Deirdre Schoo/The New York Times

March 8, 2021

Behind the Seams of Digital Thrifting Platforms

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Should we really be buying clothes online if there are all these unknown variables such as fit, texture, compatibility and condition? Is the disconnect with the actual item perpetuating irresponsible or unconscious shopping? Do you truly need more new clothes, despite how cheap they are? 

Cornell Thrift is the answer to all of these questions. It is the perfect club to supplement fashion needs without overspending  or buying new. Each year in Willard Straight, Cornell Thrift holds a pop-up thrift shop with a wide selection of free garments. The intent is not to distribute these garments to any ready owner, but to provide a way for students to sustainably obtain necessary garments. 

However, due to COVID, this in-person event has been revamped on the website, Next Best.  Next Best was started for Cornellians to buy and sell secondhand clothing. Rather than going to an in-person thrift store, students can simply take a picture of their garment and put it on the site. The site reads, “With no shipping costs and a 0% commission fee, we are tackling the 92 million tons of textile waste one item at a time.” You can browse the website, hold any item for up to five days and then arrange a time to meet with the seller and pick-up the garment. The mission of this platform was not to make a profit, but to promote sustainable fashion. While students come to college with a wardrobe, they learn, over time, what they truly need based on the weather, how much they are walking to class, etc. Moving pieces from one student’s closet to another, rather than buying new, not only avoids waste, but also supports fellow classmates.

Currently, there are 61 items featured on the website, ranging from turtlenecks to winter coats to shorts. The prices are very generous, with most items around $1 to $2, some even free of charge. Some are even from Tommy Hilfiger, Madewell and more — high quality items for such a small price. In order to reduce the time investment of finding the perfect piece, you can hover over the picture of the garment, where a little description is given like “GAP White dress in excellent condition.” By enabling people to refine their searches via users and styles on the app,  people on Instagram have called it “iconic” and “a steal.” 

To promote on their Instagram, the club posts informative graphics that give insights into the harsh environmental effects of fast fashion: “fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere else is paying.” They also post outfit pictures of people in their thrifted garments.

While the club has readily adapted to COVID, their expansion into the new digital age of thrifting begs the question: Does online thrifting change the true nature of thrifting by making it more of a commercialized, leisure act? 

One point of in-store thrifting is that it is a thoughtful and interactive experience. You walk into the store and your senses light up. Instead of scrolling on a website, you can feel the object’s texture, try it on and hold it up to other items to see if they match. Almost like panning for gold, you commit to looking through every item of clothing in hopes of finding “the one.” Internet access is a commodity that not everyone has, and the whole point of thrift stores is that they are accessible. If people don’t have money to spend on clothes, they might not have money to spend on internet access or phone data. The accessibility of online alternatives has catapulted thrifting into a commercialized market and has shifted the true in-house nature of it into any other streamlined shopping experience.  

In the past few years, there has been a significant rise in the popularity of online thrift platforms like Depop, Poshmark, Thred Up and Rent the Runway. However, a lot of users aren’t actually promoting the sustainable nature of thrift shopping, but are instead using it as an opportunity to generate profit. The fact that people can curate their page to have a certain aesthetic or price point changes the original point of thrifting from a cheap alternative to shopping, to a way of becoming  an “independent small business owner.” In this sense, it shifts the goal of buying secondhand from sustainability to profit. 

Sometimes, these individuals buy a bunch of items in bulk just to resell them at higher margins. They get labeled as “vintage,” when they were actually from a year ago or less. Additionally, they might purchase oversized pieces — shirts that are three times their size or pants that are overly baggy — either for the “aesthetic” or to upcycle into things that are more form-fitting and stylish. In most thrift stores, there is an unequal distribution of sizes: Items tend to range from XS-L rather than including larger and plus-size bodies. When a person buys a garment that is clearly too big just for the look, they are taking away from the people who go to thrift stores to buy pieces that fit their bodies of that size. Moreover, name brands like Forever 21 tend to attract smaller bodies, so people that are of a larger size may not be able to find pieces that fit them at cheap name brand stores, making thrift stores the more probable option.

Cornell Thrift is different because the pieces are coming from a college student’s closet and being sent to another student’s closet, creating an almost circular business model. However, their shift still reflects a broader change in how thrifting has become streamlined and a luxury for those either with time to go thrifting or the resources to browse online. 

Nina Pofcher is a freshman in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at nlp47@cornell.edu.