Hard Lessons from the Thrift Shop

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Hard Lessons from the Thrift Shop

I became the manager of a church-affiliated thrift shop in 2014. I ended up working there for 5 years. I thought I knew what the challenges would be. I thought I had a grip on the industry.

But I’ve learned a lot: about consumerism, about prejudice, about deeply held, deeply misinformed ideas about poverty and giving. For the sake of clarity (I tend to ramble without a clearly defined topic), I’ve grouped what I’ve learned into three categories:

Lesson 1: People buy too much stuff. 

One full day was spent sorting through Girls’ clothing size 7/8 that had been donated by a single family. When we receive toys, we typically receive them three garbage bags at a time.

I walked up to the front door this morning to discover 8 full bags of junk and an old TV scattered around the porch (please note that we only accept donations during open hours and we don’t accept TVs; thanks, buddy). I ask “WHY?” so many times a day, it’s practically a mantra. What the heck are we doing?

Lesson 2: Donating eases consumer guilt to our detriment. 

Though thrift shops are a great resource and a great means of raising funds for charity, they’ve also become a justification for over-consumption.

Judging by the types of things we get in on a regular basis, it’s clear that people give things to us so that they don’t have to feel bad about throwing them away. But, really, what are we going to do with jeans with a hand sized hole in the crotch? We’re forced to throw it away since you weren’t willing to.

Lesson 3: People massively undervalue the lives of people less fortunate than them. 

This is the saddest part of my job. At least once a week, someone says something terrible about poor or homeless people. One week, someone was angry that I gave one of our “nice shirts” to a woman using a voucher to get clothes for her son.

Today a woman exclaimed, “Homeless people don’t care if their clothes look bad!” Maybe this is lost on a lot of people, but it’s our responsibility to acknowledge the innate dignity of everyone. Part of that is giving to others as we would have them give to us. 

It pains me to think that we would save the best for ourselves and let the “poor people” have our discards. It bothers me that our thrift shop structure nearly requires us to send the crappy clothing overseas because we hate the thought of throwing it away.

This must stop. It all has to stop: the buying, the discarding of things and people.

Charity shops are wonderful. They’re a happy place where goods can be re-used and re-loved. But they simply can’t solve issues of character.

It’s up to us to buy less and care more. It’s up to us to carefully consider the repercussions of our actions as consumers and, more importantly, as people.

P.S. The post, Dear World: Let’s Stop Giving Our Crap to the Poor, inspired me to write this post. Give it a read!

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. I always assumed with Goodwill that they meant, "Shop at Goodwill, donate, repeat," which isn't a terrible idea, really. Thrift shops are the great equalizer. Everyone who comes in has the same relationship with the thrift shop – they're a potential customer. So it's silly that we treat some people better than others.

  2. Yeah. We leave it up to the donor to itemize their donations for tax purposes, but we often get rid of half of what they've given us. It's really terrifying how much goes to waste and how little people care.

  3. This is right on! I get so irritated when I hear Goodwill's "Shop, Donate, Repeat" campaign. It's promoting the completely wrong mindset. They don't need to promote consumerism to get people to donate.I used to volunteer with a homeless ministry that served meals and distributed clothing. I donated some of my clothes to their closet, including a pair of really nice jeans that were in great condition that I just didn't wear that often. I remember having a crisis about whether it was "wasting" the jeans to donate them to a population who potentially wouldn't be able to take care of them very well. I felt better about it when I ended up giving them to girl who was around my age and size—there weren't a lot of smaller-size clothes available, so I was glad to have contributed something that might actually fit her. The whole experience of volunteering there stretched me a lot in how I thought about people who are homeless.

  4. Catherine Kowalik Harper

    You make so many good points. I saw this attitude at a food pantry, too. A man once drove up and donated the contents of his freezer, which was mostly very old frozen meat, past the expiration date. He got a tax deduction and we threw away the food because it wasn't safe to eat. Just because someone has less than you doesn't mean they deserve your trash.

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