There’s a certain aesthetic to walking down the side of the highway wearing washed-out jeans from the ’90s and a button-down grandpa shirt that looks equally old, with an unmarked fountain drink in hand. In some communities, like my hometown, it’s not a sought-after look, but one that will result in people giving you a wide berth when they walk past. In other communities, it’s high fashion.
When I first visited Wesleyan’s campus, I was a little bit shocked that a good portion of the student body chooses to dress this way. It’s the opposite of what I expected from a prestigious, private school, but I saw no harm in it, at first.
Thrifting has a lot of tangible benefits. The most compelling among them is the human rights implications. Large outlet stores often rely on sweatshop labor in order to produce the clothes that we so readily buy up. That it’s preferable to purchase used clothes rather than support a massive corporation and its oppressive systems seems obvious.
Clothing production is also one of the greatest strains on the environment. Items produced by outlet stores are often cheap and synthetic, encouraging the consumer to buy, and subsequently discard, a lot of clothing. These clothes often end up in oceans and landfills. Thrifting helps mitigate this issue by encouraging the reuse of materials, forcing the buyer to consider the value of clothing, and ultimately discouraging fast fashion.
There is also the obvious benefit of price: thrifted clothes are affordable. And this seems to be where much of the appeal lies. There is something rewarding about finding a cute top for under a dollar and of thinking of yourself as practical for doing so. The aesthetic of these clothes is similarly practical and equally rewarding in its practicality. The clothes are not ostentatious or flashy. They don’t say “look at me, I have money.” Rather, they are downplayed, subtle, even ugly in some instances. This, too gives the wearer a sense of morality in suggesting that they would rather wear tattered, worn-out clothes from decades ago than splurge on vanity pieces.
What, then, could be complicated about the ethics of thrift shopping? It appears entirely ethical. It’s waste-free. It encourages moderation and humility. This would all be great, if any of it were wholly true.
The biggest point of contingency is the idea that thrifted fashion is modest or downplayed. The veneer of practicality that thrifted clothing affords the wearer is where the vanity exists, be it ever so subtle. This vanity lies in the ability of choice. Where one could choose to wear something more expensive, they opt for tattered, used clothes, which suggests the wearer is making a modest, moral choice. The clothing expresses a sort of power that the wealthy have in their ability to wear and receive praise for it when those who are forced to wear similar items out of necessity are judged negatively for it. This is the textbook definition of appropriation. And it is not uncommon to hear it called appropriative in low-income circles on campus.
The more pressing issue with thrifting, however, is that it’s not only appropriative of a look (though high fashion certainly has a way doing that), but it also interacts with physical goods that are traditionally reserved for people in need. Whenever I see a YouTube vlogger who lives in a penthouse apartment go raid a Goodwill, I can’t help but feel that they’re taking something from someone else. While there are, arguably, enough clothes to go around with all of the discarded excess that thrift shops collect, anyone who’s spent a good thirty minutes in one can tell that there is a shortage of quality clothing. There are typically only a few good finds nestled between the faded cat t-shirts and shoulder padded dresses from the ’80s. When hordes of college students swarm the stores to pick through them it leaves less presentable clothing items to choose from for the people who really need them. This has become a particularly relevant problem in my hometown, where the thrift stores are so small that they are almost always thoroughly cleaned out of quality clothing.
Let’s also not pretend that thrifting doesn’t encourage excess and fast fashion in the same way that outlet stores do. If anything, thrifting often exacerbates the problem. Because clothes are cheap, buyers are more likely to purchase far more clothes than they can reasonably wear. For a good example of this, watch any thrifting haul video that has ever been posted on YouTube. The perceived value of the clothes accordingly goes down with the price, so it’s not hard for shoppers to buy into fast fashion trends similar to those perpetuated by outlet stores, going through large quantities of clothes and changing wardrobes frequently, as seasons and styles shift. As you can imagine, this doesn’t quite help with the environmental problem since these clothes are often discarded rather than used until they’re worn out.
Clothing in general, then, seems to present an ethical dilemma no matter which way you decide to turn. Outlet stores and prestigious brands have their own pitfalls, while thrifting comes with a similar set of downsides. Companies like Depop and Poshmark present a half solution to the problem in that they allow users to stay away from supporting big outlet stores and name brands and because they draw from a larger pool of clothing, meaning that purchasing from them isn’t taking clothing away from a small community with limited resources. However, they’re not a complete solution, since many of the issues related with thrifting culture have to be addressed on an individual basis, chief among them the appropriative aesthetic and the wastefulness.
However, these aren’t necessarily difficult issues to fix. All that’s required is a bit of mindfulness in terms of moderating the amount of clothing one purchases and of properly disposing of those clothes later. It also requires a critical examination of many of the trends that are currently circulating that seek to mimic low-income culture. Of course, there’s a nostalgic aesthetic (or a vibe, or what have you) to things like mom jeans and the clunky white sneakers that have become so popular.
While you don’t have to sacrifice your whole aesthetic or get rid of the mom jeans (which, let’s face it, make people’s butts look funny anyway) it is worth critically examining how you’re presenting yourself and what cultural artifacts you’re taking on that don’t belong to you. It might, after all, not be such a good idea to dress from head to toe in old, tattered, and unflattering clothes when doing so, in a way, mocks the people who have no choice but to dress that way. And it’s not fair that wearing washed out jeans from the ’90s and a button-down grandpa shirt gets you compliments while the person walking down the side of the highway is shunned for the same outfit.
Katie Livingston is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.