This weekend at Goodwill I browsed the racks while every few minutes an overly cheery voice clicked on, distorted through the old speaker, and narrated the story of Goodwill’s beginnings. The wealthy donated their busted clothes to the poor, the voice said, who were taught to mend them and, in exchange for their labor, were allowed to wear a few of the pieces once the mending had been done.
“And thus was born,” the voice told me, “Goodwill’s policy of a hand up, not a hand out.”
I purchased my wool sweater for $3 and left thinking of how some Goodwill employees have historically been paid only a few cents an hour.
The other thrift shop I visited that day was independent, which is generally more promising from an ethical point of view. At least I wouldn’t be funding Goodwill’s exploitative practices. I didn’t realize it was connected to a local ministry until I was checking out, tweed jacket in hand. The cashier set out to tell me his testimony, but I’d heard it before. They used to bring the boys from this ministry into my church, stand them up behind the pulpit so that they could tell us their inspirational stories. The ministry in question takes ‘local problem boys’ and sets them to work on a ranch to learn about Christ and the value of labor.
At home as I tried on the blazer—far too large for my shoulders—and turned in the mirror, I remembered the volunteer work I had done for the Salvation Army one summer as a member of my youth group. They took us down into a creek running by the building. Beside the creek and tucked into the bushes was a pile of blankets, where someone had clearly been sleeping. It was out of the way, such that if you weren’t looking for it you couldn’t see it. They instructed us to bunch up the blankets and toss them into a plastic bag. When we expressed resistance (after all who wants to throw away another person’s bed) the volunteer said that this person could get help and a place to rest at the Salvation Army, if only they would get clean.
“The people who are seeking shelter from us, but don’t want to get off the drugs, they sleep down here,” one of the Salvation Army volunteers said. “And we can’t have them doing that. This is private property.”
As though to prove the volunteer’s statement, a student found a needle laying in the grass beneath the leaves, picked it up and waved it around, screaming. This was not undeniable evidence that they had done something wrong, but I did steal the blankets anyway. I stuffed them in the black bag just like the others did, supposedly to be thrown away.
There’s something alluring about the thrift store. It impresses on you the mindset of treasure hunting, wading through the racks of early 2000s sequence nightmares to find something to wear. It satisfies the need to purchase, a need that has been all too pressing since the virus outbreak began, under the guise of ethical consumption. Thrift stores don’t source their goods from sweatshops where labor regulations are lax, they’re not overpriced, they don’t contribute to the environmental destruction that the fast fashion industry does. There’s something satisfying about being able to walk out of a store with a massive amount of crap for $20 and without the environmental anxiety that comes with shopping fast fashion websites, or the crushing guilt of dropping $200 on a high end, ethically made Reformation dress.
But thrifting is not without its own problems and inequalities, and they’re not always relegated to the unethical decisions of the stores themselves.
I’ve recently been sucked into a hole of Instagram vintage resellers. These shops boast “vintage pieces” which can mean anything from 80s patterned sweatshirts to genuine Edwardian blouses, drapey silk nightgowns and puff sleeve button-ups. Either way, the items are expensive, usually upwards of $100 for something that the seller purchased second hand. The sellers pose with their shoulders hunched and their wastes cinched in, so that you can imagine what the pieces might look like on you, if you were more proportionally perfect. These shops create a false sense of scarcity, which drives my little consumer mind wild, heightening the rush I get from a purchase. Since there is only one item and you’re competing with thousands of people for it, there’s not much time for deliberation. I’ve bought a few tops this way, dropped a good chunk of change on them only to discover that the shoulders are a bit too big and lumpy and that I’ll have to spend even more to take them to a tailor.
Inevitably, dropping this much cash on a resold item makes me feel ill, like I’ve done something wrong. Perhaps it’s been drilled into me that previously used items are tarnished, not worth spending money on. But I suspect the discomfort more so stems from the times when, for me, saving money was a virtue. I ate cheese and salami sandwiches every day for lunch, prided myself on wearing clothing with holes, refused to buy a proper coat, all so that I could afford my tuition payments. This felt like virtue. Deprivation, hallowing myself out, working more than I was consuming, meant that I was good, that I did not consume more than I gave.
When there was extra food at work, sometimes I would sack it up and take it home because I could not stand to see it go to waste. I once took home a box of expired raspberry danishes and let them sit, rotting in the refrigerator. When I took my first bite of one, it filled my mouth with rotten and curdling cream filling. I put the danishes in the trash and they filled my apartment with that rotten milk smell. I was disgusted, with the danishes and with myself for letting them rot.
This is the same fear I get when I put on a $98 vintage blouse that I bought from an individual seller on Instagram. Just under the surface of all the pretty ruffles, I can taste the danish, the flavor of my own excess and consumption, and it tastes rotten.
There are many things happening here. Two forces pulling on me which create opposite desires and ethics, but stemming from more or less the same locus. The first desire is the desire of consumption. To have a thing, place it on my body, understand myself in relation to it. The thing, whether it be a thrifted blazer or a 70s Edwardian puff sleeve blouse, does a cementing and settling thing to me. I get the feeling of ownership, that this new thing is mine. And also that it says something about myself. It cements a narrative I have about the type of person that I am and reflects it back to other people. Make fun of Fight Club all you want, the draw to center one’s identity around objects, to be an Ikea consumer, is very real. Especially when the world and the future seems so unstable, it’s nice to hold something in your hand and say this is mine and it defines me.
The opposing desire is the desire to conserve, to produce more than is consumed, to labor rather than rest. Because as we know labor, hard work, conservation are made virtuous, even as consumption is crammed down the throat. This means that with each purchase, each exhilarating rush of opening the package, each soothing sensation of holding onto a new thing, there is an underlying anxiety, a fear. A fear that you’ve done something wrong, that someone has been harmed, that you are no longer virtuous, that money is slipping through your fingers, acting without your consent.
Perhaps this is not a problem that everyone experiences. Perhaps this is a problem that arises half out of a bad relationship with money, half a distrust of any process of consumption, no matter how ethical it is made out to be. There is always the easy platitude that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. That as long as exchange is happening someone’s labor value is being stolen. This I wouldn’t wholly deny.
It would be better entirely for me to only take used clothes from my family and friends. To learn to sew and alter what I have. It would be better still to donate that spending money to a mutual aid fund. But I am not a perfect person. I do not have the energy, time, or resources to always be the most ethical, and neither do the people who are exploited by these systems. There is a reason my working family members buy fast fashion. It is affordable, it is easy, it is accessible.
No method of consumption is entirely ethical. All we can attempt to do is to reduce harm where possible, be mindful consumers when we must consume, or when the force of consumption is too hard to resist. I will always feel guilty, I think, when I purchase something. The stabilizing act will always be destabilized by my own anxieties, my moral system, and by the internal message that I am a laborer by nature and that any form of self-gratification is undeserved. These are complex feelings, and the messages entwined with them I know both stemming from good and bad places, abolitionist places as well as reproductions of the culture of hyper-productivity in which I live. But perhaps it is good to be a bit destabilized in our consumer practices, to feel discomfort underlying the gratification. And to be suspicious of those methods of consumption which we have been assured are ethical.
Katie Livingston can be reached at email@example.com.