Thrifting is a practice that has existed for decades, but its acceptance has changed over the years. When thrift shopping initially began, it didn’t receive the same love and celebration that it gets today. Many people saw it as entirely unsanitary to purchase clothes from thrift stores. This was primarily due to how many consumers frowned on buying used clothing.
Over time, we can notice the shift in acceptance. Many young people are even advocating for thrift items. So, why is thrifting so popular now? In this article, we’ll examine the rise of thrift shopping. This includes peeling the layers of the fashion industry, consumption patterns, style preferences, and of course, climate change issues.
Thrifting, also known as thrift shopping or secondhand shopping, has existed for decades. Simply put, thrifting or thrift shopping is the practice of purchasing secondhand or used items from stores, either physical or online.
The idea is to make purchases at cheap rates while finding unique pieces you wouldn’t otherwise find at regular stores. At thrift stores, you’ll find gently used items or, what many people call, pre-loved items.
Different people have their reasons for choosing thrifting as an alternative to fast fashion. By purchasing secondhand clothing or home goods, you can save money, find unique pieces, and reduce your carbon footprint.
Many individuals and families rely on local thrift stores to find clothing at affordable prices. In this sense, for many, thrifting is what they can afford as opposed to being a popular way to purchase or find items.
Thrift stores have become a sanctuary for many people who want to live on a budget while living sustainably. There has been a growing consciousness of the negative impact of fast fashion on the environment. As a result, many people recognize the importance of buying used items.
This reduces the clothing waste in landfills by giving clothes a second life. Also, it reduces the constant need to produce new clothing. Continuous production contributes to water waste and greenhouse gas emissions. In a way, we could say thrifting is just a way of naturally repurposing or recycling clothing.
You’ll find many young adults in thrift stores searching for quality pieces that match their styles. Thrifting exists in many forms. We have organized charity or thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army. There are also many open flea markets and garage sales where conscious consumers can find quality pieces.
Although secondhand clothing is probably the most popular, you can find other items like used furniture, books, decoration items, and cooking utensils, amongst other items, at specific thrift stores.
Apart from shopping from local businesses in the area, there has been a rise in online thrifting. You’ll find many online marketplace options and online thrift stores that stock unique finds. We can attribute this to the popularity of social media and other factors we’ll explore later.
For many people, shopping at a thrift store is more than a way to accumulate more clothes. It’s a lifestyle that celebrates old clothes as a way to protect the environment. The fashion industry is a vast space and therefore gives room for customers to make their choice.
With the popularity of fast fashion, you’ll find that it follows fashion trends. This brings us to another reason why thrifting has become a popular way to acquire clothing and other items.
Within thrift stores, people find vintage items from known brands and pieces within thrift stores that complement their personal styles. In this light, a thrift store gives many people the option to purchase clothes that are not in everyone’s wardrobes.
A thrift shop differs from your regular retail stores in many ways. The main distinction is that a thrift store only stocks used items, while a retail store stocks new ones. Despite this distinction, you can still find quality clothes in good condition at the thrift store.
Another significant difference between these two is the price tags of their clothing items. When you go thrifting, you already have the mindset of finding items at affordable prices. Even when you find clothes from luxury brands, the price tag is significantly lower. On the other hand, a regular retail store often has a higher price tag. However, many of them also have low prices due to fast fashion production.
Many people also go thrifting to discover unique finds. Unlike shopping at retail chains like Urban Outfitters or online shops like Fashion Nova, you never really know what you’ll find at a thrift store. Regular retail stores often have duplicates of many items. It’s also often easy to predict what you can find due to fashion trends. When you walk into a thrift store, it’s like walking into an adventure.
Charity shops also form part of thrift shops. The main distinction is that charitable organizations run such stores. Goodwill, for instance, is a charity and non-profit organization. When people donate to such organizations, they also contribute to improving communities by providing opportunities to the people. Essentially, thrifting is also a way to participate in giving back to communities.
The timeline through the history of thrift shopping hasn’t been as glamorous as it appears today. Many families with limited economic resources have relied on thrifting for decades. These families’ needs have been beyond following fashion trends and simply having clothes to put on their bodies. However, today's thrifting trend and popularity are worth exploring.
The 19th century was the period that brought in the industrial revolution. This period introduced many changes in societies. During the 19th century industrial revolution, populations grew, and companies made more products than ever before.
We could say we saw a rise in the fast fashion trend during this time. Production and consumption became cheaper than ever. With new systems and technologies in place, companies manufactured items at reasonable rates. Consequently, they were selling products at ridiculously low prices.
With the growing population, these production companies continuously mass-produced more clothes. The 19th century saw over-populated areas producing chunks of waste in short periods.
Essentially, with access to more items, people saw clothing as more readily disposable. In response to this wave, waste management systems were springing up.
By the 1920s, thrift stores were properly established and organized as department stores. Pawnshops and secondhand shops also came up in response to textile waste. There was initially a significant stigma associated with selling and buying used items. However, charitable organizations like Salvation Army contributed to destigmatizing this practice.
During this period, there was a tremendous economic downturn and financial crisis. This period is significant to the rise in thrifting because Generation Z members, active “thrifters, " entered adolescence during the recession.
They watched their parents lose their jobs during this time. A study by Deloitte suggests that Generation Z members experiencing this could impact their shopping patterns3. Due to the financial crisis, many of them had to turn to thrifting to get “new” clothes. The survey confirmed that even now, members of Gen Z are supporting causes and companies contributing to the greater good. Such causes are sustainability, social and ethics-related.
Thrifting has undergone a form of rebranding within the past decade. This practice has moved from being stigmatized to celebrating thrift shopping's many benefits. This switch can be attributed to many things, and there’s one particular group that has contributed significantly to this. In a way, we could say Gen Z has taken the position at the forefront of thrifting.
Several studies have pointed out the fact that this generation is determined to hold themselves and others accountable for societal issues. They are concerned about issues like the climate crisis, environmental injustice, and social injustice.
A study revealed that the current top issues for Gen Z are climate change and environmental concerns1. Millennials are the next group concerned with issues concerning the environment and justice. More than simply expressing their concerns in surveys, these groups actively contribute to change.
With the growing consciousness of fashion’s environmental impact, these groups are taking action. Thrifting has become one of the many action steps these groups are taking.
The fast fashion industry contributes a significant amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Reports reveal that this number is 10% of the world's emissions. The industry also stands as the second-largest water consumer.
The 2018 Quantis report revealed that we can attribute the industry’s pollution impacts to three main drivers2. Dyeing and finishing contribute 36%, yarn preparation contributes 28%, and fiber production contributes 15%.
Since fast fashion is cheap, many people view their clothes as disposable items. In this sense, this industry affects the environment at various stages. From polluting rivers with chemicals to filling landfills with clothes, people began to ask, “how can I wear clothes that have a minimal impact?”
With a new rise in fast fashion around the 2010s, people were getting more intentional. Since Gen Z, millennials, and many other people believe in change, there began to be a switch to sustainable fashion.
There has been a rise in many companies that sell clothing with minimal environmental impact. Sustainable clothing brands with priorities beyond money-making have been springing up.
However, many of these brands don’t have the most accessible price tags due to eco-friendly practices. The price tags shoot up between sourcing environmentally-friendly materials and paying fair wages.
Since many Gen Z members don’t have the monetary resources to shop with these stores, thrifting became an alternative. Thrift stores give the eco-conscious person on a budget a place to find items in their style. They're also a great source of finds used for upcycling clothes, for example, using a patterned shirt to patch a jacket with life still to give.
Another reason why many Gen Z members go thrifting is that they tend to find one-of-a-kind clothing. For any person with a personal sense of style, thrifting shopping can be a sanctuary to express oneself. Rather than following fashion trends, many people opt for thrifting as a way to communicate personal style.
You’ll often only find one piece of a specific clothing item at a store. Afterward, you may not see that same item again. If you speak with Gen Z members, you’ll find that many people’s favorite part about thrifting is finding gems among many items. With thrift shopping, you never know what you could find when you walk into a store or open a website.
We can’t discuss thrift’s popularity without mentioning the role of the internet, especially social media. Undoubtedly, social media contributes to the pressure to obtain things.
With rises in fashion trends, you’ll often find content encouraging fashion consumption and spending habits. Since many young people can be susceptible to the pressure to stay trendy, the internet has also contributed to quick consumption.
On platforms like YouTube and Instagram, and also with the rise in influencer marketing, people will do anything to stay on-trend. On the flip side, many creators are showcasing the beauty of thrift shopping.
Popular YouTubers like bestdressed contributed to showcasing the marriage between style and thrift shopping. Such videos showed young adults that they could get secondhand clothing at affordable rates without compromising their style.
The way people view and engage with thrifting continues to shift. There are growing online stores and marketplaces that cater to thrifting needs. Also, you’ll find many people opening thrift stores on social sites like Instagram, where they buy from large stores and resell online.
There have been many debates around buying to resell or resale fashion. Many argue that it limits the options available to economically disadvantaged people. However, many others raise the point that large stores collect so many donations that they often throw tons out. Overall, as individual shoppers embrace thrift shopping, it’s necessary to understand their roles in social and environmental issues.
People get into thrift shopping for various reasons. For some, it’s a way to find affordable clothing. For many others, it represents a stance against fast consumption while contributing to a circular fashion economy and a means to reduce waste.
Many people, as we’ve seen with Gen Z, many people appreciate the process of discovering unique pieces. Today, many people learn that the number one sustainable practice is to reuse what you own. Although thrifting is a great practice, it’s easy to get caught in the loop of overconsumption. This realization has led to people using their platforms to advocate for intentional consumption.
Quantis. (2018). Environmental impact of the global apparel and footwear industries study. Full report and methodological considerations.
Gomez, K., Mawhinney, T., & Betts, K. (2018). Welcome to Generation Z [PDF]. Deloitte
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.