I shop almost exclusively at thrift stores. Initially I found my way to these bargain havens because I am shamelessly cheap. So shameless I haggled a beggar in Jakarta once. But as I’ve researched manufacturing, I’ve realized better reasons to support second hand stores.
Through Green America’s work and the book Not for Sale, I've become curious about the products I buy retail. When I go into Macy’s or Marshall’s, see the label and price tag, I wonder who made it, under what conditions and about the materials used. I then consider the journey that item took to get to a store near me. I’ve learned most things we buy so cheaply come at a cost.
The brief film The Story of Stuff details the how and why of production, consumption and its repercussions. Somewhere someone is slaving in an unsafe factory so I can get my shoes, rug or shirt for $5 at Target. If something is that cheap then someone is getting shafted. Chances are that someone is a woman like me or children like mine.
The documentary Maquilapolis focuses on multinationally-owned factories in Tijuana where female workers earn $6/day assembling TV components, cameras and other goods. They live literally downstream from where these factories spew their chemicals, unregulated and unfiltered into the river inflicting a range of maladies on the workers and their children. Manufacturing takes an unimaginable toll on the health of factory workers, mostly women of reproductive age, children and the environment.
It’s overwhelming to learn about the atrocities suffered by workers worldwide. But once I’ve learned about an injustice, how can I support its perpetrators? For instance in 2010 workers in a Bangladeshi factory making clothes for Abercrombie & Fitch and Target died in a preventable fire. Despite worldwide pressure from human rights groups, these companies refused to create safer working conditions, compensate families, or simply respond in a humanitarian way. How can I shop in those retail stores again?
Perhaps globalization is systemic haggling of the poor.
For the most part thrift stores are locally owned and affiliated with local charities. I like knowing the money I’m spending is staying in my community and a portion of it, in some cases all of it, is going to a homeless shelter, being reinvested into job training (as the Goodwill does), and such. I like knowing that items didn’t travel from across the ocean to get to me, just from someone else’s closet across town. I like knowing that no raw materials were extracted and processed for me to have a winter coat, umbrella or desk. I like knowing perfectly useable goods are being diverted from a landfill and are being reused.
But there's another reason I shop second hand. Thrift stores are a sobriety check. You know when you're out drinking, feeling supremely alive, so downing shots 4 through 10 seem like a good idea? Buying new stuff can be like that. Nothing is more tantalizing and promising than a mall or store full of new clothes, gadgets, toys or my weakness, shoes. Having grown up completely drenched in commercials, I go shopping anticipating something phenomenal at an awesome price that will make me feel like a million bucks. Like the promise of a night of drinking, neither delivers quite like we hope they will. The novelty of the purchased item fades as quickly as the buzz. Thrift stores are a sobriety check because goods are stripped of the false promise of the mall. Nothing's shiny or new. It's where shiny and new end up when we've become distracted by yet shinier and newer.
Have you donated stuff to a thrift store lately? Gotten a glimpse of the warehouse where they inventory discarded items? It’s like the party house after the party. Masses of clothes that didn’t make us look like whosit on the cover. A graveyard of gadgets that proved to be more complicated than helpful. Stacks of toys more time was spent prying from boxes than played with. Seasons of holiday décor that didn’t make our family less dysfunctional. I think about this mountain range of forsaken goods when I consider going to the mall to buy something new, this massive accumulation at the morning after end of consumption.
Second hand stores are a reminder that what we buy has a life that extends before and beyond our fleeting interaction with it. Our checkbooks and bodies eventually recover from too much shopping or drinking, but factory workers and our planet continue paying long after we’ve tossed that must have item from last season. Thrift stores keep me sober when I want to be drunk on the illusion that an endless array of new goods will continuously, magically appear.
Of course I still relish the cheap. But $5 for new pants at TJ Maxx can never make sense if workers are paid fairly, labor safely and the manufacturing process didn’t poison the surrounding area with residual toxins. $5 spent for new-to-me pants at the thrifty however, makes sense for me, my community and our planet.