Culture  That’s a bargain (or is it?)

The ethics of thrift shopping

Since the Victorian era, fashion has been influenced by the enduring capitalist creed dictating temporary and short-lived styles. Times changed, and fashion followed suit. In the 1960s, a new fashion subculture emerged. Perhaps consumers were simply politicizing against the clothing industry, or maybe they just couldn’t see themselves wearing the trendy mainstream styles. In any case, the trend for adopting past looks seems to be here to stay. But many consumers are not satisfied by the way in which the fashion industry re-appropriates previous eras’ distinct styles. Rather, what has emerged is a desire to possess these styles in the most authentic way possible – getting the original pieces themselves. Our generation has become fixated on the desire for second-hand clothing.

What are the politics behind this newfound fad? By rejecting mass-produced clothing and turning to second-hand retailers to achieve a ‘thrifty’ fashion look, people often find themselves breaching a clothing market that is intended to provide for lower-income people. For more well-off young students, who could afford to shop at H&M and the like, there is a strong claim that we are taking these clothes away from someone who may actually not be able to buy a brand new getup. Next time you’re standing in front of a row of worn-yet-adorable knit sweaters, you may want to ask yourself whether these are items you really need. What may appear to be just a bargain, or a free-for-all, represents much-needed affordable clothing for others.

In Montreal, many of these stores, such as Renaissance, act as aid organizations, intended for lower-income people to purchase clothing. Not many people would sleep in a homeless shelter or go to a soup kitchen because they enjoy the stay or the taste of the food – so why is it so different with second-hand shopping? The ethics of thrift are actually more complicated than they may first seem. For many, the attraction to second-hand clothing is not just a fashion statement but also a political one, given the associated reduction of waste. Second-hand clothing and other items provide a more sustainable way to consume, and deviates these clothes away from landfills, as well as helping to reduce the consumption of new items.

But do these environmentally conscious people have a better claim to shopping for second-hand attire than the person who solely tokenizes ‘thriftiness’ to fit the trend? The most ethical path for the second-hand devotees would be to look into different second-hand stores to understand where their profits are going and how they make their revenue before deciding it’s worth spending money there.

Both Value Village and Renaissance offer more affordable clothing then retail brands, but they have very different end goals. Value Village, contrary to popular belief, is in fact not a charity. Value Village is a private for-profit organization that retains approximately 60 per cent of the value of donated goods. People can still make a positive influence by donating clothing, as Value Village makes bulk purchase agreements with local charities – but the impact is relatively small. There has also been controversy over the increasing price of merchandise over the past decade, an indicator of the influence middle-class shoppers are having on the second-hand industry. Any for-profit business will increase their prices if they have the necessary demand. Value Village’s economic nature does not appear to be in touch with that of lower-income people but, rather, an attempt to build a middle class clientele. Shoppers should ask themselves whether the 40 per cent that Value Village donates to charity outweighs the more dubious end goals of the chain.

On the other hand, Renaissance provides clothing for lower-income people while giving back to the community. 100 per cent of Renaissance’s profits go to their community-based employment-training program, which trains and employs people at higher risk of unemployment. The ethics within the store itself are more forthright, but can the same be said about Renaissance shoppers? Renaissance offers consumers of a variety of incomes the opportunity to shop in a more ethical manner, because although they are still buying cheaper goods, the company depends on these profits in order to maintain their community building programs, while also encouraging customers to donate clothing themselves.

Unfortunately for all ‘vintage’ aficionados, vintage boutiques are perhaps the most unethical way to buy second-hand-clothing. Although vintage shops offer no charitable guise and are often openly directed at consumers with greater purchasing power, their merchandise largely comes from the second-hand stores discussed above. Many vintage stores search through second-hand for the more marketable (read: trendy) pieces, then sell them at a pretty exorbitant price (considering the fact that they’re used). Vintage stores have found their niche as a less time-consuming and swankier alternative to second-hand shops, while making profits off of second-hand stores’ charitable efforts. So how can we ethically shop second-hand? There is no reason why shoppers cannot turn a recreational hobby into a more ethical practice by keeping a couple of observations in mind. Shopping at a second-hand store with a charitable intention often goes hand-in-hand with actually donating to second-hand stores. If possible, shoppers can donate items with a greater value then the ones they are buying in order to give the store a helping hand. The bottom line is that shoppers need to be aware of where their money is going, whether it’s to a downtown retail giant or a second-hand boutique. With a conscientious approach, it is possible to make thrifting both stylishly rewarding and ethical.