Thursday, January 6, 2011

Myth-stakes

The comment below came from the previous post on January 2nd. I had to check an initial emotional reaction, but I gave the premise some serious thought. I appreciate comments, even if I don’t agree with them. After writing a response, I thought the topic worthy of a post on its own.

The comment:

“First, a real reuse economy will price the needy out of the market and also result in fewer goods to reuse, which you do not address (not that you need to, since this is a Manifesto, not a Reasoned Consideration of All Outcomes). However, I will say that there is nothing about reuse that makes it somehow immune to tackiness or a throwaway quality. Because, really, taking a perfectly serviceable wool sweater and making it into a felted cupcake equals making landfill material. What I am saying is that the reuse "movement" has plenty Billy Bass items and acting a though reuse--virtuous as it may be--is somehow aesthetically superior just makes us all sound snobbish.”

Dispelling the Poor Clientele Myth

I don't agree with the assumption that “a real reuse economy will price the needy out of the market”. Thrift stores currently have a wide audience, just look at the parking lots. There are BMW’s next to clunkers held together with duct tape – and everything in between. It is a myth that charitable thrift stores exist solely to serve the needy customers. Please refer to a letter from the Denver Goodwill CEO I posted in January, 2009 dispelling one of the many myths about thrift stores. Besides, many easily identified discount chain retailers specifically and successfully market to the lower-tiered income segment. Since there is no comprehensive study on the thrift market, we’ve no exact data where those with fewer economic resources shop more frequently.

Who is Thrift Serving?

Like many retailers, the aim of the charitable thrift is indeed “profit” – but philanthropic profit. Unlike conventional retail, these non-profits’ proceeds in turn fund programs that help change the lives of thousands of people for the better. I know that Denver Goodwill alone serves well over 10,000 people each year. That’s why, on multiple occasions, I’ve referred to shopping thrift as Poetic Shopping. The purchase of a reused or repurposed item helps repurpose another person’s life. Thrift shopping is a more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable practice.

Yes, many thrift stores have raised prices. I think this is in reaction to the fact charitable organizations have to help a growing population of those in need during these extraordinarily hard economic times. Like other non-profits, the Goodwills, ARCs, DAVs and Salvation Army’s must fight harder for the foundation and corporate support that’s been cut back. Recessions are very hard on non-profits. On the bright side, I think we can take solace that any price hike in a thrift store doesn’t go to extravagant and inappropriate corporate bonuses or a corporate jet. Isn’t that a relief?

Suction and Deduction

In part because Americans are such voracious consumers and easily suckered into buying new stuff we don’t need (the giant suction of the economy of new crap), we consume a disproportionately embarrassing quantity of natural resources. It will take a long time for an American reuse economy to – as the commenter writes - “result in fewer goods to reuse”. But if that day comes to pass, I will smile, cross my arms in satisfaction and think, “Mission accomplished! We finally learned a worthy lesson and embraced reuse”. I doubt I will live long enough to see that day. But, I certainly hope it will come to pass so I can dust the dirt off my hands.

Supply and Demand in a Larger Reuse Market

Like the conventional market, a reuse market is tiered by value and has different niches and price points. Also, like any other component of the capitalist market, a larger re-use market would be subject the forces of competition, not just with each other – but with conventional retailers as well. History shows us that where there is competition, prices drop, not rise.

Thrift outlets also like to keep inventory moving, hence the weekly half-off colored tag sales. This is testament that thrift stores don’t empty content and drive up the cost of the remaining stock because of scarcity. If there were “fewer goods to reuse”, outlets wouldn’t have half-off days! Thrift sale days boost customer traffic, inventory flow, and the charitable bottom line.

The Landfill Myth

As written in the comment, “…taking a perfectly serviceable wool sweater and making it into a felted cupcake equals making landfill material, “ – au contraire. My daughter received this handmade set of petit-fours from one of my girlfriends for Christmas. It, along with a quilt the same friend made of recycled material, has become one of my daughter’s most treasured items. I consider these items heirloom quality and firmly believe that as long as they are in my or my daughter’s hands they are not landfill fodder. Should my daughter have children, I’ve no doubt this is something they will honor too. I would rather have my children have play tea party with handmade felted cupcakes than plastic ones made across the Pacific Pond.


It is worthy to note that charitable thrift stores do not destroy leftover
merchandise like many conventional retailers do. This January 2010 post cites how some major retailers often destroy unsold merchandise before tossing it in the dumpster (the corporate misanthrope instead of the philanthrope). Conversely, unsold merchandise from the thrift store is packaged into huge lots and sold to third world countries where these items are used and appreciated. That's why we see photos of kids in rural Bolivia wearing NFL t-shirts. Goodwill Denver even maintains a pile of shoes without mates that are sent to countries where landmines are a problem.

Certainly items bought in thrift stores may eventually be tossed in a landfill. But even if a pot purchased at a thrift store is eventually thrown away, at least its product life cycle was prolonged – directly translating into a smaller stream to that landfill. That pot could easily be donated multiple times, too.

Mirror, Mirror

There’s no shame in scoring something cool (aesthetically pleasing) at a thrift store, especially if it’s vintage, not a knock-off. It’s fun, and there’s no sin in sharing a story of a successful thrift safari find. There’s a practice that plays out in the conventional market that I wrote in a September 2009 post. Lots of retailers replicate widely available vintage thrift items, selling them at ludicrous margins when the originals are worth many times more. So, one has a choice to purchase the little fellow below for pennies on the dollar. Isn’t the original supposed to be worth more? Are product designers going to thrift stores for ideas? Quite possibly.


Of course a reuse market is a reflection of the conventional market, peppered with estate items and hidden gems. If crap is being sold in the conventional market, it will filter into the reuse market (so no, thrift is not immune to tackiness or non-useful items). This is no revelation. I wrote a post about this in August 2009, “Standing naked in a thrift store”.

The consumer of a new item has a conscious, free will choice whether they wish to purchase a singing Billy Big Mouth Bass, Chia Pet, chocolate fountain, etc. In the thrift, store an antique Limoges covered dish just might be sitting next to that tacky plastic trophy specimen. I can testify to that.

In conclusion, I prefer to be more original by rescuing worthy items (and perpetuating the useful life of something otherwise disposed of) rather than falling victim to an economic monoculture. But that's just me (and Mr. Golightly).

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm not at all sure where I would fit on the virtue measuring stick, but I do feel very good about frequenting thrifts. My purchases support organizations that provide for basic needs as well as cultural resources such as our local symphony. I'm also less wasteful of my resources in the sense that buying clothing and household items used and discounted at the thrifts stretches my hard-earned dollars. Less of what I have goes for things, which allows me to direct more to savings accounts. Like Ms. G., I see my middle class counterparts as well as well-heeled and low-income shoppers at all of the thrifts. We tend to fill our carts differently -- largely because our needs and interests are different -- not simply because our purchasing power differs. If anything, thifts are great levelers.

Maggie Mayer said...

This, and many of your other posts, are truly heartening to read. The lure of buying "stuff" is perpetuated to disgustingly absurd degrees in this country, all fueled by the greed of the credit industry that thrives on our debt when we purchase useless, crappy products. We are conditioned to think of used items as a class failure, rather than a sign of resourcefulness and intelligent frugality. I too hope to see the day that people think--even for a moment-before buying, and the day that "want" or "like" doesn't necessarily turn into "buy." While I doubt I will see that day, your blog keeps me inspired. Cheers!

svelteSTUFF said...

Well said!

Beth said...

Applause, applause!

What a good response!

Alex M said...

Let's all consider who is considered "needy." I started thrifting after an individual I angered on the Internet decided to sue me for libel THREE times. I won, he was wrong, but it cost me thousands. I had no money, we could barely afford to get by. Thrifts provided a way for us to put clothes on our backs so we could go to work and live a reasonable life.

I still thrift because it makes sense. We are solidly middle class and have no credit card debt, and faced a terrible financial crisis.

Thanks to all thrift stores who give someone like me a place to go.

Shanna said...

You and your darn "Manifesto" of thrift. ;) Anyone of us at anytime and especially these days could end up needing the assistance provided by the various charitable thrift organizations out there. Right now my family is staring down that barrel due to a new Governor and Legislature coming into office in my state. If they get their way we could lose our house and this after taking advantage of the fact that thrift stores are available and trying to cut back on spending. I love your tips, comments, "manifestos" and have been implementing some of your tips, they are very helpful to an ex-credit card addict. Keep up the good work and thank you.

Anonymous said...

I don't imagine that I'm alone in this, but I've used thrifts to UPGRADE my household goods. I have donated my plastics in favor of thrifted stainless steel measuring cups and spoons, and glass storage containers. Along with truly distinctive decor items, my home office and bedrooms are accessorized with unique storage items, lamps, and linens that have saved me literally hundreds of dollars. Overtime, I'm upgrading even those items as the rooms evolve -- but again at very low cost. I just donated a $3 lamp (for a tax credit) in favor of a cool $5 one. Lamp No. 1 will find a new home, and I've again not had to loosen the purse strings to do something nice for my home. Moreover, shoppers of even more modest means aren't necessarily "competing" with me, because tastes differ widely.

Staci said...

AMEN!!!

Someone said...

And then there is the fact that buying within a reuse market keeps your dollars AT HOME, not shipped out to you-know-where, that country that has been rather vocal of late about their opinion that we're going down and they're rising. (How IRONIC that certain pro-capitalists call themselves patriots as well. I have little patience with those simpletons!)

Now, I will be honest that I don't care for the fact that some charities promote religion, which I really wish the world would grow out of...but there's still a huge myth that without them nobody would do good in the world. SO not true. I'll stop there...

Anonymous said...

No question that community organizations work under "veil of virtue." I know from experience as a former NP executive, former member of boards, and interested donor that these orgs compete inappropriately with one another, can be inefficient and ineffective, and can be personal fiefdoms of empowered but inept executive directors. I can't even say that I agree with the missions of some of the thrifts I frequent. For example, one in my town has been bussing in drug addicts from another state for years to maintain its "Community" rehabilitation program. The costs associated with the crimes some of these "clients" have subsequently committed have been borne by us all and have put innumerable people at risk. Success in getting government grants and keeping their staff employed has outweighed the organization's responsibilities to the community the organization supposedly serves and it's appalling. However, their thrift efforts do serve the community, and that's what I choose to focus on. We can't have it all, can we?

Willo said...

Very well put. I just want to make the point that we shouldn't forsake good in search of perfection. Are some organizations doing sketchy things? Yeah probably. Are many doing good? Definitely.

Also, I don't know that selling people with little money new things that are imported, low in quality, and possessing who knows what in chemicals, paint, etc...and likely to break shortly after purchase just because they are cheap and new is helping anyone-except big business.

Anonymous said...

Universities compete for dollars, and aren't friendly with each other in this respect. They all want to fatten their endownments. Charitable organizations aren't obligated to behave any differently, because ultimately they have their own cause to support. No biggie. No surprise.

Thrift still beats the snot out of any otherwise homogeneous, mediocre, and irresponsible corporate BS, even if I too, disagree with the ersatz "veil of virtue" some claim as their lofty identity.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comparisons -- and question. Are community human service organizations obliged to "think" beyond their own cause? I believe they are...because when they don't, they can easily get out of sync with real community needs as pointed out in the drug rehab example above.

geogrrl said...

While I believe thrift stores can help those at the lower end of the payscale, their ultimate goal is not to provide low-cost clothing or goods to a community; their ultimate goal is to raise MONEY for their cause(s). Thus whoever comes in and buys things is welcome. The idea that thrift stores are only for the poor is nonsense.

I have noticed great leaps, though, in the prices at thrift stores in the last few years. Sometime for things that obviously need repair/refurbishment before becoming usable again or that should have gone on the rag/scrap heap. I don't know if the problem is rising rents for retail space or what.

There are fewer bargains to be had, at least here. A combination of the stores having volunteers go through and pick out anything valuable for sale in another venue, or pricing things to near-retail cost for anything considered "collectible".

That said, it's still worth shopping a thrift stores, and relative bargains do still exist. Perhaps not on the order of what you find, but I find the hunt more fun than buying at retail stores. I really don't understand the mentality (and I run into it often) that anything second hand is no good.

Right now I'm re-sizing a blouse from "L" to "XL" by turning it into a sleeveless blouse and adding side panels. The shoulders and neck fit fine.

I'm also in the process of refinishing a 1960s dresser, triangular side table, and two armless side chairs (similar to slipper chairs). They cost me, respectively, $30, $6, and $5 at the thrift store.

The dresser was in bad shape, but I loved the design. It's brazilian cherry veneer over plywood/ particleboard. I've added legs (the originals were gone), sanded off the beaten-up finish, epoxyed cracks in some of the joints, and re-nailed the back. I'll be re-staining and varnishing it in the late spring when the weater is warmer and I can work outside. I figure all told (including the new legs) supplies for re-furbishing this piece come to about $100.

The small side table doesn't need repairs, just sanding and re-finishing. Same with the legs and back supports for the chairs. The fabric for re-upholstering the chairs cost me $6 at the thrift store. However, I will have to buy some new padding and burlap for the seats. Supplies to re-finish those will be less--probably $20 for the table and $40 for the two chairs.

I like being able to "rescue" furniture that really just needs to be brought back a little to be usable again.

limerent said...

I think landfill material the commenter referenced in this post was referring to the scraps left behind after making the fabric cupcakes?

The fabric cupcakes are sweet & lovely, though.

pam said...

My reasons for thrifting are not nearly as altruistic as supporting charitable organizations. I just want to save money, and keep things out of the landfills. That's it. My household income allows me to shop pretty much anywhere I want, but I choose thift stores. Thrill of the hunt, I guess. No thrill like finding that fantastic item for a few bucks. I'm a junkie.

Jill said...

Thrift and reuse can be found at many levels....my engagement ring being a case in point. I recently became engaged, and after window shopping at several retail chain jewelers, told my fiance that I wanted to look at a small antique shop I knew of, that had a small but nice area devoted to estate jewelry. We found a gorgeous ring from the 1920's, of astounding craftsmanship, with a .75 carat center stone (much more ring than I ever thought I'd own!). The price was 25% of a ring with a stone of the same size and quality at any of the big box stores, and the setting is unique. I will never see any one else wearing a ring quite like mine, and it is much more elegant than any of those I saw in any of the chains. Mark commented on our find to a recently married co-worker, who said that his bride would never have been willing to shop at a 'disreputable' place for jewelry! All we can think is that we paid cash, and they are still making payments. And my ring has as many as 91 years of history to it already, with many more years to come. My own version of 'haunted cookware'.

Shopping Golightly said...

Anon.

Congratulations on your new wedding ring. It sounds beautiful and has a deeper meaning.

The hypnosis of mass produced retail homogeneity is a sad blight upon our market at large. I feel it sucking the fine art out of life.

Not every kiss begins with Kay and "he got it at Jared" are slogans Mr. Golightly loathes.

Shopping Golightly said...

This thread is one of the most thoughtful I've seen since I starting blogging on the eve of 2009.

Let's carry our thoughts forward.

Godspeed!

Anonymous said...

As much as I love your blog, I sometimes find your attitude towards unsophistcated non-thrifters as off-putting as you view the fans of everything new and gleaming. Your hankering for bragging about the BRANDS of things you find is just that - you emphasize how valuable something with a Banana Republic tag is in the eyes of the consumer. Does it really matter that it came from the thrift store? Was it not still made in China? Don't others who recoginze the brand of clothing you are wearing assume that you are in a way promoting that particular brand?
I remember when for instance leather shoes or handbags were referred to as Italian or Spanish to emphasize good quality. Now it all goes by brand - even though most of the expensive leather shoes now says Made in China.

Like I said, I enjoy your blog and I am a fellow thrifter, but I try not to look down my nose on people who find thrifting undesirable.
Finally, the reason you and I can find such gems at the thrift store is often due to people donating stuff having totally different perspectives on things than we do. Lucky for us, in other words :-)

Anonymous said...

Lots of conflicting values have been aired in this thread. How fun! This blog has a varied audience made up of newbies, people who know the score, people who want to get over shame issues associated with thrift-gleaning adventures, etc. With so many viewpoints to consider, any "inconsistencies" in messaging should be understood or simply overlooked. It's fascinating how a simple topic can yield so much discussion!

Thevail said...

I work at the JTE (Jobs, Training, and Education) side of the local Goodwill, and I'd like to say thank you to all you thrift shoppers!

Thanks to YOU, (yes YOU!)we're able to help a lot of people in really practical ways.

A few of the things your shopping does (aside from the ecological good) is help people from 16 to 65 finally get their GEDs and become employable.

You're helping people with poor english skills (most of whom are legal, and many of whom have extensive education in their native countries) become employable here rather than another social strike against immigrants and a drag on the system.

You are helping us help the elderly avoid social and economic isolation by teaching them basic computer skills like how to e-mail their grand kids and siblings instead of racking up enormous phone bills and being forced to choose between isolation and medication.

You are helping us help people (so many women!) whose only job experiences are minimum wage, maximum labor jobs get basic office skills and customer service skills that literally change their lives by giving them the option of looking for jobs that come with higher pay, benefits and less physical distress.

You cannot imagine how grateful the 6-month-pregnant woman is that she can do data entry FROM A CHAIR!

And as for pricing the truly needy out of the market, it's really not a factor.
First of all, we frequently provide FREE vouchers so that the truly needy can get the things from a pan to cook in to a bed for their kids to school clothing. They don't really pay anything to shop with us.

Second, most of our truly poor clients tend to shop those super-bargain tags like crazy, and tend to stick to much more basic items than those that a thriftanista is looking for.

They want a pair of tan slacks to go to work in, not a mohair sweater that they'd need to pay to have dry cleaned.

Thank you all for allowing us to help people who really need it!

Shopping Golightly said...

Thevail,

Hear, hear! Thank your for sharing personal testimony and adding an honest, human element in the socio-economic advantages of shopping charitable thrift! Many Americans are not tuned in.