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The Truth About Supporting Secondhand: Notes from a Thrift Shop Manager

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A few months ago, the ever thoughtful Kamea of the Green Dreamer Podcast interviewed me on the subject of how to thrift like a pro and support the second-hand economy to grow

I love when people engage in conversation with me on this topic because, as most of you know, I manage a thrift shop as my day job. Being able to share niche-specific knowledge that relatively few people possess in a day-to-day way is really fun for me, even better when it relates back to the work I do on StyleWise.

Today I've decided to share the notes I wrote based around Kamea's questions. This is not a transcript - if you want to listen to the podcast episode, click here - but rather my extended comments on each topic written out before the interview. Let me know if you'd like clarity around anything!

1 | What first got you personally into/interested in the secondhand world?

I actually got into secondhand as a shopper as a freshman in college.

My friend, Mary, and I had a class together on Thursdays and afterwards we would jump in her car and head to Goodwill. As a lifelong sales shopper, the low prices and chance for creativity were overwhelming and thrilling to me.

I started selling vintage clothing as a side gig while still in college, right after etsy took off. When my husband got into a program in Charlottesville, there was a thrift shop management job open and I applied. So I’ve been wearing secondhand for over ten years and selling it for around 8. Now, as someone interested in sustainability, it has taken on even greater meaning as a good environmental choice.

2 | What are some of the biggest misconceptions you feel people have regarding what happens to clothes after they get recycled/tossed out/donated?

People who donate to the thrift shop are often under the impression that we will be able to sell or give away all of their clothes as viable secondhand options. This is simply not true for a few reasons:
  • Styles change and become less desirable over time
  • Depending on the demographics of the town, donor clothes may not appeal stylistically or practically to our customer base
  • Cheap, fast fashion clothes, especially teen clothing, is almost always ratty and falling apart by the time it gets to us, and thus has no resale or wearable value
  • Sizing has changed drastically due to vanity sizing and a lot of people, women especially, will not buy an item if the size marked is larger than their perceived or contemporary size

Unfortunately, I’ve heard the argument, “well, homeless people will wear it” from a variety of donors over the years. And that’s problematic for a few reasons:
  • Practically speaking, homeless people need clothing that is durable and in especially good condition because housing insecurity means they have fewer options to avoid difficult weather and living conditions
  • It does NOTHING for a person’s dignity to tell them they are stuck wearing the clothes no one else was willing to wear or buy

People who send clothes to recycling centers are sometimes operating under similar misconceptions about some far-off person in need making use of what they’ve given, or they assume that their rattier items will be turned into carpets or reworked into new textiles.

While this is occasionally a possibility, it’s extremely limited, and made more difficult by globalization, as centers that would do this processing are no longer local.

3 | Can you walk us through the various paths a piece of clothing can go upon disposal? What determines this (e.g., where you toss things out, the condition of the clothing, the brand name if that matters, the styles...)?

Most people have about three options:
  • Donate or swap 
  • Send to a local textiles recycling center
  • Throw it in the trash

Donate It

If you donate the item, you should ask yourself the question, “Would I or someone I know PAY to buy this garment on the secondhand market?”
  • If the answer is no, don’t automatically donate it. Call ahead to see if they have the infrastructure to send it to a textiles recycling center. If they don't, the thrift shop or charity will most likely have to pay a service to throw it away, and that doesn’t help anyone. 
  • If it’s yes, donate it. 
  • If it’s maybe - like if it’s a vintage piece or cashmere with a small moth hole - try taking it to a locally run thrift shop and asking the manager what they do with these pieces. At the shop I manage, we will put out high quality items “as is” or sell older wool and cashmere to felters.

Textiles Recycling

Some places have independent textiles recycling facilities that are open to the public. My area, Charlottesville, does not. We sometimes send items to a regional charity that claims to do some textiles baling and recycling just in case.

Often what we think of as textiles recycling centers are actually balers who ship large palettes of clothing overseas. Countries like Rwanda plan to fully ban these imports in 2019 because the influx of cheap, secondhand goods competes with local production. I've heard more recently that secondhand economies in other countries are thriving and really doing a service for people who work within them, but that depends largely on the specific country. It's difficult to generalize.

Some large thrift chains like Goodwill have the infrastructure to sell off unusable garments for recycling, with a small portion being made into things like insulation, but many thrift shops will have to throw these items away.

Trashing It

Before trashing it, think about whether or not you could use it in some other form.
  • My husband and I have pet rats who like to cuddle in old cloth, so I give old t-shirts and other unsaleable items to them. 
  • You can also cut old cotton into cleaning rags.

In terms of what we accept…

People are brand conscious, but this varies by demographic and location.

At the shop where I work, we sell a lot of Chico’s, J. Jill, LL Bean, J. Crew, and Talbots, not only because that’s what people like in this area, but because these brands tend to use higher quality fabrics and sewing, and people who shop secondhand regularly become experts in identifying that sort of thing.

For people who buy from indie and ethical brands, I actually recommend you resell on sites like Ebay and Poshmark because local thrift buyers aren’t likely to know the brand, and this limits its ability to be resold. I often hear people suggest that diverting any amount of clothing through the resale market rather than donating it hurts low income people who “need” rather than simply want these things, but low income people are just as brand aware as anyone else, and they’ll purchase or select what they’re familiar with, which for the majority of the population, regardless of income, are department store, big box store, and international brands.

4 | As thrift shopping becomes more popular, some shops are raising their prices. This seems counter to the historic goals of thrift shops to provide low cost clothing to people in need. What are your thoughts on that?*

I'm of two minds on this one. For one, I think we need to consider inflation before launching into this question. The shop I run has maintained almost the same price list for 27 years in spite of the value of the dollar almost halving in that time period, which means that, in real economic terms, we've actually lowered our prices. In that same time period, the cost of new clothing has gone down thanks to a removal of certain trade embargoes, allowing lots of cheap, sweatshop made goods to enter the American market. And then you have to factor in worker wage stagnation over the past 30-40 years, particularly for hourly wage workers who are most likely to be in need of affordable, secondhand goods.

So when someone suggests that, say, $6.00 is too much for a secondhand blouse, they're speaking to a number of systemic and economic issues that aren't really about the thrift shop. 

My shop has been very hesitant to increase prices even in the face of increased facilities costs (and my own need to make a livable wage) because we know that people rely on us for discounted goods. It becomes important to weigh all of these issues and provide a solution that does the best for everyone, in terms of ensuring a viable business model and meeting community needs. I have definitely seen some local shops go overboard, prioritizing fundraising for their charities over accessibility. But it's actually a hard question to answer and the ethics are relative to the specific needs and interests of the shop.

The secondhand economy's woes are often symptomatic of much larger issues, and I think it's worthwhile to trace these issues back to their roots.

5 | It's great that more and more people are shopping second hand - either exclusively, or to supplement their shopping habits. But if fast fashion continues to churn out cheap clothes at exponential rates, which means just more cheap clothes being dumped into the secondhand world, how can this become circular/more sustainable?

This one is complicated from the thrift shop side of things, because it’s just a reality that on-trend, newer items will sell quicker than older items, and so in a way we’re codependent on these companies that churn out new stuff all the time.

The solution is two-fold, but both are about quality…
  • Buy high quality, used things before buying new. Part of overconsumption - there’s a psychological part, too, but that’s not all of it - is that our clothing isn’t satisfying. It doesn’t last and it’s too trend driven to sustain our needs. So I advocate “shopping secondhand first” for the best quality things you can find, either online or at local thrift shops.
  • If you can’t find it used, buy the highest quality NEW thing you can afford that suits your personal style. Pay attention to things like the strength and consistency of the weave, the seams, the sewing quality, how it fits you. This will ensure that, even if the item is a dud, it will be able to continue on the secondhand market. I have been a vocal critic of Thredup’s new incorrectly named “Remade” line, but it will be interesting to see if they can prove the concept.

I would also recommend that everyone do the mental work to understand why they are drawn to shop and what their true personal taste is.

I recommend The Wonder Wardrobe course by Daria Andronescu and Tara Button’s book, A Life Less Throwaway. They helped me a lot.

6 | What final actionable tips do you have for us as individuals in terms of A) how we can maintain the value in our existing clothes as much as possible, B) dispose of them responsibly so they can be re-used, and C) support the secondhand ecosystem to keep growing and help the fashion system go circular? 

  1. Pay attention to care labels, line dry when possible, and fold things that may stretch if stored on hangers. Use cedar to avoid moth holes!
  2. Either use the item for as long as possible or find the best market for resale, whether that’s online or at a local thrift shop.
  3. Consider if there are quilters or other crafters who may want unsaleable things for upcycling.
  4. Wear the heck out of your secondhand finds and tell everyone you bought them secondhand. This helps further destigmatize secondhand fashion and makes the experience fun and relatable. Don’t buy new trend pieces that don't suit your longterm style, especially when they’re made out of cheap polyesters and other synthetics.

7 | What trends are you seeing related to secondhand shopping that make you most hopeful right now?

It’s no longer stigmatized! People of all ages and demographic makeups are shopping secondhand these days, and that’s a good sign not only for sustainability but for community building. I love working at a thrift shop because it’s one of the most diverse spaces you can find in my little Southern town.

Greater accessibility through online platforms and apps is great, too.

And it doesn’t hurt that we have a more democratized fashion scene that allows for people to express themselves in all sorts of ways, which makes vintage clothing and used goods more attractive than they used to be. All the teenagers are buying up clothes from the 90s, for instance. And I’ve gotten really into 1980s winter coats.

Any other questions? Ask in the comments.

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*Kamea asked this question on the EWC threads at a later date and I wanted to respond to it here

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