Thrift for Thought / by Swetha Amaresan

Even at 8:00 am, you can’t walk through Emerson College’s campus without noticing students dressed in fashion-forward garb. From checkered slacks to shiny Doc Martens to blue half-moon sunglasses, the Emerson student body is always dressed to impress.

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The phenomenon that has taken our campus by storm is thrifting. It’s not uncommon to hear two students making plans to go “thrifting” later or to hear a student compliment another’s top and receive the reply, “Oh, it’s thrifted.” As much as we love our favorite brands, like Urban Outfitters, Madewell, and ZARA, there’s something special about thrift shopping.

Marketing major Jose Garcia ‘21 sat down with me to chat about the thrifting craze. “I enjoy thrifting because it's a fun, cheap alternative to everyday shopping. You can also find awesome clothes with personality that you can't find anywhere else.”

Marketing major Danielle Finelli ‘20 agrees. She’s an avid thrift shopper as well, saying, “I really enjoy buying thrifted clothing because I love the experience of going into a thrift store and not knowing what to expect.”

Finelli continues, “Thrifting is a lot more exciting because the style of clothing is a mystery. With clothing brands, you know the type of clothes you will find. But, with thrift shopping, it’s a combination of all the donations the store receives, so there is something for everyone, and it encourages me to take more risks with fashion.”

Clearly, what attracts a lot of students to thrift stores is the thrill of discovering diamonds in the rough. What may appear as an odd assortment of colors, shapes, and sizes can reveal statement pieces that one may not find otherwise. Donning something that could’ve been worn by your grandmother and making it look trendy is exhilarating. Perhaps, that’s why one in three women shopped secondhand in 2017, according to thredUP.

The other side to the thrift store craze is, naturally, the prices.

“I love finding my favorite brands at discounted prices,” Finelli said. “So, price is a large part of why I thrift shop.”

We’d all love to seasonally adapt our wardrobes. With the help of thrift stores, students have the opportunity to change up their looks more frequently without breaking the bank. In fact, 66% of consumers thrift for higher-quality brands that they’d never pay for in full.

I, too, have enjoyed the fruits of my labor, such as on a trip to Savers, a for-profit thrift store chain. After scouring several aisles, I discovered a pair of coveted red Keds sneakers for a whopping four dollars. Deals like these make all the time and effort spent in the store worthwhile.

However, when snagging a great deal like that, I can’t help but feel uneasy and concerned. Have we turned an industry meant to provide cheaper clothing alternatives to low income people into an expensive franchise for us more privileged students who want that edgy, vintage look? By buying thrifted clothing, are we actually leaving fewer options for those who need them?

When asked those same questions, Finelli brought up a thoughtful point, “I think, before, if you bought used clothing from a thrift store there was a stigma around it about purchasing ‘dirty’ clothes. But, now, it’s trendy to buy from thrift stores, so people who cannot afford brand-name clothes don’t have to feel ashamed about buying used items. I also think it encourages people to donate their clothes. Although it is taking away clothes from people who cannot afford more, I think it’s also getting rid of the stigma and encouraging more donations.”

She makes a good point. There’s no longer a negative connotation associated with thrift shopping. The clothes are trendier, the prices are lower than ever, and there are more options. In fact, according to StarTribune, non-profit thrift stores are being less picky with donations and accepting everything donors bring. After all, there’s always someone who can find a purpose for a stained sweater, a chipped mug, or ripped bedsheets.

As much as I worry about the socioeconomic impact of thrifting, I can’t deny its environmental impact. Over 33% of women wear clothing up to five times before discarding and leave 70% of their wardrobes unworn. Thrifting can extend a garment’s life by about 2.2 years, reducing carbon, water, and waste footprints by 73%.

And, by buying thrifted clothing, we contribute less to fast fashion companies that have made the clothing industry the second largest global polluter, after the oil industry, according to EcoWatch. Manufacturing new clothing requires endless pesticides, dyes, natural resources, and even fossil fuels when they eventually ship out. In fact, it can take 5,000 gallons of water to feed enough cotton for a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. In this sense, thrifting is an eco-friendlier alternative.

An option that allows students the rush and eco-friendly choice of secondhand shopping without pulling garments away from those in need is vintage shopping.

Garcia claimed, “There are many ‘thrift’ stores, such as Garment District or Buffalo Exchange, that upsell vintage clothing to target Millennials.” These stores, better known as vintage stores, have also become popularized recently.

Unlike thrift stores, vintage stores are very choosy about what they accept from sellers. Employees closely assess the items, and, if they deem them fit, they will buy them from the sellers. At vintage stores, it’s typically easier to find something you love since the selection is hand-curated.

Vintage stores, while similar to thrift stores in their resale methods, are not at all targeted to low income individuals. Items can be equally as or more expensive than they would be in brand stores. For instance, I purchased a pair of 90s-style, high-waisted jeans for 30 dollars at a vintage store in New York City that could’ve gone for about eight dollars at a thrift store. Sometimes, I think to myself, “If they’re going to be 30 dollars, why don’t I just buy jeans that haven’t been worn?” However, along with the environmental reasons, half the fun is telling people that those cute jeans they complimented are from a vintage shop in Union Square.

On the one hand, Millennials and Generation Z individuals who purchase thrifted clothing not out of economic need but out of trendiness may quite possibly be ruining the industry for those who are in desperate need. On the other hand, the same demographic who is a culprit for impulse buying and limited clothing usage is creating positive change by choosing an environmentally-conscious substitute.

While it’s difficult to say which option is better in the long run, it’s optimistic to note that the attitude surrounding thrift shopping has completely altered. It’s no longer just an option for those in poverty but a lifestyle of hope and new finds.

Photography by Kenneth Cox and Tianna Loverde