Thrifting is more popular than ever. It's also never been worse. - 9 minutes read

It's a random Saturday. You head to the thrift store and start meticulously scanning the racks. If you're lucky, you stumble across something that stands out — it's just your style. If you're really lucky, you try it on and realize it's a perfect fit. You thank the thrift gods that some unknown stranger decided to donate this specific leather jacket right around the time you needed one, and you happened to show up and find it before anyone else could get to it first.

It's a high that anyone who shops at thrift stores knows — and one that I've been chasing since high school. But while sifting through the racks on a recent thrift store visit, it wasn't that I was struggling to find pieces that matched my style or fit me; I was struggling to find something (anything!) that even felt like real, quality clothing.

Instead, many items on the rack felt like they wouldn't last two cycles in the washing machine or like they had the breathability of a garbage bag. It was a far cry from my early memories of thrifting in the late aughts when the racks were full of real denim and thick, chunky sweaters to sort through.

To make sure my memory wasn't deceiving me, I reached out to retail experts to find out what exactly was going on. Turns out, the quality you can find at traditional thrift stores does appear to be declining.

"If you go to a local Goodwill, you will see a lot of fast fashion there, sometimes with the tags still on," Nicole Craig, a professor who teaches merchandising, trends, buying, and more at Arizona State University FIDM, told me. "But at the same time, we're also seeing thrifting and resale exploding in the market."

While an abundance of fast fashion is partly to blame for the decline in quality at thrift stores, the explosive growth of the resale clothing market over the past decade —particularly in the last five years — has also played a huge role.

The global secondhand clothing market is projected to be worth $350 billion by 2027, according to a 2023 report by ThredUp, an online marketplace for used clothing.

People looking to clean out their closets today have plenty of options — including many that could actually make them money — so fewer and fewer quality clothes are being donated to Goodwill or Salvation Army.

Gen Z has embraced secondhand clothing in line with their values of individualism and sustainability.

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Gen Z made thrifting mainstream

Buying used clothing has never been more popular, largely thanks to Gen Z.

"They really have changed the perspective on secondhand," Danielle Testa, a professor at Arizona State University who researches the impact of strategic changes in retail, said, adding that thrifting has officially become "mainstream."

In the past, millennials tended to appreciate uniformity and with that, new goods; Think Abercrombie & Fitch in its original heyday in the 2000s. But Gen Z today is more focused on individuality and finding pieces that are different from what everyone else is wearing.

Gen Z has also embraced secondhand as better for the environment. The ThredUp report found sustainability was among the top five motivators for Gen Z when it comes to how they spend on apparel. As secondhand shoppers feel like they're saving something from ending up in a landfill, buying used clothing is no longer viewed as inferior to buying new.

Thrifting today is "not only not a stigma," Craig said, "it's a badge of honor."

Still, even as thrifting has grown in popularity, so have fast fashion brands.

"It's not designed and constructed to last," said Elena Karpova, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who researches sustainability in the apparel market, said of fast fashion. "And so after a couple of washes, usually either fabric or construction, like seams and stitches, fall apart, and people then discard it or donate it."

Some fast fashion pieces end up in thrift stores with their original tags still attached. The pieces are so inexpensive some shoppers won't bother returning items that don't fit. As a result, piles of fast fashion get dumped in donation bins. Prices at thrift stores are also rising, which Testa said is due in part to stores increasing their staffing to sort through all the donations.

Brittany Dickinson, director of sustainability at Goodwill Industries International, said in an emailed statement that they do not have data on how much fast fashion is being donated. However, she said, "such items have become increasingly popular in part due to their lower prices, which increases their likelihood of ending up in a Goodwill donation bin."

"Having said that, every Goodwill thrift store also includes unique inventory and treasures, as evidenced by the recent sale of designer gowns from Oleg Cassini and Galia Lahav," she added.

Testa noted there are also some society-wide factors at play, including the rise in fast fashion and changes in consumption habits.

In the past, Americans would own fewer pieces of clothing, but the pieces they did have were of higher quality, while today they tend to buy a higher volume of clothing at lower prices and often lower quality — an evolution in consumption habits that's also impacting home goods and furniture.

The growth in the used clothing market means quality items are often resold rather than donated.

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Thrifting vs. the resale market

I should probably explain what I mean when I say "thrifting."

Until somewhat recently, the word "thrifting" typically referred to visiting your basic thrift store: your Goodwills or Salvation Armies. Basically, a shop where folks donate their clothes after cleaning out their closet, where many different styles of clothes end up on the racks, and where finding something you like requires that monotonous search through a category as broad as "women's tops."

But "thrifting" to many members of Gen Z simply means buying something secondhand, Testa noted. For instance, to the younger generations, going to a curated, online consignment shop and buying slightly discounted Prada loafers may also be considered "thrifting."

The distinction matters because part of the reason old-school thrifting has gotten so bad is that the secondhand market has gotten so big. Thanks to sites like the RealReal, Depop, ThredUp, and many others that allow shoppers to sell their clothes to each other, thrift stores are getting less and less quality items donated to them.

"If you have something that you paid $500 for and you can sell it and still get $200, you're going to do that over donating it," Testa said. "That makes it so even less of those high-quality goods are ending up in the donation centers."

When thrift stores do get quality goods donated to them, they are often quickly picked over, thanks to the growth in vintage clothing sellers, who operate both online and in physical boutiques.

The popularity of secondhand clothing has also changed the makeup of your average thrift shopper. Testa said she generally divides secondhand shoppers into two categories: need-based shoppers, who visit thrift stores out of financial necessity, and trend-based shoppers, who are more so looking for something fun and unique.

"Fifteen years ago you would've seen the majority of your secondhand shoppers were most likely more need-based," she said. "Now we're seeing that ratio really balance out, and I expect it to really shift the other direction."

The problem is that need-based shoppers may now have a harder time buying quality clothes at an affordable price, as the best pieces are picked over and sold at an upcharge by curated vintage sellers. Testa notes there are some need-based shoppers that don't necessarily need to thrift all of their clothing, but turn to secondhand when they need to make a big purchase, like a suit for a job interview.

But now, it's easier and probably not much more expensive to buy a new blazer from Shein. However, Testa noted the boots theory — the idea that lower income people have to buy cheaper products that don't last as long and in turn need to be replaced more often — means it might be worse in the long run.

Hendersonville, North Carolina, Main Street, women's clothing consignment shop, rack outside store.

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In many ways, buying second-hand clothing has never been easier

While classic thrifting has changed, there's never been more options for buying secondhand, even if you might have to pay a premium for it.

Instead of scouring a handful of thrift stores while hunting for the perfect pair of vintage Levi's, you can visit Etsy, eBay, Poshmark, or any other online secondhand shop and simply search for them.

Apparel brands are also getting into the resale game. URBN, the company behind Urban Outfitters, Free People, and Anthropologie, launched its own online resale marketplace last year called Nuuly.

The result has been that shopping secondhand online, in some ways, is not that different from shopping online for new clothing.

Secondhand shoppers who still prefer the experience of shopping in person and stumbling across a surprise score are increasingly turning to curated vintage shops. Craig said many of her students who thrift weekly "prefer to go to some of these more curated thrift stores where it's a little bit nicer, it's a little bit more of a point of view."

"Then you also have ones that want to still go to Goodwill and have the thrill of the hunt, and you can find, still, treasures for a good price," she added.

Traditional thrift stores are adapting to the changes, too. Goodwill launched an online shop, GoodwillFinds, in 2022, where curated items are sold at a range of price points. Sticking to its status as a nonprofit, Goodwill said proceeds from the shop would fund community-based social service programs throughout the US.

Dickinson, the sustainability director at Goodwill, said the company is "doing important work to power the circular economy and is one of the biggest promoters of reuse."

"Our entire model is based on trying to prevent product from going to waste, and we've been doing this for more than 120 years," she added. "We have multiple retail channels to locally sell, repurpose, or recycle as a way to keep goods in circulation."

Testa said, "it's really interesting to watch how the thrift store has really transformed from this donation center to a traditional retail format, where you have marketing promotions, multiple channels to shop on, and everything like that."

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Source: Business Insider

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