- Jing Jie Chang
How Thrifting Can Be a Means to Overconsumption and Unethical Profits
Updated: Feb 17
Since the boom of TikTok, thrift culture has been blowing up everywhere in the world, including Malaysia. From so-called “bundle” shops popping up at train stations selling shirts for RM10 (approx. 2.4 USD) to thrift store chains in more affluent neighbourhoods that carry more expensive brands, thrifting has no doubt made its way into the lives of Malaysian youths.
Pre-thrift-boom, Malaysia didn’t really rely on thrifting as a means of obtaining affordable clothing; in Malaysia, we have night markets that sell a variety of brand-new clothing (albeit knockoffs) and department stores that carry cheaper brands. There’s also a mentality of new equals good, which makes Malaysians gravitate towards buying new garments (mostly from fast-fashion brands) compared to hand-me-downs. Thrifting merely introduced a way for Malaysians - especially Malaysian urban teens - to get their hands on more “vintage” clothing under the guise of sustainability.
On days like this, I wonder, is modern thrifting a phenomenon we can consider sustainable?
Yes, thrifting is much cheaper compared to buying from fast-fashion brands, and most of the time you get better quality clothes. However, overconsumption comes with this. An RM50 bill can get you three H&M basic tees, or 10 from a thrift store. Low prices have always been the primary motivator behind most shoppers, and it would be the more sensible and “sustainable” choice to get the latter. But, do you really need 10 basic tees?
Being a social-media-reliant 22-year-old on my daily Instagram scrolling routine, I saw a Reel on my explore page talking about how SHEIN garments are flooding charity stores in the US, and I can’t help but think how thrifting no longer solves the fast-fashion conundrum. It is slowly becoming a way for people to justify their overconsumption.
Thrifting itself is a great practice; it keeps fashion circular. In a perfect world, companies produce good quality clothing, those who are clearing out their closets provide good quality garments for thrift stores at a fair price, the needy get cheap and good clothes, and everyone wears their clothes until it wears them (pun not intended) out and sends them to recycling centres.
Disclaimer: This diagram is made by the author for an iteration on how fashion can be circular. Credit the author if you intend to use this diagram in any content.
When overconsumption (motivated by trends or the want to own more) comes into the equation, fast fashion companies are born from the need to keep up with demand through producing lower quality yet trendy clothing.
“Oh, I can always donate my impulse buys to thrift stores anyway.”
“I don’t really wear half of the shirts I got from the thrift store, time to give them away to another Goodwill.”
Affluent consumers buy from fast fashion companies and thrift stores, donating the excess back to thrift stores, causing excess in thrift stores, the excess of the excess gets chucked in the dumpster and eventually into landfills to never see the light of day again. Fashion gets lesser in quality as it grows in quantity, affecting the cycle as a whole and creating more wastage, which is, well, you guessed it, not sustainable in the slightest.
Buy, donate, buy, discard, repeat.
Thrift flipping is the act of refurbishing and upcycling thrift store items to make them seem more presentable in order to fetch a higher price, much like house flipping or sneaker flipping. I remember seeing a story of a thrift flipper on Snapchat on how they make £2000 a week from thrift flipping on depop alone. While I respect her entrepreneurial spirit, the first thing that popped into mind was, Is this even ethical? While thrift flipping is a low-cost-high-return way of making a profit (ehem, for the privileged), it essentially deprives the poor from their dose of affordable fashion and decent clothing.
For the privileged, thrift stores are just another option to get their hands on good quality fashionable clothes, or another avenue for fashion hauls; they can easily afford other sustainable brands without having to put their living expenses on the line. Some even thought of the option to resell limited-edition thrift finds for 50 times the price. To secure the bag or be considerate, that’s the question. Not every commodity has to be a business opportunity.
There’s a similar phenomenon in Malaysia as well, and it goes by the name “curated thrift stores”. Sellers go to a variety of your usual thrift stores or online second-hand clothing suppliers to get the items that fit into their “aesthetic”. They then rework the items before selling them online, usually at a higher profit margin compared to buying straight from the source, which is somewhat reasonable considering they spent the effort and time in procurement, marketing and reworking. They deserve respect for their hustle, no doubt, but some might argue that it takes away the joy of discovering a hidden gem that fits you like a glove during a thrift diving endeavour.
A famous local curated thrift store with 23.4k Instagram followers.
What’s unethical about thrift flipping, or curated thrift stores, would be selling “reworked” pieces for 10 times their price when all you did was mend a barely visible hole on the side of a tee-shirt. So, back to the question: "Is thrifting still something sustainable in this day and age where everyone is girlbossing everything?" There is a delicate balance between being ethical and entrepreneurial when it comes to thrift flipping. When it starts harming the planet through excessive waste creation and/or exploiting human labour, I'm afraid thrifting is nothing more than another capitalist cash grab.
All in all, without the popularisation of thrift culture, I probably wouldn't even learn about the joy of thrifting. Overconsumption of any sort is never good, and one person can only wear so many clothes so why own so much? The end is nigh, o’ ye children. Time to reel in the need to own more.