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Has Modern Thrift Culture Been ‘Stolen’ By The Rich?

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If you’ve used Instagram for even a week in the past year, you would know that the app now moonlights as a marketplace for a myriad of online thrift stores, founded predominantly by young adults in their late teens and early twenties.

Simply typing ‘thrift’ in the search box would show over 100 such accounts, while the hashtag #thriftindia currently encompasses 400K Instagram posts.

However, the culture of thrifting has over time become dominated by elite communities who are now the face of a movement started by people from lower-income groups to meet their needs.

Simply typing ‘thrift’ in the search box would show over 100 such accounts, while the hashtag #thriftindia currently encompasses 400K Instagram posts.

Our desire to buy sustainably is influenced not only by the internal pressure caused by our conscience but also by the western progress in the sustainability movement that demands a certain level of ‘moral correctness’ from the rest of the world.

There has been an unambiguous emphasis on the need to renounce fast fashion for several valid reasons. They include the exploitation of the environment, animals and daily wage workers.

Since there aren’t many budget-friendly sustainable brands available in India, many have turned to thrifting as a sustainable and relatively affordable fashion fix. The hand-me-down process keeps products, especially the higher-quality finds from luxury brands, in circulation for longer and therefore reduces consumer waste. 

Exclusive Nature Of Thrift Culture

Thrifting has brought with it the opportunity for young Indians to engage in fashion trends that they see around the world, which have been introduced to a wider set of people by influencers on Instagram.

Needless to say, if someone with influence praises something, it suddenly has more value and becomes more expensive. Many brands are beginning to independently sell vintage/second-hand pieces at higher prices after noticing the increase in consumer demand for thrifted clothes.

Consumers themselves are buying products in bulk to resell them at higher prices. All this has inevitably made the prices of thrifted clothes too steep for most people from low-income groups. 

While thrifting clothes may be in trend for the first time in the country, it’s not a discovery for people who could never afford to buy newly-made clothes. They have either always shopped from stores that sell knockoffs, defective pieces and second-hand products or arranged them from a grapevine of relatives, family friends, acquaintances, neighbours, etc.

In fact, a good deal of vendors from poor socio-economic backgrounds often make a living out of selling these clothes and make ends meet, thus creating an alternative source of livelihood.

Most of these people have been bullied, publicly humiliated and have been made to feel ashamed for not wearing new clothes in the past- especially in university and workplaces.

BHUTIA MARKET - KOLKATA
Representational image.

However, now since it has assimilated into the culture of rich, white people and has been adopted by others with class privilege too, it’s seen as cool, trendy and sustainable. 

This makes one wonder whether the current collective attitude towards thrifting is only positive because for most, it’s just another option or a trend and not a necessity.

It is not shocking that the average Indian consumer of products from online thrift stores lives in a metropolitan city, has access to a smartphone and e-payment systems and comes from a financially stable home. Those who can’t access these services are naturally left out of the loop. 

Moreover, most of the influencers on social media platforms come from financially secure households and have more resources to create and promote their content than lesser privileged people who should actually be credited for the idea behind thrifting and its contribution to the sustainability movement so far. 

Therefore, as with most things, the culture of thrifting too has been appropriated by elite communities, intentionally or unintentionally gatekeeping it from the very people who started it and need it the most.

In a way, it has transitioned from being a safety net for those with less resources to an aesthetic to be dominated and monetised by the rich, often acting as a symbol of one’s good character.

Moreover, this idea has been romanticised to the point that those who can’t afford to appear as ethical and environmentally conscious are made to feel guilty for their consumption patterns and fashion choices.

Is Thrifting A Long-Term Solution?

What’s been forgotten is that whether ethical or not, consumption still does harm. Thrifting, a cheaper and sensible alternative, obviously makes one consume less and therefore should ideally do less harm. 

However, desire to make ‘thrift hauls’ or ‘sustainable shopping’ videos often drives influencers and YouTubers to thrift or buy sustainable clothes in large amounts, which has a countereffect on their efforts to be environmentally conscious.

In this regard, occasionally buying from a fast-fashion store to consume those products for a longer period seems to be a better option than thrifting clothes once every 2-3 weeks just to let them sit in one’s wardrobe or dispose of them sooner or later. 

While it is true that the onus is on the consumer to regulate and improve their consuming habits, it is upsetting to see the movement become so fixated on individual behaviour modification.

 

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Clearly, what we need today is more accountability at the corporate level, since it’s the brands that continue to make products in such a corrupt and carelessly excessive manner. That being said, it is also untrue that individual, slightly flawed efforts to do good account for nothing. It helps greatly to practice zero-waste methods as much as possible. 

However, the answer isn’t necessarily thrifted or sustainable or fast fashion, since many do not have the privilege to choose. What could help instead is if everyone decided to simply be intentional about what they buy and get the maximum use out of every purchase. 

Moreover, the only way modern thrift culture can create genuine impact is if it is made more inclusive and sensitive towards the needs of communities that are dependent on it.

Owners of thrift stores must therefore ensure they don’t sell their products at exorbitant prices that only a few can afford, while buyers shouldn’t use thrifting as a free pass to shop and later discard excessively and carelessly. 

The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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