Who Thrift Shops?

It’s no secret that thrifting has been pushed into the limelight of popular culture.

Over the last couple of years, fashion influencers like Emma Chamberlain have rebranded thrifting to be the new aesthetic, yet sustainable way to buy affordable statements for your wardrobe. The overall decreasing stigma of thrifting, as covered previously in our blog, has only further propelled thrifting’s popularity.

While lower-income individuals have long been represented as the face of thrifting, this seems to be no longer fully applicable. When taking a closer look at who represents the average thrift store shopper, research has shown a massive shift in the socio-economic demographics of thrifters in the past decade. More specifically, while second-hand clothing continues to be largely utilized by lower class shoppers, this has actually shifted towards individuals of a higher socioeconomic status—especially the middle class.

Not surprisingly, a study shows that there has been a significant increase of the middle class shopping at thrift stores for clothing. In line with the thrifting habits of lower-income families, there has also been a shift of middle class shoppers buying second-hand furniture, electronics, and household items more than ever before.

However, while more middle class shoppers are turning to thrifting, statistics show that higher-income individuals continue to be less likely to purchase thrifted items. In fact, James’ study states that “the odds of shopping for furniture, clothing, and housewares at thrift stores were four times higher for those from the lower income category than those from the higher income categories.” We see that while more middle class consumers have been drawn to the popular choice of incorporating thrifting into their shopping habits, higher-income shoppers continue to steer away from buying second-hand items (excluding antiques and trinkets).

On top of socioeconomic status, age has also played a large role in identifying major groups contributing to the rise of thrifting. As thrifting was introduced into mainstream pop culture, young people started flocking to thrift stores for cheaper, fashionable finds. Ultimately, this has led to the rise of Gen Z and Millennials being the forefront of the thrifting fashion movement; this can largely be due to 70% of millennial and Gen Z consumers stating that sustainability is an important factor while making buying decisions. For many individuals of this generation, many choose to shop for a second hand or resale item over eco-friendly products from sustainable brands.

Thrifting becoming a more popular trend means great news for increasing sustainability in the fashion industry. However, it also raises the question of whether this takes away more quality items for lower income individuals. While more wealthy consumers have turned to thrifting as a cheaper alternative, this in turn can reduce the already limited clothing options available to low-income communities.

“This means there are less quality items left on the thrift store shelves for those who truly have no other affordable options,” a Berkeley based study states. This could mean lower-income individuals lacking cheaper options for “professional attire that could mean the difference between impressing or crashing at a job interview.”

While the creation of thrift stores have originally been for lower-income individuals, the steadily rising popularity and appeal of thrifting has brought individuals of various ages and social-economic backgrounds to thrift stores. Though this entails increased sustainability practices and purchases in the fashion industry, it has also led to undesired consequences impacting the demographic who need thrift stores the most: lower-income consumers. However, this shouldn’t discourage current or potential thrifters; while thrifting is still a great way to practice sustainable fashion, it’s important to remember that sustainability isn’t limited to just purchasing secondhand clothing, but also entails decreasing unnecessary clothing purchases that perpetuate fast fashion culture.

Design credit: Ariel Chu