Thrift Reselling: What's The Value of a Vintage Item?

Exploring the controversy and ethicality in re-selling vintage and second-hand clothes.

by Melissa Borgerding / Garnet & Black

Thrift culture has become incredibly popular among teenagers and young adults. A day with your friends spent sifting through the remnants of somebody’s grandma’s closet from the '80s is a day well spent. There’s no better feeling than finding a new favorite piece hidden in the corner of a dusty thrift store— especially with a price that no college kid could turn down. The demand for unique, affordable and, most importantly, thrifted clothing has skyrocketed over the past few years and when there’s high demand, the market will rise to fill its needs. Recently, there has been an explosion of second-hand reselling businesses among college students. These young business owners flood their social media stories with posts about pages where they sell thrifted items from graphic tees to sneakers at a low to standard market price. While some use their shops as a casual hobby, others have amassed thousands of dedicated followers and a steady platform.

While vintage shops and thrift stores have existed for decades, the online popularity of thrifted clothing is fairly new. The secret to the success of online resellers lies in the stock of thrift stores, Goodwills and secondhand shops. Think of a reseller as a middleman: they devote their time to looking through endless thrift store racks for distinctive items so the average consumer doesn’t have to. They make a decent profit from reselling them, and the consumer gets a unique piece. Although this may seem like a harmless hobby, the heightened popularity of thrift reselling has sparked a deeply divided debate over its ethics.

Online resellers are infamous for labelling their clothing as “vintage,” “Y2K,” or “rare” in order to justify a weighty listing price, but what’s really the value of these items? Most of the time, it’s up to the consumer. People are willing to spend much  more on their clothes if they feel it’s a significant, once-in-a-blue-moon deal. However, the extremes of reselling are often easy to identify. Many have pointed out how sellers often drastically increase their prices to an unreasonable value compared to the retail price—also known as price gouging—despite the flawed nature of the items which immensely drops their true value. Still, these types of resellers won’t budge on a high price tag for the sake of a brand name.

What about the secondhand shops themselves? Since thrift resellers will purchase massive hauls from a thrift shop at a time, many opponents of thrift reselling are quick to question, “what about the low-income people and families who rely on these shops?” Where they would have been able to afford the original price of a $6 pair of Levi’s jeans, they can no longer at its new $50 resell price. It is a fact that lots of items of value happen to wind up at a marked down price in secondhand shops without employees realizing it, so a seemingly innocuous $10 coat could actually be worth upwards of $90, maybe even $100. Nevertheless, the same questions persist. Is it ethical to purchase these large hauls of clothing and sell them for a profit?

Madeline Howard, a sophomore studying English at UofSC, works at a local buy-sell-trade store that sells second hand clothing. Recently, she’s been noticing more regulars coming in on weekly discount days to purchase large hauls of clothes, shoes, accessories and more. After a few small-talk sessions at the register, she came to learn that these regulars are reselling the same clothes on their Instagram pages for five times the price they bought them. When we spoke, she shared some of her thoughts and concerns about these customers: 

What has been your experience with resellers? 

Madeline: It’s frustrating, because the purpose of secondhand stores should be for good quality clothing to go to people in need, not for people who are looking to resell them for profit. The resellers that come in regularly don’t even repurpose the clothes - they’ll just post a shirt they bought from us for five dollars and sell it for twenty-five. Again, it’s frustrating, but we can’t tell them not to shop from us.

Do you think online reselling is unethical?

Madeline: While I think straight reselling is unethical, repurposing and upcycling clothing is different. You’re not just buying things to resell on their own - it’s more creative and sustainable. I’m all for that. 

On the other side of the debate are Sisters Vivian and Naomi Kemp, the owners of Thrift With V (@thrift_w_v on Instagram and @auntvivs on Depop) who focus on reselling, repurposing and upcycling secondhand clothing and housewares. Vivian is based in South Florida, and Naomi, a senior Biological Sciences major in the UofSC Honors College, works from Fort Mill here in South Carolina. Together, they've accumulated almost 1,600 followers on Instagram, and an ever increasing 3,700 followers on their verified Depop account. Depop is a clothing website and app centered around unique fashion for “the next generation.” Individuals make their own listings for clothing, and they package and ship out each item themselves. While some use Depop as a way to clean out their closets and earn an extra bit of cash, many Depop sellers make a substantial profit from the site.

Do you think there's a problem with price gouging in the online thrift and resell scene?

Naomi: I one-hundred percent believe there's a problem. There are a lot of people buying up the jeans in a given thrift store, taking all the t-shirts, and selling them for twenty to two-hundred percent more than they paid for it. They're investing in the thrift store, but at the same time, these aren’t necessarily items that are going to be sitting there for a long time. If you go to a Goodwill outlet, there are families looking through the shoes, and if you buy up all the Air Force Ones, obviously you’re taking that from somebody. So, when we go through different stores, we’re not looking for what we’re going to make the most money off of. We’ll see a crocheted blanket that's been there forever - it’s dirty and ragged, but we still see the quality in it. We try to save items from being thrown out.

Vivian: We rescue.

Naomi: It's really unfortunate that people only see the dollar signs, but the fact that Vivian and I really have a passion for housewares and clothing - and also just want to leave our smallest print on the planet - we hope that others will as well. We’re really just trying to encourage other people that you can get quality items from these places. Continue to support your local thrift stores, but at the same time, don't exploit them for all of the valuable things that people need them for.

What would you say to someone who believes thrift reselling is unethical?

Vivian: People really need to know what they’re wearing. Where it came from. Who made their clothes, how much they were paid. What environmental impact the dyes are making. Where did those scraps go, where did that water lead to? Who’s bathing in that water? Nasty Gal is really cute, but what little gal made those clothes? If you buy Nasty Gal through Depop, that’s kind of a step up. A girl bought it for the wrong size, now she’s reselling it for half the price. Support that girl! Don’t put people down.

Naomi: There’s the whole “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism!” thing, but at the same time, you can say, “Look: there’s a right way to do things that nobody knows how to do, and there are very wrong ways to do things. So, how are you going to consciously buy your items? For the most part, we’re still going to have to look at corporations to change their ways, and the only way that Forever 21 and H&M will stop what they’re doing is if people stop buying from them.

On a smaller scale, Taylor Foggie (@thriftedwtay on Instagram) is a UofSC Public Health major graduating in May, and her Instagram thrift account has garnered a following of over 250 accounts since she made the account nearly a year ago. Her feed consists of unique graphic tees, Gamecocks merchandise, tie-dyed two-piece sets, and other thrifted finds from second hand shops around Columbia.

Do you think there’s a problem with price gouging in the resell community?

Taylor: Yes and no. I’ve noticed with thrifting blowing up, people are making their own brands out of brands that already exist. For people who do this as a full-time job, I guess there’s a little bit of lee-way for upping the price. But for someone like me, it’s just a hobby. If people are going to buy it, they’re going to buy it. I’m not going to raise the price that high. I’m kind of iffy about it - I personally wouldn’t buy a pair of fifty dollar jeans that someone got from a thrift that I could’ve found on my own. But I love supporting small businesses, so I’ll do that.

What would you say to someone who thinks reselling is unethical?

Taylor: It depends on the situation. Are you a frequent thrifter? Or are you someone who only sees thrifting in the media? I see thrifting as going out and buying something that used to be a treasure to someone else, so I don’t really see it as unethical. For someone who doesn’t thrift, I would say you just have to go out and experience it yourself.

Online thrift reselling is a controversial debate that requires open-minded discussion. As price gouging remains a growing part of college culture, it is crucial for avid thrifters and consumers of online thrift shops to be aware of the influence it has on the community as a whole. Clothes are one of the most important forms of self expression, but they also come with a responsibility. No matter what side you fall on, the end goal of this debate is to leave a positive impact on our communities. Whether it’s through conscious thrifting or selectively supporting brands, sustainable shopping allows everyone access to fair, good quality clothing in their closets— and this is something we can all work towards.