Second-hand Shopping: An Ethical Saving Grace, or Another Excuse to Create an Elitist Market?

Second-hand shopping has always been a staple in the alleyways of Brighton’s The Lanes; seasonally jammed from root to tip with tourists and locals alike. Quaint stalls displaying old-fashioned trinkets live opposite quirky shops with large outdoor racks of sale items, and people admire the possibility to jump from business to business with little to no commitment past casual browsing.

This rare shopping experience attracts thousands who wish for a ‘bargain find’ on the seafront, expanding in recent years due to the rise in demand from young audiences, desiring for the possibility of sustainably sourced fashion.

News of the ethical and environmental impacts caused by the practices of various well-loved high street brands has led to a call for change, prompting many young people to opt for second-hand shopping as a form of combatting these increasing damages.

Brighton’s unique charm meant it quickly became one of the central hubs to do so. It’s worth questioning, however, the extent to which the second-hand market is appropriately handling this surge of popularity, as well as whether or not their ethics should be questioned in lieu of it.

While businesses such as charity shops remain largely unaffected, both in the south of England and throughout the UK, self-proclaimed ‘vintage’ shops are feeling this wide increase in customers of younger ages. Channelling in a staggering number of second-hand items into their businesses per year, vintage shopping succeeds vastly in spoiling the consumer for choice, particularly in comparison to the limited stock-per-shop of their charity-giving competitors. This gives them an ‘excuse’ to inflate prices beyond the necessary standard of a second-hand store, since the difficulty of hunting for good items is significantly reduced and therefore worthy of the extra cost. This enlarged price gap, however, has thus created an elitist market of sustainable shoppers.

The main concern with this is, unlike fashion brands that compete for quality and therefore for profit, second-hand clothing exclusively emerges from the same source: people who simply want old clothes gone. How, therefore, can vintage shops justify marking up what could have just as easily ended up in a charity shop for half the price?

Some vintage shops, such as Brighton’s boutique Kate and Aud, justify their prices by consciously upcycling second-hand saris and turning them into new and unique products. Prices therefore appropriately reflect the time, effort and creativity used in their reworking.

Those who do not upcycle yet continue to create an elitist consumer market through inflated stock pose the dangerous issue, due to the desire they are unintentionally taking away from second-hand shopping.

The popularity amongst young people relates entirely to the notion of finding ‘clothes on a budget’ as opposed to paying extortionate prices for similar pieces in the high street. Challenging this by reflecting prices at practically the same level as ‘new clothes’ risks encouraging a movement back into the reinvestment of fast fashion. Is it high time vintage shops addressed these issues? How can we, as consumers, prevent this from going any further?

Written for Austellus Magazine, August 2020

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