Editor’s note: “How ironic” is a column that aims to explore and critique one of the most recent and relevant sub-cultural phenomenons: the hipster.
It’s no secret that hipsters (whether they identify themselves as such or not) love a good thrift shop. The “thrift store chic” aesthetic has been revolving in and out of style for decades and it appears that in the 2010s, at least among the economically privileged millennials of such urban hubs as Portland, Williamsburg, Seattle, and Knoxville, it has been very much in.
Now I love a good ‘90s-era flannel, $3 overall dress, and those scuffed-up clogs as much as any other Seattle-bred, indie-music listening, and semi-pretentious English major. But as I found myself humble-bragging for the nth time about my favorite pair of jeans ($5 at Value Village!), I couldn’t help but wonder whether my thrifting habits were as innocuous as I presented them to be.
There are plenty of benefits to thrift shopping, don’t get me wrong. From an environmental standpoint, the practice of recycling clothes is beneficial. According to a 2016 Huffington Post article, Americans collectively send about “26 billion pounds of textiles and clothes” to landfills each year. If 26 billion pounds of fabric still doesn’t have you concerned, well then think of the fact that, according to a 2016 study published by Down 2 Earth Materials, it takes nylon clothing between 30 and 40 years to fully decompose. Basically, there’s a ton of clothing going to waste.
This practice of tossing lightly-worn garments stems largely from the rising fast fashion industry in which designs and trends swiftly move from designer to sweatshop to your local Forever 21, and soon to that 26 billion pound trash heap. Not only does fast fashion contribute to environmental degradation, but the industry also requires cheap and large-scale production, with that cute new pencil skirt likely being produced in sweatshops scattered across Southeast Asia and Latin America. These institutions are often hotbeds of human rights abuses, with laborers receiving dismal pay for long hours spent in dangerous working conditions.
OK, so what have we got? Fast fashion bad –– bad for the environment, bad for workers. Thrift shops, by challenging the fast fashion culture, must therefore be good and we should all shop at them all the time. Well, it’s not a bad start, I’ll concur, but there are more nuances to the situation.
Namely, as middle and upper-middle-class young adults flock to local thrift stores, are they taking away items upon which economically less-privileged individuals are reliant? When I score a sweet deal at the Goodwill on the Ave, I might be snatching away an opportunity for someone else to possess some item they might never otherwise imagine wearing. Vintage boutiques, often deemed staples of the gentrified neighborhood, offer some insight and validation into this concern.
Vintage stores typically feature articles once left for cheap in some thrift store and picked up by some trend-focused buyer, then sold in an oh-so-charming boutique for an exquisite price. If ever such a concept as gentrification by clothing were to exist, the vintage boutique would be that tech worker with the white dreads who just moved into the Central District.
What a savvy middle-class thrifter does is, in essence, not too different from that of any vintage shop: they are attaining some item for a low price and then ensuring that whoever will end up wearing said item will have been capable of affording it had it cost far more.
So should you just give up and hit up that local Urban Outfitters for a thrift shop-esque find at a higher price (which, despite that $100 tag, was still probably pieced together in some miserable factory in Bangladesh)? No.
Thrift shops such as Goodwill rely upon the middle and upper-class, as well as those of lower-classes, to shop there. Ultimately, the money you spend is going to the company and –– at least at Goodwill –– this money will be used to provide employment opportunities, not to increase the profit of the owners. In fact, Goodwill’s mission has nothing to do with “clothing the poor” or whatever an overzealous donator may imagine it to be, but “helping people in need reach their full potential through learning and the power of work.”
Now, this may not be the case of every thrift store (I’m looking at you, Value Village), so just as with all other facets of ethical consumption, you will have to do some research. The case is the same with vintage stores, in that typically they will be looking to make a profit, but it doesn’t hurt the community to shop at one, and it’s certainly better than any retail alternative.
While thrift stores often have extensive supplies of clothing, it does remain important that, provided you are capable of doing such, you donate that stylish corduroy or pair of Adidas you never seem to wear anymore. Thrift store gems will only maintain so long as there are individuals willing to donate.
Reach columnist Sophie Aanerud at email@example.com. Twitter: @thesraanerud