping is a great way to support local businesses, shop responsibly, and scratch that capitalist itch without giving into fast fashion. “To me, it’s really a ‘multiple bird, one stone’ industry,” says Goto. “The customer bought a vintage piece from me—this keeps money out of the fast-fashion, sweatshop machine, plus I get to eat—I kept something out of the dump, the customer has a unique item, and ironically this used garment will last longer, as vintage sewing and fabrication methods have eroded over time in the name of profits.”
Discovering that perfect piece among the racks is what’s always made thrift shopping so special. “My favourite part is the hunt of finding great pieces in thrift stores, garage sales and auctions,” said Busch, “then seeing them find new people to love them for another generation.”
Despite charitable beginnings, the art of the resale has morphed into a for-profit behemoth. Rising prices show that vintage has quickly become a commodity, but the century-old stigma surrounding the resale industry isn’t gone –– it’s just become stratified. Upscale vintage stores and online marketplaces have made thrifting more approachable by separating the rich from the poor. Shopping second hand helps fight fast fashion, but the ones who pay the real price of vintage’s popularity are the people who rely on thrift stores for affordable clothing.
In the immortal words of Run-DMC, “It’s tricky.”