The pros and cons of thrift flipping: Is it really sustainable?
The flip side of thrift-flipping.
Secondhand shopping, or thrifting, has been growing in popularity over the past decade. It can satisfy the urge for a fashion fix while being seen as more sustainable than buying new clothes.
Georgia has been thrifting since she was 14. She’s also worked in multiple op shops across Wairarapa and Wellington.
“[Thrifting is] such a good way to trigger the beginning of like, lowering your consumption, and changing the way that you see the world and our relationship with spending and material objects,” she said.
“And also it’s more, like, circular … [That shirt] lives five different lives, as opposed to just once. It’s so much more rewarding – not just ending up in the dumpster.”
Its popularity has led to a new side hustle for some eagle-eyed fashionistas: ‘thrift flipping’. It’s when people buy secondhand clothes and sell them at steeper prices, usually online.
Critics argue that if thrift flippers are trawling the op shops for bargains, they’re cutting off access to cheap clothes that many people rely on, especially those on low incomes. It can also inadvertently add to the overconsumption of clothes.
We take you through the pros and cons of thrift flipping.
What do op shoppers think?
We asked op shoppers how they see thrift flipping.
Mackenzie, 18, is an avid thrifter. We chatted to her in an op shop in Tawa.
“I really like the thrill of the hunt, and that you can always find unique pieces,” she told Consumer.
Mackenzie believes thrift flipping is great, especially when flippers sew thrifted pieces before reselling them, to modernise their style.
Emily, a mother of three aged 18 months to 10 years old, started thrifting for her kids because of how quickly they’d outgrow their clothes. She does her thrifting online via thrift flippers.
“[I do this] mainly because I have three children and I can’t be bothered taking them into the thrift store. It’s like, I find that when you go yourself, you have to be willing to spend quite a bit of time to sort through and find the things that you want,” she said.
“I understand that when there’s a reseller involved, it’s normally going to cost more than if you found it in the thrift store yourself ... but I don’t really care. It’s a convenience for me.”
Flipping the story
Thrifting is expected to become a global phenomenon and grow 127% by 2026, according to GlobalData 2022 – published by ThredUp, an online consignment store which focuses on sustainability.
Online platforms such as ThredUp and Depop, which promotes itself as a community-powered circular fashion marketplace, are becoming increasingly common. In 2021, ThredUp had 1.34 million active buyers while Depop had 30 million users.
However, Depop (which launched in 2011) has been criticised for greenwashing and pushing trend-based consumerism. Some users of thrift-flipping sites like this buy cheap, fast-fashion brands to resell at a higher price online.
The accessibility and affordability of fast fashion means more low-quality clothing ends up in the circular economy, but it tends to not last as long and often isn’t bought – leading to more waste.
In addition to buying bulk fast-fashion items to onsell, some thrift flippers plunder small op shops, only to mark up the prices substantially to fit what’s trending.
Liz Ricketts is the co-founder of the Or Foundation, a charity working to promote the circular economy and tackle the global effects of our consumption.
When it comes to thrift flipping, she understands the value in convenience of accessibility but this can inadvertently promote overconsumption.
Liz argues that if we continue to see thrifting as an opportunity to buy more for less cost and to fulfil short-lived trends, then this is not addressing the problem. And it’s not steering towards long-term change, because these clothes remain just as disposable.
“The rising popularity of thrifting among more wealthy consumers as an alternative to buying from sustainable and ethical fashion brands reduces the already limited options available to low-income communities when it comes to clothing,” the Berkeley Economic Review noted in 2019.
“This means there are fewer quality items left on the thrift store shelves for those who truly have no other affordable options.”
This could mean the only other affordable option for many is fast fashion, which simply fuels the problem.
A quick browse on popular fast fashion brand Shein’s website shows tops for less than $10 and jeans under $30, which is comparable to many thrift shop prices.
Thrift flipping as a career
Nate, 25, runs a thrift-flipping business. He started his thrifting journey while studying and was encouraged by his friends, who loved his bargain hunting and vintage finds.
Nate’s business focuses on men’s vintage finds, especially vintage sports jerseys and T-shirts with unique prints. Curating this style niche and attracting a specific audience is a part of his business strategy – and something he needs to keep up with to stay relevant.
It’s now his full-time job, though he said the pay isn’t noteworthy.
“I can spend, you know, six to eight hours thrifting in Tauranga for a day, and maybe come home with six or seven items, and that’s like, that’s realistic,” Nate shared with Consumer.
“Some days it’s worse than that, obviously some days are better, but you’re just sourcing enough inventory to make it actually viable to do this full time.”
Nate believes thrifting is about encouraging everyone to get involved. Over the years he has found there will always be enough [clothes] for everyone if we are mindful of each other and ensure we are keeping it accessible.
Changing how we consume clothes
More than 100 billion garments are produced each year, according to a report by Sustain Your Style, a sustainable fashion initiative. The manufacturing process uses 5 trillion litres of water and leads to 190,000 tons of microplastics ending up in the ocean, along with water pollution and excess waste.
When we collectively own five times more clothing than our grandparents did, and clothing is being thrown away after only seven wears (on average), mountains of textiles are wasted every day and what is being produced just doesn’t last.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is actively pushing for action in this area. It believes sustainable fashion and circularity in the industry are possible, but it will require major change from consumers – who are buying more clothes than ever before and wearing them for half as long, discarding them as trends change.
Liz Ricketts believes consumer-led change is possible, but it will take effort.
“We need people to take on challenges, like buying nothing new for a year […] so that you can detox your own brain from these behaviours and from the constant stimulation that’s telling you to buy things and to be a consumer all the time.”
When you do make a purchase, Ricketts believes buying local is best.
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air