For years, the spotlight has been narrowing to show us the gravity of our impact on the planet. This sustainability crisis that we now face has prompted many to lead more environmentally conscious lifestyles, be it through avoiding plastic bags or using metal straws. With the textile industry being the second greatest polluter globally, it’s no wonder that our fast fashion habits are becoming problematic beyond the point of return. As a result, many consumers have seen second-hand clothes as an affordable and sustainable way to keep up with trends.
Recently, thrifting has become increasingly popular with the act itself and its aesthetics coming into fashion. Its trendiness can be clearly felt across social media: from YouTube thrift hauls to thrift flips on TikTok, to the aesthetic being embraced across Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards.
In Vietnam, young people have seen this phenomenon at work with the rising popularity of stores like 3Bich, Mayhem, or The Demor – to name a few. Of course, thrifting itself is nothing new but within the past few years, it’s taken on a more polished aesthetic. Gone are the days where disorganized items would be presented to shoppers, now you’ll see curated pieces sectioned out on racks within air-conditioned rooms.
Is this polished aesthetic that came with thrifting’s popularity a positive indication of the shift towards sustainability, or implies a harmful gentrification process?
We asked young Vietnamese why they choose to shop at thrift stores more and more as opposed to traditional retailers. Julie, who’s based in Ho Chi Minh City, noted that “with trends moving so quickly nowadays, it can be difficult for me and my friends to keep up with them and buy pieces that we’re interested in. With the 90s and Y2K trends coming back into fashion, shopping at thrift stores gives me the best of both worlds.” But beyond its ability to yield trendier pieces from different fashion eras, thrifting presents other benefits to the consumer as well.
Sustainable and cheaper
On the upside, this new thrifting trend among millennials and Gen-Z presents an environmentally conscious way to remain fashionable while reducing our carbon footprint. Especially against the throwaway culture that fast fashion and its short trend cycles promote. By recycling old garments, shoppers can reduce their fashion carbon footprint by repurposing goods that might otherwise be lying in landfills or be incinerated.
Beyond the sustainability appeal, thrifting is generally lighter on our wallets as well. Pieces are usually sold cheaper and tend to be of a higher quality than their counterparts in malls. This is because thrift stores tend to resell clothes that were produced before modern short trend cycles, which often now forces brands to cut corners with quality to meet the quantity of demand.
Young shoppers are at the forefront of the adoption of secondhand fashion faster than any other age group. For many, thrifting also sells itself as an exploratory experience where shoppers get to actively search for a ‘diamond in the rough’ – resulting in a more fulfilling purchase. But perhaps most profoundly, thrifting’s popularity has greatly destigmatized secondhand clothing – an activity that had been looked down upon as ‘dirty’.
Julie continues to reflect on these changes: ‘the new thrift stores that I see around Saigon aren’t like they used to be, they’re more organized, they seem to have a better understanding of trends with more cultivated pieces’, nodding to the notable trend of elevating the shopping experience.
But step into these new air-conditioned thrift shops, and you’ll quickly find that prices have gone up, urging buyers to pay prices comparable to if not at times higher than mall brands.
Ethics of thrift shopping
Thrifting has historically been a way for people with lower incomes to participate in consumerism – have these recent markups essentially gentrified affordable shopping? With themed interior design, curated thrifty picks, and hiked-up prices, are these spaces excluding the people who have relied on them the longest?
The majority of the rising criticism of thrifting’s gentrification narrows in on excessive shoppers, who include ‘thrift flippers’ that buy oversized garments and tailor them into fitted items, young haulers who buy more than they can wear, or even Depop (or equivalent) resellers who markup thrifted items to turn a profit.
Seemingly harmless at first, on a larger scale, they can inadvertently raise the prices of thrifted goods by buying things that, to them, aren’t really considered a necessity. As a result, low-income shoppers and plus-sized customers who have traditionally relied on thrifting may find that these stores have become increasingly inaccessible.
However, this phenomenon has not (yet) become a fully-fledged nightmare that had just been described. This is only criticism and depiction of what the resale market could become should we let things progress without considering its wider implications. But it could if we don’t keep an eye on how we interact with the secondhand market and its impact beyond our wardrobes or wallets.
There are still affordable thrift shops that don’t fit into this new wave of ‘premium’ stores that have kept prices affordable. Some examples that come to mind include Con Quạ Đen, OOldew, or Secondhand Mart.
Currently, at $28 billion, the secondhand market is set to hit $64 billion worldwide in the next 5 years, according to a Thred Up report. This is promising as it signals a trend that works against fast fashion and focuses more on lasting pieces. So it's natural to raise prices to mirror the products’ new demand, but sellers should be mindful to not negate their standing as an affordable alternative to mainstream brands.
Consumers and stores alike should make sure their actions are not motivated by a pursuit of trends or profits that render these spaces inaccessible to those who need them.
Let's make sure fashion remains for the many, not the few.