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Why Second-Hand Shopping Isn’t Truly Guilt-Free

Presidio Marketing | Friday November 25th, 2011 | 1 Comment


3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By Diana Ford

As a long term, lifetime thrift store shopper, I have always taken great satisfaction in my ability to build wardrobes without paying retail prices. With a little patience and the thrill of the hunt spurring me on, I have spent many hours rifling through second-hand clothing racks looking for that something special for just $3.99. Aside from feeling good about getting such great deals, the ethically driven, concerned consumer in me can rest assured because it’s completely guilt-free shopping. All my purchases become acts of recycling, extending the life time of products and diverting them from landfill as long as possible. At least that’s what I used to think. However, I question the actual validity of the “guilt-free” association with second-hand shopping.

While I would like to say that my thriftiness has always been driven by a desire to recycle and avoid supporting big brand labels, this isn’t entirely true. As an adult living in San Francisco, California, not to mention a student of sustainability, these are certainly motivating factors for me today. However my relationship with thrift stores goes back way before I ever gave consideration to such things.

I was born into to thrift store lifestyle to a mother who was herself perhaps a little obsessed. Our family was never in danger of destitution, but Mom just couldn’t justify buying expensive items or clothing when it was available for so much less. As Bay Area suburbanites we used to make special trips into the city just to hit all our favorite thrift stores. We also frequented more local places, and it was always a fun, exciting outing, never knowing what treasures we might find.

Clearly this affinity for thrift was passed to me, which in later years of the starving student variety of poverty, proved very useful. As I became more active in the sustainability movement in San Francisco, I felt secure knowing that I was promoting the recycling of clothing and avoiding patronage of unethical big brand labels. On top of  this security was an (admittedly) somewhat smug satisfaction when receiving compliments from individuals who would have no way of knowing that my stylish selections came from the corner Goodwill.

My smugness vanished, however, on one fateful day in October as I sat in a class for my sustainable business graduate program. Turning around in my seat to address a classmate, I caught sight of a glaring “GAP” label inside the collar of my coat, which was draped over the chair, hanging for all to see. I casually leaned an elbow on top of the offensive label, hiding it from view as I delivered my opinion on the importance of ethical consumerism.

That evening, when I returned home, I considered what had happened. If someone didn’t know where I purchased my jacket, and saw the big label name, they might assume that I supported that label. Additionally, even if I didn’t know this person, I was still providing brand name exposure, which is a form of positive publicity. I started wondering, if I buy labels I don’t support from a thrift store, is it really guilt-free shopping?

Puzzled by this question, I started asking around and surveying people I knew who also shopped at thrift stores about their opinion on the matter. Most people felt that the value of extending the lifetime of goods and diverting them from landfill outweighed any negative effect of accidental advertising. Having given it a lot of thought, I think that they are right. However, I decided that there must be a middle ground and came up with a few ideas.

When buying second-hand clothing from brands I don’t know or support, covering or removing the label is a fairly easy option. Avoiding items that incorporate brand names into their design is another. Finally, making the effort to find out about brands I don’t know. After all, an unknown brand might wonderfully sustainable, and in need of all the publicity it can get.

In conclusion, I encourage readers who, like myself, thrive on thriftiness to take a little extra time to ensure that second-hand clothing really is guilt-free.

[Image Credit: rversde23, Flickr]


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  • http://www.sustainablelifemedia.com koann

    I love the idea of buying used, or buying less and better. But on the issue of brand support, I’d love to see this post flipped on its head to call for outright support of brands that are doing all they can to help move us toward a sustainable future. Nothing we can do as consumers can have greater impact that voting with dollars. And as we’re beginning to see, consumers as citizens do have the potential for mass impact, event in terms of setting standards of healthy economic behavior. As a mother, of two nearly grown young men, I can tell you my experience is that when it comes to establishing healthy behavior patterns, rewarding good behavior is at least, if not more important than punishing bad. So YES! Buy less, buy sustainable, and YES! to your comment about making an effort to find out about brands you don’t know and proudly call out the ones that stand for something you care about. We’re fighting to encourage brands to become platforms for purpose, so pay attention and reward the ones who are taking up that goal. (You might be surprised about all the work Gap does to help move their brand toward sustainability, btw!)