Top of the thrift chain

Resellers and digitization are changing the local secondhand ecosystem—for better or for worse, and for whom?

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In July 2020 the coronavirus was still snaking its way around the world; in the muggy heat of Charleston, South Carolina, Eloise Heath was packing up her car. Having sold or donated most of her stuff, she left the coast behind with nothing but necessities piled around her trusty Kia Soul. 

Days later she pulled into Boulder, moved into an apartment with her partner, and dedicated the time outside her newly remote job to searching local thrift stores, hunting for furnishings and special bits that’d make their new apartment home. “I’m a maximalist at heart,” the 30-year-old says. “I love having things around me that, like, spark joy.”

Heath dove into the racks at Goodwill, the shelves at Salvation Army, the aisles of Arc—coming from what Heath describes as a scant thrift scene in Charleston, the abundance of secondhand shops in the Boulder-Denver region felt remarkable, all stuffed with pre-owned goods and new inventory hitting the stores daily. “I’ve been thrifting ever since I can remember,” she says, and here in Boulder, the scene is clearly special. After Heath finished furnishing her place, she says, “I realized, Wow, there’s so much good I want to share. I was feeling inspired.”

Over the next months, Heath would join the ranks of a growing network of secondhand resellers based in Boulder and Denver. The cohort, predominantly young, entrepreneurial women, buy homegoods and clothing at local brick-and-mortar stores, then use Instagram accounts, apps like Poshmark and Nuuly, and online platforms like Facebook Marketplace and ThredUp, to resell the products, at a markup, to customers around the world. They’ve organized their own flea markets together, and many populate other pop-up markets around the region. 

At this intersection between thrifting’s digital and physical realms, Heath found friends, a source of income, and pride in supporting the secondhand industry—perhaps the most sustainable and affordable way to exercise style in today’s consumerist world. 

When Heath’s employer in South Carolina eventually invited folks back into the office, she declined to return in favor of growing @Thrifted_Homestead, her “eclectic home decor” resale account on Instagram. Now, with more than 7,500 followers and a year of full-time thrifting experience, she’s partnering with resale apps and developed a website to channel her growing business flipping or redistributing Boulder’s used goods. 

Courtesy @Thrifted_Homestead

“People come to Boulder to thrift because it is so good. We’re spoiled,” says Sarah Howlett, a thrifting enthusiast and journalist (@boulderthrifter). Last year on Instagram she produced a series of Q&A-style interviews with local secondhand purveyors called So you run a thrift store. 

Rattling off half a dozen names, she says, “We’re supporting a lot of thrift stores here in (and around) town.” It’s prime territory for the resale market, she speculates, because “our, whatever you want to call it—per capita income or household income—is high. There are people that invest in nice things, and I think people in Boulder feel like it’s important to invest in quality things, and they have the disposable income to do that, and so that Patagonia jacket can last through five people because somebody bought it first.” 

As in other wealthy cities, many objects begin their functional lives in Boulder. An object then trickles down through second-, third-, maybe fourth-hands (the higher the quality, the more hands), slowly making its winding way to a landfill—often a landfill in a foreign country, as the gravity of global mass production and consumption dictates. 

Thrift stores, as local material recyclers, help us in transferring (and sometimes artificially absolving) the responsibility of object ownership to future hands; once you acquire something, it’s your job to properly dispose of it, or move it along to the next owner.

“I pretty much started doing this (reselling) because I care about the environment,” says Karla Torres, @pandulcevintagedenver, a Denver-based vintage reseller specializing in items from the 1930s to ’80s. “It seems like a lot of people are starting to wake up and realize that fast fashion is gonna end up destroying our planet.”

Fast fashion could be considered the antithesis of vintage. Its method of design, manufacturing, and marketing replicates trends and uses low-quality materials to bring a high volume of inexpensive styles to the public as quickly as possible. The objects are typically synthetic, or made from petroleum, and aren’t meant to last through multiple owners—85% of fast fashion materials in the U.S. end up in a landfill each year. That’s the equivalent of 80 pounds per person in the U.S., including children, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates.

Ashley Furst, spokesperson for Goodwill of Colorado, has noticed a “kind of a societal shift, I guess, in the way the younger generation shops—they’re very into sustainable fashion, you know, fast fashion isn’t really their thing anymore. I think they’re realizing that they can go to Goodwill, and they can find gently used clothes, shoes, housewares, even electronics, vacuum cleaners and things that they can use that are in good shape.”

Courtesy Emma Athena

Not only in Colorado but across the nation, scores of resellers like Heath and Torres are capitalizing on this “societal shift” and the economic wave it’s spurred. According to a 2021 “Resale Trend Report” produced by the online consignment and thrift store ThredUp, one in three consumers care more about wearing sustainable apparel than before the pandemic; and 51% of consumers are more opposed to waste and 60% are more opposed to wasting money than before the pandemic. Overall, today’s $36 billion secondhand market is projected to double in the next five years, reaching $77 billion. 

In many sustainability conversations, thrift stores have become centered as ways to postpone an objects’ journey to a landfill, but they’re more than simple environmental boons. Most have charitable missions that donate money and support community members in need with clothing or employment programs. Goodwill, for example, has “close to 40 different programs and services that the sales from our retail stores support,” Furst says. Different Salvation Army locations in the metro area offer emergency shelter, casework services, senior citizen clubs, community recreation programs, and much more. 

According to Howlett, Pig + Pearl Secondhand (formerly Ares) gives out vouchers for people living at the Safehouse Boulder shelter “to come in and get the clothes they need.” She’s watched store workers help folks pick out coats and teach them how to layer smartly for winter. “It’s real action. It’s not just like, ‘Oh yeah, X percent of your sale goes to this or that.’ You can actually see it: your money at work.”

Historically, this has been the main purpose of thrift stores: providing a local market for affordable necessities (clothes, furniture, kitchenware, art, jewelry, plus electronics, games and books). The concept of thrift stores dates back to the 1800s and grew from impoverished and/or underserved communities seeking more-affordable goods—people scavenged and upcycled scraps, creating jobs for themselves while providing lower-cost options to their clientele.

Shopping at today’s thrift stores “feels more and more like shopping in a regular store, and I think any of the local owners would tell you that that’s exactly what they’re going for,” Howlett says: clean, well-lit, organized and easy-to-navigate aisles and shelves—walk into any Boulder County thrift store and likely that’s what you’ll find. 

What you may also see: a reseller piling objects into a shopping cart, then checking out with dozens of items.

Which has raised the question of who thrift stores are poised to serve—is something lost (and does someone lose something) when resellers constantly comb through thrift store inventories, picking out desirable objects to resell elsewhere? 

Courtesy @Thrifted_Homestead

“We get a lot of resellers who come in,” says Naomi Garza, a supervisor at the Arc Thrift Store in Louisville. “Our store is known for having good name brands, and so we have a lot of people who come in and buy clothing that’s in pretty good shape and resell it online for even more. . . . It’s good for [our] business [even if], of course, they make a profit . . . which is fair, I guess.” 

Furst at Goodwill of Colorado agrees. “They’re entrepreneurs,” she says. “And like everyone, they’re just trying to find their way, they’re trying to make a living. . . . We want to support the community, and if resellers are part of that, then that’s great. They’re clearly a big part of our shopper base, but not the overwhelming majority.”

Howlett, drawing from her So you run a thrift store interviews, has heard this conclusion a number of times. “Store runners don’t mind resellers at all,” she says. “They were like, ‘Hey, resellers, come in, they’re having fun, they’re with a friend, they’re paying the same money out the door as somebody else.’ And I don’t really worry that there’s not enough stuff for people.”

And that’s the message from most thrift store employees and resellers: there’s too much stuff to go around—resellers help move products off the store floors and back into the functional world. 

For if an object stays on the floor too long, it gets punted ever-closer to the landfill. Most thrift stores use colored tag systems to rotate objects through sales, pulling them off the floor if they don’t sell, and then replacing the color cohort with new items. At Goodwill, Furst explains items that don’t sell are relocated to “the bins” in its outlet locations, where people can buy objects in bulk or by the pound; if they don’t sell there, then the objects are transferred to recycling partners before hitting landfills. Altogether, Goodwill of Colorado recycles 64% of the goods that come through its doors—three times the state average. 

At Arc, Garza explains unsellable items are simply tossed. “When we have no use for it, there’s nothing that we can do. At that point, it gets thrown away,” she says. They have to make room for new inventory: “We put out close to, maybe more than 5,000 items a day.”

That first summer of the pandemic, in 2020, donations to thrift stores ballooned in tandem with the number of online resellers. “At one point,” Furst explains, “we almost didn’t have enough room for everything that was being donated.” That year Goodwill of Colorado received more than 2.5 million material donations, which added up to nearly 175 million pounds of donated goods “received or repurposed.” The state’s four dozen stores saw close to 375 million in-store purchases.

“With the lockdown, I think we had a lot of people purging,” says Howlett. “There were certain times where I would drive by to donate a couple of the boxes of stuff, and they’d be like, ‘We can’t take any more donations.’”

Due to the sheer volume of thriftable items in the area, “There really is room for everyone,” Heath of @Thrifted_Homestead says. “I’ve never been part of a community that, like, really doesn’t have any drama—there’s no negativity. Everyone is so kind, so supportive, like, so helpful. And I think that’s been a huge part of the success.”

Courtesy @Thrifted_Homestead

As for resellers’ pricing structures, “People have to take into consideration that what they’re buying is fully curated,” Torres of @pandulcevintagedenver says. Resellers spend hours or days on sourcing missions, and then clean and prepare the items for sale—for this labor and expertise they want to be compensated. “The other thing is that we do a lot of research; every single age-specific or age-based vintage reseller is going to do this extensive research on every single piece . . . we have to put a lot of effort into figuring out what a piece is.”

Heath runs her entire @Thrifted_Homestead operation from her apartment. She uses her living room to organize and prepare her inventory to be photographed. She takes the art off her walls and uses its mounting infrastructure to hang and photograph clothing. The kitchen table turns into a white background for trinkets and jewelry. Her bathroom closet holds inventory; larger furniture items are stored in a small unit attached to her apartment building. The office/workout room doubles as her shipping space and storage for supplies. The washer and dryer, since it’s higher and better for her back, becomes the packing station. “It’s definitely a balance of creating separation of work and home life when you live in a 700-square-foot apartment, but I think I’m getting the hang of it,” she says.

Though curated secondhand items may become more expensive than those found in brick-and-mortar stores, Howlett sees the industry’s digitization as lowering certain barriers that exist for people who don’t live in thrift-rich communities. In the thrift world “there are accessibility issues,” she says: work or family care schedules can limit folks to shopping only on the weekends, when selections are more likely to be picked over; geographical constraints can limit people’s access to stores and clothing or objects they resonate with. “Being able to go to a market that’s open 24/7 and buy something, or buy something off somebody’s Instagram. . . that’s one of the many ways that we can broaden people’s access.”  

Goodwill itself is “slowly jumping into” the e-commerce world with shopgoodwill.com, Furst says, where people can purchase goods directly from them online.

For Torres, as motivating as her environmental conscience may be, she also loves history—the stories behind objects, the hands they’ve been through. It’s curious to think about how many objects can trace their origin stories back to Boulder or Denver. 

“At the end of the day, [as vintage resellers] we are kind of reselling history to a lot of people,” Torres says. “It’s just so cool that all of us have collectively decided that we want to put out stuff that’s preserving history and that’s preserving the environment.”

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