It is no secret that secondhand shopping has made a comeback in a big way. ThredUp’s 2021 Resale 2021 Report showed that more than 33 million people bought secondhand for the first time during the pandemic. And in five years, the secondhand market is predicted to be valued at $77 billion, compared to $36 billion today.
Back in the day, thrifting was a practice used mainly by lower-income people as a way to save money and access affordable clothing – literally being “thrifty”. Thrifting was born out of necessity.
Now, there are more and more people that are thrifting out of choice and not necessarily due to necessity.
For some, this may be an aesthetic choice or a way to save money, and for others buying preloved may be more of a political choice in response to the impacts of the mainstream fashion industry.
More recently, Gen Z has taken the rising popularity of thrifting to a new level with the viral trend of thrift flipping. Thrift flipping refers to the process of buying a secondhand item and altering it to become something else – often unrecognizable compared to the original item.
There is no doubt the preloved movement makes the slow fashion movement more inclusive and accessible for different types of people with all kinds of personal styles. But, is this viral trend as sustainable as it seems? Let’s get into it.
What Is The Difference Between Thrift Flipping And Upcycling?
If you search the #ThriftFlip hashtag on TikTok, you will notice that it has a staggering 2.1 billion views.
Needless to say, thrift flipping has become somewhat of a viral trend online.
More specifically, thrift flipping has blown up on TikTok and usually involves people buying oversized clothing from a local thrift store and using DIY skills to turn the item into a trendy outfit.
You may have read this and thought to yourself: Isn’t this exactly the same as upcycling?
You would be right, as thrift flipping is not an entirely new concept. It is a form of upcycling. Upcycling refers to the broad process of repurposing something old – such as waste materials or clothes you no longer wear – into something new so that you can get more use out of it.
But, when it comes to thrift flipping, the focus is on the phrase “viral trend”.
Thrift flipping is a specific kind of upcycling – popularized by Gen Z – that involves people using thrifted garments to recreate trending items that often have a strong likeness to items you’d find in a fast fashion store, at that moment.
Gen Z’s presence on social media and slow fashion influencers have contributed to making thrifting an aspirational practice. Destigmatizing buying preloved is such an important step forward for the slow fashion movement.
But, while this uptick of viral upcycling may seem like the ideal solution for those who want to live more sustainably, while still staying on-trend, it’s not without its problems.
Thrift flipping’s fatphobic undertones
Now, go back and look at the #ThriftFlip hashtag again. You’ll soon notice a very clear pattern: It’s populated by – almost entirely – straight-sized and petite people taking oversized clothes that are many sizes too big for them, and altering those pieces into garments that fit them perfectly.
It is no secret that the fashion industry is fatphobic and size exclusive in many ways. The thrift flipping trend is no exception to this norm.
In thrift stores, larger and plus-sized secondhand garments are already not as easy to come by as straight-sized garments. But, adding a viral thrift-flipping trend to the mix makes it even harder for plus-sized people to find thrifted items in their sizes.
Some thrift flippers on TikTok specifically recommend purchasing larger sizes, simply to give you more flexibility when tailoring and upcycling your purchases.
This practice of thrift flipping plus-sized garments also says something a little bit deeper about the fashion industry’s fatphobic tendencies. As this i-D article explains, “In these videos, the usually thin creator slouches in the ‘ugly’ garment. After the garment has been ‘fixed’, suddenly it’s considered attractive. It’s also much smaller.”
This transformation reflects the societal norms, and unrealistic beauty standards, that determine which bodies and which garments are perceived as attractive and aspirational. This perpetuates the idea that plus-sized clothing and larger bodies are undesirable and need to be altered.
Thrift shopping is one of the most affordable ways for sustainably-minded plus-sized people to be a part of the slow fashion movement since many slow fashion and mainstream fashion brands do not go past a certain size range. So, we need to be aware of how this viral trend may be increasing the barriers to buying secondhand for some people.
Thrift Flipping And Overconsumption
We should always celebrate the increased interest in the preloved movement, because it does signal a shift in the way people are thinking about their fashion choices.
And, buying secondhand is a practice that makes the slow fashion movement more accessible to people with diverse styles, preferences, and budgets.
Thrift flipping can mean that you are both extending the life cycle of the garment and adapting already-existing garments to suit your personal style. It is a very valid way of curating a more conscious closet by avoiding purchasing new items and getting creative with clothing that already exists.
But, what makes trends harmful is that they change rapidly and are always trying to convince you that you need the next best thing to feel complete.
Instead of finding ways to keep up with constantly changing trends, challenging the dominance of those trends is a way to move away from a culture of overconsumption and disposability.
While thrift flipping a preloved item into the latest trend may limit waste, it does not challenge the paradigm of overconsumption, because it is still subscribing to the ever-changing trend cycle.
And, if you are not planning to wear that outfit again and again, it’s probably going to go to waste anyway.
We are living in a time of a fashion waste crisis and there is no shortage of secondhand clothes in this world. But, we must also remember that we cannot buy ourselves out of this crisis.
Too often, buying preloved is perceived as a hall pass for overconsumption. Just because this clothing already exists, it’s tempting to feel that we can buy as much as we like, and do whatever we want with it, because it is going to waste anyway.
But, if thrift flipping tends to imitate the trend cycles of fast fashion, it will replicate the culture of disposability that comes with it. This means that it is not challenging us to rethink the systems of consumption and culture of disposability that got us into this crisis in the first place.
So, thrift flipping can be sustainable if we make sure we are thrift flipping mindfully – for our personal styles, and not just for a trend. Conscious thrift flipping also involves taking the time to acknowledge our privileges.
Let’s Practice Conscious Thrift Flipping
It is always important to take note of our privileges and how these may affect others – even when we are thrifting.
Straight-sized people – myself included – need to be more aware of their size privilege, be grateful for how easily they can find clothes that fit them, and acknowledge that they shouldn’t unnecessarily buy clothing way out of our size range on a whim, or for a viral trend.
With that being said, it’s time to practice conscious thrift flipping.
Thrift flipping can be a way of getting in touch with your creative side, learning new skills, and giving an old item a new lease on life.
You just have to make sure you are turning the item into something that you are sure you are going to wear for years.
Let’s all remember to be mindful of the speed at which we do this, the intention behind our alteration, and the types of garments that we are choosing to flip. Why not start with something you already have or something that a friend or family member is getting rid of?
We should all try to practice mindfulness and continue to use our critical faculties to consider how our consumption habits may uphold some of the harmful elements – such as fatphobia, rapid trend cycles, and waste – of the dominant fashion system.
Four Tips For Being A More Thoughtful Thrifter:
Reflecting and being aware of our privileges is an important part of creating a fashion industry that is more just and inclusive – this applies to the preloved movement too. If you are unsure about where or how to begin, here are a few tips for how to become a more thoughtful thrifter:
- Check your intentions: Check in with yourself. Why do you want to buy this? How long will you wear it for? Does it go with the rest of your wardrobe?
- Be mindful of in-demand items: There are certain items, in thrift stores, that are in higher demand than other items. These include men’s clothing, plus-size clothing, and children’s clothing. Ask yourself why you want the item and if you really need it.
- Don’t thrift way beyond your size range: Be mindful of unnecessarily buying beyond your size range, especially if you aren’t certain that you’ll get loads of wear out of the item. This can make it difficult for plus-sized people to find thrifted clothing in their sizes. And, don’t buy a plus-sized item just for the sake of thrift flipping it.
- Avoid overconsumption by creating a thrift wishlist: Just because it is secondhand, doesn’t mean we should over-consume. We need to consciously shift away from the mindset of overconsumption and constantly desiring more, more, more, instead of healing our relationship with fashion and learning to love and style what we already have.
Here’s to being more thoughtful thrifters and engaging in the preloved movement in a more conscious way!
This article is not intended to make you feel guilty or to discourage you from buying secondhand.
Rather, we hope that it acts as a reminder for us all to be aware of the little ways that we can be more thoughtful and conscious people, whether we are thrifting, thrift flipping, or thinking about pathways to a more just and sustainable future of fashion.
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About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.