Re-purchasing and re-using materials have always been at the core of circular fashion. This model is slowly replacing the linear one based on disposing of used clothing. Second-hand shopping is on the rise, and it's certainly contributing to fast fashion's demise – as 2 out of 5 thrifters are substituting secondhand goods for fast fashion purchases. There are numerous advantages to thrifting – it is unquestionably better for your wallet and the environment. According to ThredUp 2021 Resale Report, buying used clothing reduces carbon footprint by 82% and saves both energy and water use. It all seems too perfect – so why has buying and selling used garments become a societal issue?
In recent years, many economic events, such as the pandemic and high inflation, forced people to change their habits and lifestyles. Thrifting in large numbers is driving up costs and reducing the availability of things in second-hand stores. Because of its growing popularity, disadvantaged residents in the area are unable to obtain affordable clothing. For some of those people, this is the only way of acquiring a new wardrobe. The issue is how upper- and middle-class consumers or those who buy large quantities of used clothing for resale are contributing to the gentrification of thrift stores. As a result, the prices of items go up, potentially pushing many who were previously dependent on the second-hand clothing industry to cheap fast-fashion retailers. This exactly neglects the entire purpose of the resale industry.
The rise of vintage clothing
Fashion trends are constantly making a comeback, which is set by the 20-year rule - it takes 20 years for a trend to die and then resurface. But buying vintage has not always been trendy – so when exactly has it started to be so? It’s hard to pinpoint one event – however, the hippies can be considered trendsetters in that matter. They started revamping old clothing in the 1970s. Ever since, second-hand shops have been emerging – and stopped being perceived as a go-to destination for people with low-income.
The term ‘vintage’ itself arrived in the 1980s. Vintage garments were beginning to be recognized as unique items, whose value could go up in the future. This mindset caused the shortage of vintage pieces – and a switch in the retail industry. Sellers started to imitate vintage styles in up-to-date clothing – called "repro", which is a disparaging term among the vintage community. Nowadays many fast fashion brands use this procedure to allure new customers. Although no matter how much they try, they keep forgetting one thing - people turn to vintage clothing in a search for special pieces. Clothing found in fast fashion is homogeneous and easily accessible. Vintage fashion, on the other hand, seems timeless - it makes you stand out from the crowd and serves as a way of self-expression.
Old but gold
There has always been a difference between second-hand and vintage shops. In second-hands, clothes are donated, and people have to sort through them to find a piece they like. Usually, that is not a smooth process, as it takes time. For a thing to be considered second-hand, it must have been previously owned by at least one person. In vintage shops, clothes are selected and usually in better condition than in second hands. However – as we know, time is money – so the mark-up on items is higher, as the filtering has already been done. When it comes to vintage, not just any item can be considered such. According to industry standards, an object is vintage when it is over 20 years old – such criterion does not apply to second hands (Murray, 2019). Furthermore, the price of a vintage item is influenced by its condition, material, and brand.
The rebirth of vintage clothing in recent years can be partially attributed to the fact that many celebrities have been wearing vintage in public. This has helped underscore the stereotype that wearing old and looking completely modern is possible. With the rise of YouTube tutorials and Pinterest boards, going back in time has never been easier. Vintage shops moved online, to make the process of searching less daunting. Portals like Vinted, eBay or Depop serve as a way for everybody to be involved in reselling. Such innovations don’t come without a cost - an increase in demand for second-hand products as reselling thrift store finds becomes more popular, allowing sellers to raise their prices. Because of the insanely high-profit margins, low-income second-hand consumers have been hurt by the popularization of thrifting.
The presence of wealthier people in urban districts is referred to as gentrification (Hubbard, 2016). It occurs in areas that have certain characteristics that make them appealing to live in. The convenience, diversity, and energy of urban districts, as well as the availability of affordable housing, are all incentives for more privileged people. New companies and amenities are frequently established to serve these newcomers, such as public transportation or trendy overpriced burger spots.
Gentrification is frequently used negatively, implying that wealthy foreigners are displacing underprivileged communities who oftentimes lived in the area for generations. It not only increases rents and property values but also changes the district's character and culture. Landlords raise rents to match what these newcomers can afford, evicting the existing residents. However, the process has some useful features - it increases investments in districts and helps economic prosperity. While those changes may seem positive at first, only the privileged benefit from them - long-term residents become economically and socially isolated. While it is mostly used in terms of demographics, its impact can be measured in terms of second-hand and vintage items.
The core of buying second hand at its beginning was to make a statement as well as to contradict the post-Second World War boom of excessive consumerism. It seems like the middle and upper class acquired all the fine clothes, leaving those who can only afford second-hand with little choice. However, those same thrift stores now have prices that are equivalent to regular stores. In the end, poorer people are left with either cheap fast-fashion finds, which are unsustainable, or unwanted second-hand clothing.
What is even worse – the thrifting trend inspired the ‘upcycling’ industry. Its presence is mostly visible on the internet. Resellers browse through second-hand shops to find clothes with the sole purpose of re-selling them at higher prices online. Not to mention that internet resellers contribute to the shipping footprint and utilize non-sustainable packing materials, diluting the advantages of not buying fast fashion. The more sustainable option for purchasing has become above budget for low-income families around the world.
Due to these developments in the second-hand market, the environmental case for thrifting may be called into doubt, especially now that the market is flooded with fast-fashion items. The current linear model of fashion creates a disparity in what is truly perceived to be vintage – some sellers label items from the previous season as vintage. The low-cost, low-quality clothing means that the item will most likely not last more than a year or two before being disposed of. It is still better to donate clothes than throw them away, but it certainly makes the search for vintage gems harder. Because of that, the gentrification of vintage, or second-hand has given a resurrection to fast fashion. If the cost of purchasing an item in a shop such as H&M is the same as second-hand, what is the point of purchasing used stuff?
As pessimistic as it sounds, ethical consumerism comes to brighten up the picture. At its most basic level, it is the practice of buying items and services that are created in a way that minimizes social and/or environmental harm while avoiding products and services that are regarded to be harmful to society or the environment (Igd, 2007). Many firms take pride in their ethical mission, which allows them to connect with customers based on style and value; doing good is a bonus. When you buy sustainable items you're notifying firms that their customers care about them - that there's a market for them.
So, what are the options? When it comes to purchasing, is there a right way to be ethical?
Firstly, it is always good to know where your money goes - many thrift stores help great causes, such as the fight against cancer or poverty, but some are attempting to profit from the new market. One of the good solutions is to shop locally – and support ethical businesses. Donating garments, you do not need is also a way of showing support. Rather than considering sustainability as a fashion trend to follow, we could be more helpful if we were aware of the factors that promote second-hand purchases, similar to how fast fashion is criticized. Do you have any thrift stores in your neighbourhood that are within your budget, but not at the lowest cost? This helps shoppers on a budget to still afford high-quality items.
Thrifting has become a global revolution – it has helped reduce the human impact on Earth, but, on the other hand, it has deepened the divisions between classes. It may seem as if there is nothing to be done to aid this problem – but, once again, everyday solutions may make a big difference.
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