It’s no secret that thrift store prices have changed in the last decade, particularly at large corporations like Goodwill — as seen by comparing prices between past and recent versions of Goodwill’s Valuation Guide. After seeing these changes, my original idea for this column was to argue that reselling thrifted pieces is unethical and exclusionary. With the rise of consignment apps like Depop and Poshmark, people can buy thrifted pieces at inexpensive prices, post them to the application at a marked-up price and make a profit in minutes. While I still consider this to be unethical in certain situations, there are many circumstances in which reselling can be sustainable and fair. Common arguments I’ve found against secondhand reselling are that resellers take in-demand items away from low-income communities, cause thrift store prices to increase and resell at inaccessible prices. Although there are many articles vilifying secondhand resellers as the source of these problems, the discussion of the ethics of secondhand reselling needs to be more nuanced to reflect the complexities of the $17.5 billion resale industry and its surrounding consumerist culture.
Considering only about 20% of the clothing Americans donate ends up being sold to consumers, the argument that resellers create scarcity within thrift stores is a limited one. In fact, most thrift stores are restocked daily and the never-ending cycle of consumerism and fast fashion prevents the majority of thrift stores from running out of donations. And this cycle was only intensified by COVID-19, with many stores unable to accept donations due to overflow. For most thrift stores, secondhand resellers are not “taking all the good stuff” — there are still millions of tons of clothing going to waste.
Another common argument against reselling thrifted clothing is that it contributes to rising thrift store prices. Although there are specific examples of local thrift stores charging steep prices, there is little research on general pricing trends in non-corporate thrift stores. Most evidence surrounding increasing thrift prices seems to come from corporate thrift stores such as Goodwill and The Salvation Army. While prices at these stores have been increasing with the rising popularity of secondhand reselling, it’s important to note that correlation is not causation. Even considering this rising popularity, the mass influx of affluent teenagers thrifting for fun every weekend likely contributes more to rising costs than individual resellers do.
Along with rising rent costs and inflation, with large thrift store chains, the incessant factor of corporate greed comes also into play. These companies are often non-profit organizations, yet their practices are far from socially beneficial. Under the guise of being a charity organization, Goodwill operates by paying many employees subminimum wages. And with its history of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, The Salvation Army is not really a charitable organization to rally around, either. When rising prices at these companies are used as an argument against secondhand reselling, we must recognize all of the factors that go into retail pricing before placing all the blame on resellers. In a society that prioritizes capitalistic gain, it is shortsighted to claim that secondhand resellers are the sole perpetrators of rising costs at these large corporations. Beyond that, given these companies’ tight-knit relationships with hypocrisy, the question of whether we should be supporting them at all must also be addressed.
In addition to being blamed as the cause of rising thrift store prices, resellers are often told their own resale prices are too steep. While it is difficult to determine how much resellers typically upcharge for the items they thrift, these prices cannot be compared to prices in thrift stores without taking into account the time and energy required to comb through the thrift store, potentially clean or even upcycle the item, take quality pictures of it and post it for sale. As Alli Vera, YouTuber and former Depop seller, said in a video on the gentrification of thrift stores, “the customer is also buying that reseller’s ability to see the potential in things.” This time and energy do not mean that resellers’ prices are always fair — there are plenty of resellers who jump at the opportunity to charge upwards of four times the price they paid for the item (for example, this $599.00 Patagonia fleece). To further complicate the ethics of reselling, because there is no equation or metric for determining the value of a reseller’s time, energy and creativity, “fairness” is subjective. However, considering these factors, resellers’ prices should not and cannot be evaluated through the same lens thrift stores’ prices are.
In researching for this article, it became abundantly clear that reselling thrifted clothing is a complex and contested topic. However, it led me to the question: Is the root of the problem thrift stores are facing really secondhand resellers, or is it excess corporate greed and the complexities of dismantling that deeply ingrained aspect of American society? It is certainly much easier to blame the resellers, but that does not necessarily mean it’s a comprehensive answer to the array of problems facing the thrifting industry. The exchanges between capitalistic greed (on part of both the individual and the corporation), class discrimination and materialism must be considered before we can point fingers at the girl on Depop for rising thrift store prices.
Olivia Mouradian is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.