The pandemic has drastically changed consumerism—as many shoppers used to purchasing clothes in-person adjust to a digital shopping experience that’s been reduced to a few clicks on a phone.
And chances are, digital shopping as a way of life is here to stay: Even as physical U.S. retail stores begin to reopen, 82 percent of shoppers say they plan to keep shopping online.
So where does that leave secondhand clothes shoppers and suppliers?
Thrift shopping is said to be one of the most unsafe forms of shopping when in regard to COVID-19 exposure—since the amount of time customers spend in these stores is ultimately greater than other kinds of shopping, according to the Pandemic Economics podcast episode on superspreaders.
While many thrift shops remain closed, others have been slowly reopening, despite the risks. Stepping foot in a thrift shop can cause virus exposure through second-hand clothing as vectors (that otherwise wouldn’t be as dangerous in fast fashion stores).
Instagram Thrift Accounts Help Followers Stay Stylish—and Safe
For those who want to shop second-hand from the comfort of home, a multitude of powerful young women run specially curated thrift businesses through social media platforms, such as Instagram. These businesses are run by fashionistas who brave the thrift shops, buy quality products in bulk, then resell to their consumers.
During the last few months, thrift accounts have gained significant exposure and following. Many have begun to take the thrifting world entirely virtual—so that buying “new to you” fashions won’t die away throughout the crisis.
Not only are thrifting accounts much safer than the current state of shopping, but they limit exposure and ensure that clothes are clean and quality.
“We stockpile clothes,” Julia Thompson, a 20-year-old who runs @thriftlikeumeanit on Instagram, told Ms.
“This means we don’t necessarily have to go out and thrift in an unsafe way. I do go out and thrift as safely as possible and take all the precautions”—so that shoppers don’t have to.
Thompson and others like her then post pictures of their thrifted picks, open it to bidders on their accounts and auction off their golden finds.
“Thrift shops may put their (unsold) clothes into a landfill, so I get out there and find a new piece for a new person,” Thompson said. “Regenerating new lives for items is the biggest thing. [@thriftlikeumeanit] is a curated consignment shop!”
Factory Exploitation and the Fast Fashion Machine
As online shopping becomes the new normal, many have opted to use their purchasing power to order from fast fashion brands—like Shein, Zara, Forever 21 and H&M—which produce bulk amounts of clothing, a environmentally unfriendly process that causes perpetual pollution.
“Sacrificing quality for quantity, these pioneers of fast fashion have quickly become the contemporary model heralds to mass consumerism—buying and selling as much as possible, as quickly as possible,” writes Victoria Stafford for Green America.
And of course, fast fashion brands typically rely on inhumane and exploitative work conditions that put women—who disproportionately serve as garment workers in these suppliers’ factories—in harm’s way. For instance, 80-95 percent of workers in factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka are women.
“Further, management positions are male-dominated, while women typically work as machine operators and checkers. This results in a hierarchical power structure in which a male-majority management controls a female-majority workforce.
“This means that disciplinary measures disproportionately inflict physical, mental, and sexual harm on women. And male-dominated management makes it more difficult for female workers to freely report on instances of abuse and to be taken seriously in the workplace.”
“On Tik Tok everyday I see people buying from Shein,” Thompson told Ms. “It’s huge right now. That is the furthest thing from sustainable, and it’s these viral Tik Toks that cause this (kind of shopping) to go up.”
Thompson is focused on the large differences thrift businesses are making.
“By buying fashion items that would ultimately end up in a landfill or purchasing from a Goodwill, I’m trying to put those items into the hands of someone that will ultimately give them a second life.”
Thompson also voiced a sad reality: “(The fashion industry) is a stubborn industry that doesn’t like to change its ways for anything except more profit.”
Yet, while fast fashion may thrive online, in some businesses, the supply continues to grow more than the demand, due to lack of in-person shopping. This supply-demand gap has led to many factory workers losing their jobs and source of income—as well as an estimated 982 million total garments suspended from factories since the pandemic first hit. That’s nearly 135,516 tons of clothing en route to landfills.
How terribly trashy!
As for contributing to thrift shops—while it is tempting to take your spring cleaning items and drop them at a thrift shop right now, hold off. These shop’s inventories have been overwhelmed by the amount of product dropped off, inherently making thrift shops generally more unsafe for those braving their halls.
The growing inventories have also caused struggling shops to purchase more storage space for items that they may not be able to disinfect as quickly as they are coming in.
Instead, hang on to your old garments and donate them when second-hand shops are less overwhelmed. And certainly don’t throw anything in the trash—as enough garments are already headed that way due to the pandemic.
Before handing off items to thrift stores, try to see if you can give them a second life yourself. Many have begun to repurpose old pieces to make them new and trendy, or a new item all-together!
And as tempting as it is to immediately jump on a website to order summer fashions, check out second-hand options.
“There’s such a big call for thrifters and thrifting because we’re the roadblock that stops people before they click on the Instagram ads to Shein or Amazon,” said Thompson.
Julia also emphasizes the importance of shopping on other second-hand seller sites—such as Poshmark, co-founded by fellow female fashionista Tracy Sun.
Beyond Thompson’s @thriftlikeumeanit, several other women-led thrift fashion accounts—like @thinkthiftin, run by Macy Ninness; @thriftnthrivin, run by Victoria Keller; and Amber Martin’s @ivorymirth—are helping shoppers peep the latest trends while staying safe and sustainable.