Has the Stigma Surrounding Secondhand Shopping been Eliminated?

Buying secondhand has become popular throughout the years. Before becoming trendy, walking into thrift stores were highly stigmatized and was seen to be for people who couldn’t afford new clothes. The clothes inside a thrift store were even seen as dirty because they were used. Business reporter for Chicago Tribune Lauren Zumbach says you can tell buying secondhand is mainstream now because “[d]epartment stores want in on it.” Zumbach says throughout her piece, people are now more conscious of being sustainable, “like the thrill of scoring a deal or one-of-a-kind find,” or are looking to resell items and make some extra money. Now that it is popular to buy secondhand clothes, does this mean the stigma has died off?

I was curious to see how many of my peers partook in secondhand shopping so I set up a poll asking my Instagram followers:

Do you buy secondhand clothes? Out of 75 responses, 93% voted yes.

Would you say half or more than half of your wardrobe is secondhand? Out of 74 responses, 59% voted yes.

Do you prefer Goodwill/The Salvation Army or a vintage/boutique store? Out of 64 responses, 75% voted Goodwill/The Salvation Army.

From the polls, it seems most are willing to purchase secondhand clothing at times but not always. Considering 93% of responders said they do buy secondhand clothes, the stigma doesn’t seem to be so effective in stopping one from buying them. But is it still there when choosing between a Goodwill or a vintage store?  Preferring a Goodwill over a vintage store could be due to the rewarding experience of finding that cool, unique piece after searching through multiple racks of clothing. It can also be due to the low prices in comparison to vintage stores, which tend to hike up their prices for brand items and because they have done the searching for you already. Choosing a vintage store makes the process of finding a cool or branded piece easier.

The majority of my followers are between the ages of 17 and 24, a part of Generation Z. Forbes Contributor Greg Petro provides research from a 2019 First Insight report stating “62 percent of Generation Z, who will begin entering the workforce this year, prefer to buy from sustainable brands, on par with [their] findings for Millennials.” In addition, Petro says the younger generations are willing to spend the extra money for a more sustainable product instead of purchasing a cheaper unsustainable product. Younger generations are being more sustainably conscious, which goes hand in hand with the rise of being comfortable when buying secondhand clothing, whether it’s “a steal” from Goodwill or “a gem” from a vintage store. Caring about the environment has blurred the negative judgements that have historically come with buying used clothes at a thrift store.

There are different motives for buying secondhand clothing. University of California, Berkeley student Cameron Blondino shared that he started thrifting a couple of years ago because it was trendy and he fell in love with finding fun pieces; he said he would continue even if the trend died off, because it is sustainable. Valeria Gonzalez, who has an Instagram account (@alsothrifted) dedicated to thrifted outfits, hopes to inspire others to be fashionable in a sustainable manner; she shared she started thrifting because she had trouble finding clothes she liked that were her size, and also because secondhand clothes are cheap. Similar to Blondino, Gonzalez will continue to buy secondhand clothes because it is environmentally friendly.

 On the other hand, buying secondhand is the most affordable option for some, regardless of whether it is trendy or not. College student Unique Shehee shared she started buying secondhand clothing before it became a trend and continues to do so because it is affordable. Shehee buys all her clothes secondhand and has faced the former stigma of secondhand shopping:

“Growing up I didn’t mind shopping secondhand until I was shamed for it by my peers and so, in so many ways I’m so happy that secondhand shopping has become mainstream because not everyone can afford to buy clothes straight out of major department stores. I sleep better at night knowing that there aren’t loads of middle school girls feeling ashamed about where they buy their clothes!”

Buying secondhand has become popular because of its mixture of benefits — cool and unique pieces, the spectrum of sizes, affordability, and best of all, environmental sustainability. But where is the stigma now? Gonzalez says the stigma has been removed now that it’s become popular because people are now impressed by things like a cool piece from a thrift store. Shehee said “we’ve removed the stigma for the time being,” and whether this lasts depends on if people are mostly buying secondhand because it’s a trend or because it’s a lifestyle shift they’ve made to be sustainable. If it’s just a trend, Shehee believes trends come and go and perhaps the stigma may return. In the midst of all the benefits buying secondhand comes with, it is hard to tell where the stigma that once surrounded secondhand shopping stands now.

Because it’s mainstream, Shehee is no longer being shamed by her peers for buying secondhand clothing — but if this is the case, is the stigma only being masked? Or have we actually removed the stigma? Blondino says the stigma has decreased now; classism hasn’t. The stigma could still be lingering around secondhand shopping when it comes to buying regular necessities and not cool, fun pieces, which may be why vintage stores or boutiques are popular, despite being the pricier option. Blondino says:

“Thrifting has definitely been glamorized with its rising trendiness to where people are more so praised for a good find and looking hot [in contrast to] someone who just bought what they need or a jacket that might have a hole in it. There is definitely stigma associated with that and not looking perfect.”

Adding to the trendiness of secondhand shopping, vintage stores and online shops like Depop have made it more accessible and easy to purchase thrifted pieces. So one doesn’t necessarily have to enter a local thrift store and dig through to find that cool, fun piece. 

However, vintage shops and Depop tend to hike up their prices so these methods of shopping are mostly catered to those with money to spend and not to those looking for affordable options. Buying secondhand clothing is environmentally friendly, but it’s hard to say if many thrifters would continue if it wasn’t for the easy access to unique pieces that vintage shops and online venues provide.