The Inherent Privileges of Shopping Secondhand

The Inherent Privileges of Shopping Secondhand

My last post was on how we saved over $1,500 furnishing our apartment secondhand. That’s awesome, right? Then why doesn’t everyone do it? The answer might surprise you. Even something as trivial as shopping secondhand is affected by privilege. The purpose of this post is to examine inherent privileges that make secondhand shopping more accessible to some and less accessible to others, ironically those who would benefit from it most. At the end of this post are some action items for utilizing privilege to create more equity.

White Privilege

Photo by Matilda Vistbacka 

As a white woman shopping at a Salvation Army or sizing up a recent curbside find, I don’t worry about people racially stereotyping me and assuming that I’m poor or up-to-no-good. For BIPOC, stereotype threat is real and can have life-threatening consequences. Stereotype threat is defined as a situational predicament in which people are at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group. I’m not saying stereotype threat stops all BIPOC from shopping secondhand, but it creates a barrier that I don’t have to dedicate headspace to for the preservation of my physical or emotional safety. This isn’t to make you feel guilty, although that is a natural reaction. Rather, it’s important to recognize and own our privilege so that we can better understand others’ experience. Once we have a better understanding of how our experience differs from others’, we’re in a better place to take action to promote equity.

Economic Privilege

Photo by Jp Valery 

Ironically, those with more economic privilege have greater access to the cost savings of sourcing secondhand. In the United States and other countries with a European colonial history, wealth has been concentrated in white communities at the expense of indigenous and black communities (BIPOC). So while I’m listing economic privilege separately from white privilege, it’s important to recognize that race, class, and wealth are correlated for historical reasons that are currently being perpetuated by systemic racism. Some examples?

Wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods more often have high quality curbside finds and/or “nice” secondhand stores

A lamp my neighbor set on the curb

This is a function of wealth. In my old neighborhood in Brooklyn where the majority of our neighbors were immigrants, there was nowhere near the amount of curbside finds compared to what I’ve seen in our ultra-privileged neighborhood in Atlanta. Our neighborhood is a wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood near Piedmont Park. We chose to live here because I wanted to be able to walk to the grocery store, and we were able to find a retro apartment with a below average rent for the area. After living here for 3 months, I’ve found perfectly usable lamps, chairs, sporting equipment, pet supplies, and more just on my own street, not even venturing into other streets in the neighborhood. While I’m overjoyed that I’ve been able to source much of our home furnishing needs from our own sidewalk, we’re incredibly privileged for having the option to do so.

Likewise, the secondhand stores near wealthy neighborhoods unsurprisingly have better selections. Buffalo Exchange and Plato’s Closet strategically seek retail space near middle and upper middle class communities. If you’re not living in a wealthy neighborhood, you will have to travel, which brings me to my next point…

In-Person Secondhand Shopping Requires Mobility

Photo by Ant Rozetsky 

What is mobility? The ability to move. First, bodily mobility, the physical ability to move one’s body without assistance is an enormous privilege many of us take for granted. How would a limitation in your bodily mobility affect your access to secondhand shopping and scheduling pickups through Facebook Marketplace, for example?

Second, transportation-related mobility is heavily affected by economic privilege. As a car owner, large shopping hauls at “the nice Goodwill” and Facebook Market pickups are easily accessible. Without a car, the options are shelling out a hundred or so to rent a car, awkwardly calling a rideshare to haul your stuff, or taking an hour or so on public transit. We’ve taken the expensive route of renting a car for large pickups because we had the economic privilege to do so, but others aren’t as fortunate. This is another example of how economic privilege makes secondhand shopping -and secondhand savings- more accessible to those who have more resources. What about online shopping, you ask?

Online secondhand shopping presupposes access to computers and/or smartphone, and internet

Photo by Yura Fresh 

According to 2017 US Census Data, 22 percent of American households don’t have access to a computer at home, and a quarter don’t have a smartphone (source). Are these numbers surprising to you at all? 1 in 4 households don’t have a smartphone and 1 in 5 don’t have a home computer.

With the revolution of online thrift and consignment stores like Thredup, Swap, Poshmark, and others, barriers like stereotype threat and limited mobility seem less restrictive. Still, for nearly a quarter of the country the option to save money through secondhand online shopping is out of reach because they simply don’t have access to a computer, a smartphone, or internet.

Suppose a person without a home computer or internet access uses the library to message people on Facebook Marketplace and/or Buy Nothing. It’s likely a person in this situation may miss messages from sellers after leaving the library, influencing the seller to set up a pickup with someone else who was able to respond more quickly. As far as online secondhand retail goes, how comfortable would you feel whipping out your debit or credit card at the public library? This doesn’t even begin to touch on the issue of computer literacy, which is another related barrier to entry.

Secondhand gifts presuppose wealth.

These picture frames were a secondhand gift

While furnishing our apartment secondhand, we had the privilege of receiving many secondhand gifts from family members. Secondhand gifts from friends and family and curbside finds from neighbors are all great, but if your family, friends, and neighbors have nothing to give you’re S.O.L.

Family heirlooms presume intergenerational wealth.

A painting inherited from my Great Aunt.

Another type of secondhand privilege is family heirlooms. When I originally posted on Instagram stories asking people to share stories about family heirlooms one of my friends responded “What heirlooms? My single mother didn’t have anything to pass on.” Receiving family heirlooms is a privilege of intergenerational wealth, wealth that many communities have deliberately and systemically been prevented from accumulating.

Privilege of Time

Photo by Aron Visuals 

Ruby of @bipocswho_zerowaste mentioned in Polly Barks’ Zero Waste Summit the privilege of time, which I’d never heard of before. The privilege of time is so necessary for finding what you need secondhand! On Facebook Marketplace one must spend time browsing, messaging, waiting for replies, scheduling, and actually picking up the item. It’s a bit more involved than just showing up at a store and taking something off a shelf. Finding something that matches your style and is in your size on an online consignment or thrift store generally takes longer than on a regular fast fashion website. Shopping in person at secondhand stores is also known to be a “hunt”, and you can expect to spend a fair amount of time browsing the racks where there’s only one of any given item. As Ruby mentioned, a single Mom working three jobs doesn’t have the time privilege to curate an exclusively secondhand home interior or secondhand wardrobe. With clothing especially, having items in your size is a challenge, which brings me to my last point before jumping into ideas for creating equity:

Privilege of Size

Photo by AllGo

Body and size privilege affects accessibility to the secondhand clothing marketplace. When I order something from an online secondhand thrift or consignment store, I feel a general sense of confidence that anything size medium will more or less fit me. A lot of clothes aren’t made for a range of body types, and it makes sourcing secondhand that much more time consuming. It’s important to recognize that body type and size privilege affects one’s ease of access to the cost savings and environmental benefits of shopping secondhand.

Ideas for Creating Equity

This is not an exhaustive list.

Now that we’ve checked our privilege, the next logical step is to take action to promote equity. Here are a few action items for using privilege to promote equity in our communities:

  • Instead of leaving furniture on the curb for similarly-privileged neighbors to take, find a local organization that directly serves marginalized communities and schedule a pickup. Habitat for Humanity Restore, Salvation Army, or a local refugee resettlement agency very often offer pick up for large furniture items and have a better chance of being reused than parking it on the curb.
  • Instead of donating items to thrift stores near well-to-do neighborhoods, strategically donate to thrift stores near low income neighborhoods and/or public housing. These communities are least likely to have the mobility of transport to access the “nice Goodwill”. Alternatively, homeless shelters often operate thrift stores that make low-cost preworn items more accessible to those who need it.
  • Support your local library. Local libraries are a mainstay for low income communities’ access to internet and computers. Start by getting a library card if you don’t have one yet. Check out their calendar and if there’s a library book sale near you, support it. If you have the funds, you can donate directly to your local branch to help maintain or improve their facilities.
  • When posting on secondhand sites, offer to drop off items for people who are physically unable to do so themselves. It’s a nice gesture so that differently-abled individuals can have access to the secondhand market as others do.
  • Redistribute wealth. If you have the economic privilege and/or the privilege of time, use it to create equity! Supporting organizations that increase access to food and shelter is great, and while it’s important to support these types of operations it’s also important to support organizations that provide quality adult education, workforce development, financial literacy, and scholarships that will actually break the cycle of poverty instead of just making poverty more livable. If you can’t donate money, the next best thing is donating relevant items and/or time as a volunteer.

I know you have more great ideas about promoting equity through action. I’d love to hear your thoughts and criticisms!

Peace, Love,

~Chelsea

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3 thoughts on “The Inherent Privileges of Shopping Secondhand

  1. I always try to take my donations to areas where there is more need, it’s easy to do in my community. I have taken for granted the privilege I have though. Thanks for bringing this up. I think it’s important.

  2. I love your ideas for change, Chelsea!

    At least where I live in LA, these days thrift stores just aren’t what they used to be when I was a kid. Here, they’re filled with well-to-do hipsters looking to score a vintage show-stopping piece, and they’re often willing to pay exorbitant amounts to do so considering the items are supposed to be used. I’ve been shocked a number of times by the prices labeled on some of the clothes at Goodwill.

    But next time I donate, I’m inspired to drive further away to drop off at a location that needs it more, so thanks!

  3. You make some great points in this post. Some of them I had thought of before, others I hadn’t. As a white female, who frequently dumpster dives at thrift stores (we Americans have so much stuff that our thrift stores don’t have enough space in them to store it or time/staff to process it. Many of these still usable items go right out the back door.) and grocery stores, I realized a few years ago that my skin color conveys a great deal of privilege for conducting these activities and saving myself thousands of dollars yearly, and even being able to earn money selling what I retrieve from the dumpsters.

    I wrote a blog post that touches on some of what you are suggesting in last idea you listed. You’ll find it at http://www.triplebottomlinefi.com/the-dissonance-of-fi-philanthropy/ if you are interested in checking it out.

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