The Thrift Store Boom: Used Clothing in the U.S.

Well before MacLemore, there were some people who have always held the belief that paying $20 for every t-shirt and $60 for every pair of jeans is too much money to spend on clothing. Recently, a lot more people have subscribed to that notion and have stopped buying everything new.

Thrift stores held an important place in American consumer society until the 1950s. It’s not a coincidence that declining secondhand purchases happened around the same time as the advent of credit cards and the widespread belief that the surefire way to keep the postwar economy afloat was to buy, buy, buy. And so Americans bought new stuff by the bunches: cars, homes, appliances and clothes.

Thrift stores faded into the background for several decades until making a big comeback in the past few years. According to the National Association of Resale Professionals, the number of resale stores increased by 7% in both 2011 and 2012.

There are several explanations for this. The Great Recession is still close by in the rearview mirror, and as property values drop and unemployment climbs, certain businesses not only stay afloat but thrive, including thrift stores (auto repair businesses also thrive as people hold on to older cars longer).

The average household spends $121 monthly on clothing. Despite a recent recession, we still buy a lot of clothing, wearing much of it only a few times before moving on and letting it fade into the forgotten depths of the closet. Although just 15% of clothing waste is reused or recycled, the clothes that are given a second life are often in good condition and still fashionable enough to be worn by someone else.

Much of secondhand clothing collected by USAgain, Spin Green and other textile recyclers wind up on the racks of thrift stores in the U.S.

Smart businesses adapt to what consumers want, and thrift stores are no different. Stores like Savers, which operates nearly 300 stores across the world, organize their clothing sections by size, color and style, just like any store selling new items. Doing this makes customers feel more comfortable and increases businesses as shoppers have an easier time finding what they want.

Thrift stores have also become dominant sellers of niche items and retro collectibles. Ragstock, a higher-end thrift store chain with outlets at malls, specializes in selling “ugly” holiday sweaters for themed parties. Ragstock also carries a large selection of vintage ‘80s sweaters, ski jackets and cowboy boots—items that have come back in style and are in high demand among the fashion-forward.

Even as the economy recovers and people fall back into old spending habits, don’t expect thrift stores to disappear. With so much fast fashion available for purchase, Americans will continue buying clothing and getting rid of it when it’s no longer wanted, and hopefully, more of those items will be diverted from the trash and put on the shelves of thrift stores to be bought and worn again.

To paraphrase the old saying, one man’s trash is another man’s new wardrobe.

Learn more at www.usagain.com

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4 Comments on “The Thrift Store Boom: Used Clothing in the U.S.

  1. Re-use and recycling are great, but I’d like to point out a few inaccuracies in this blog.

    1) You wrote that “although just 15% of clothing waste is reused or recycled, the clothes that are given a second life are often in good condition and still fashionable enough to be worn by someone else.”

    Reference, please? Actually, you seem to be misinterpreting an EPA statistic, which pertains *only* to clothing estimated to have avoided the landfill and to have been *recycled*. ‘Re-use’ does not figure into this EPA data. And I got that straight from an EPA rep.

    Let’s be very clear: ‘re-use’ & ‘recycling’ are not the same. ‘Recycling’ is to process discarded items into new products. ‘Re-use’ is discarded items retaining their original form, to be used again.

    The EPA doesn’t keep track of the vast quantities of reusable clothes that folks give away to friends and family, to churches, and to for-profit and nonprofit clothing collection companies. Moreover, the global trade in used clothing is reportedly worth billions annually. The very existence of countless charities and for-profits collecting this valuable commodity strongly supports the contention that when Americans part with their still-wearable garments, they don’t recklessly toss them into the trash, as your blog implies.

    So it’s likely that most discarded clothing headed for the landfill is not wearable, but actually thread-bare, stained or ripped. Of course, this is where we need to improve. We should bag up our ‘non-wearables’ and take them preferably to a nonprofit like the Salvation Army or St. Vincent de Paul, which sells the stuff by the ton to help disadvantaged folks in the community. But give them to a for-profit company like USAgain, and you’re just helping someone’s bottom line.

    Which brings me to my main point: companies like USAgain are reportedly causing donations of wearable duds to dwindle at local charities. That would mean charitable groups in many communities have less funding to help the needy. Please think about this next time you have clothes to give away.

    2) USAgain touts itself as a “textile recycler,” but its main activity is as a used clothes reseller. In February 2013, a USAgain spokesman told Indiana’s South Bend Tribune that “about 70% to 80% of what USAgain collects is sold in the reused clothing market.”

    USAgain may refer to ‘re-use’ as if it were ‘recycling’ simply because it makes the company look “green.” But USAgain’s true interest in green is revealed through its frequent hints that it prefers “gently used” clothing, which it sells more profitably than the unwearable items that are useful only as recyclable material.

    3) USAgain is controversial for even more disturbing reasons. Reports going back a decade suggest that the for-profit company, to quote one TV news investigation, “… routinely pretended to be a charity so business owners wouldn’t ask for rent on the bin space.”

    4) Worse, Danish prosecutors link USAgain to an alleged cult called the Tvind Teachers Group. Five leaders of this group are Interpol fugitives wanted in their native Denmark in connection with a multimillion-dollar tax-fraud and embezzlement scheme.

    To clarify, it’s likely that the only Tvind Teachers Group members at USAgain are its officers, none of whom are wanted by Interpol. And the company’s laborers and local managers are probably just regular folks trying to hold down a job. But the following report quotes a former USAgain branch manager who says she had been pressured to join the Teachers Group, reportedly an elite group within the broader Tvind organization.

    For more on this, Google search these reports:

    Millions In Clothing Donations Diverted From Charity kirotv

    Local Mayor Wants Red Bins Out Usagain in Seattle YouTube

    [The description box in the 2nd report has more info. Click ‘Show more’ while on that page.]

    Thanks for the chance to express my opinions. Please research before you donate.

  2. Nice! Thinking the most upscale of these is Green Eileen, Eileen Fisher gently used clothing. Purchases there support women’s causes and promote the concept that clothing should last and that styles should be enduring.

  3. Even better than thrifting – swapping. I joined a clothing swap two years ago and it has been an amazing sustainable alternative.

  4. Thank you for such a great informative post; it’s so great to see US consumers more concerned with the negative effects of the fast fashion industry !!! In the mean time may I recommend you check out http://www.revenvert.com . They have beautiful design led clothing that focus on sustainable practice within the fashion industry , and I’m sure you’ll love it. Happy browsing 🙂

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