I Quit Thrift Shopping
Admittedly, this title is a bit click-baity.
In 2020, I did quit thrift shopping, but not because I wanted to. It’s because Covid-19 made it considerably less safe to mosey about a secondhand store for hours. I did venture into my local Savers once this fall, but not being able to try things on put a major dent in my ability to discern what would fit. The three items I bought were all duds.
But…is it ethical to thrift shop?
While my reasons weren’t ethical in nature, I know a lot of people in the slow fashion niche have quit their local thrift out of concerns over gentrification. While it’s possible that thrift stores have raised prices to capture some cash from higher-income shoppers, I don’t believe that boycotting secondhand retail is the solution to this kind of problem.
Nonprofit stores are run by volunteer boards that must balance the need to make income for their causes with accessibility for shoppers. Instead of quitting thrifting, see if you can join your thrift shop’s board, or at least voice your concerns to a member. If that’s not possible, see if they publish annual reports. That’ll help you determine whether price hikes are based in simple consumer demand or real financial need. I cover this much more extensively in my Notes from a Thrift Shop Manager post.
That being said, analyzing shopping habits, even from “ethical” sources, can be a good practice.
Why quitting thrift shopping has been good for me
Anyways, this post is about how my style and shopping habits have changed in light of “quitting” thrift shopping (I am talking specifically about traditional, in-person thrifting). This post is based on a reader question from a year ago that, sadly, went unanswered until now (apologies!).
While I lament the loss of the experience of thrifting in person, there have been some noticeable benefits for me.
1 | I accumulate far less clothing
When I managed a shop – and even when I simply thrift shopped as a hobby – I had the tendency to buy basically anything that caught my eye and fit (even fit was negotiable). I could always justify a “cheap” purchase, knowing I could re-donate if it didn’t work out. But the reality is that I had an entire room full of unwanted clothing and random home goods that only made it back to the thrift store when I was forced to downsize before moving to Connecticut.
I felt guilty, overwhelmed, and out of control.
2 | I have a better sense of my personal style
I know that minimalist and sustainable fashion bloggers are constantly talking about finding their personal style, even as their consumption habits seem questionably expansive. But I can say confidently that losing access to local thrift in tandem with living through a pandemic forced a real, hard glance at what I really want to wear versus what is aspirational.
I would call myself “aesthetically generous.” I can find a way to celebrate basically any style, color story, era, and lewk. Basically, as long as it looks cool, I could convince myself I would wear it. While I can talk myself down when shopping online or in a conventional store, the thrift shop poses a real risk: lots of styles and low prices. I would come home with a cottagecore vest, a leather jacket, a mod dress, and a striped t-shirt.
The reality is that I was only really going to wear the striped t-shirt (my truest sartorial essence is a striped t-shirt).
3 | I spend less money
Imagine my horror when I was putting together the year-end report at the thrift shop I managed and discovered that *I* was the most prolific shopper of the year. While spending $3.50 an item does feel like a good deal, the adage “a penny saved is a penny earned” couldn’t be more apt than in the context of thrifting.
In 2017, I spent over $700 at my thrift shop (I also shopped at other thrift shops that year). If I spent, on average, $5.00 per item, that means I bought 140 things! Now that shopping is more difficult, I spend far less money on clothing, and what I do buy is more likely to get worn.
4 | I am making peace with what I have
Humans are wired for novelty. Especially in Covid times, we are particularly starved for novelty. While I certainly haven’t stopped wanting things, my school-from-home lifestyle and lack of consumerist pastimes have essentially sucked the fun out of buying random things for no good reason.
I live and work in a one-bedroom apartment with hardly any storage space, so over-consuming becomes physically oppressive. While there’s nothing exciting about the old cashmere sweater I’m wearing right now, it is kind of fun that it matches my scarf. I am trying to find novelty in color combinations rather than in new goods.
5 | I am benefiting from considered acquisition
Less pressure to thrift has made it possible for me to ask what I really want instead of settling for what’s available. I have been so clothing-focused that I’ve put off replacing my carcinogenic saucepans for the almost eight years. I found some lovely Revere Ware ones on Ebay that I’ve added to my Watch list.
The process is slower and less spontaneous, which means lots of things I thought I wanted are quickly forgotten. And other things – like a quilt I almost bought – were able to replaced by a family heirloom from my grandma instead.
Will I thrift again?
I will absolutely venture back to thrift shops when it’s safe to do so. But I’m glad that some of the hunger and the spark has been driven out of me over the past several months. Thrifting, it turns out, had been a psychological replacement for the fast fashion consumption of my college years.
Without it, I have to face my feelings of escapism and unhindered want with healthier habits. For one, I’m cooking more, which has become a great joy. And I’m trying to become less fixated on pleasing others.
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.
Tuesday 26th of January 2021
Great post, I have always thought of myself as 'not a shopper' until the charity shops closed and I realised how much I will browse in them and also pick up items that I will resew (but generally more than I can sew) - to the point of hoarding. Also since the lockdown here, At least when we had a short reopening before christmas here, the few pieces I did get were worn as I think I was concious I was purchasing items to pretty much hoard!! I am re-reading 'the curated closet' as I am now clearing out some of the items from my sewing room that even if I did remake them, they no longer would be suitable for me!
Monday 25th of January 2021
This was helpful! I have been reflecting on this as I list things on poshmark. Most of which were...bought on Poshmark. Makes me wonder if it's easier to acquire and let things go knowing they're secondhand!
Monday 25th of January 2021
It's complicated because, of course secondhand is better, but it doesn't address the psychological tendency to over-shop. I haven't been able to resell anything since the pandemic began because people steal packages from my lobby if I try carrier pickup and it hasn't seemed safe to go to the post office unless absolutely necessary, so that has definitely impacted my overall shopping habits, as well.