The Thrift Economy: Four Ways Thrift Shopping Aids Social Business

Turning Excess into Access for Others.

Thrift shops have been around as long as non-profits have needed a way to raise money and fund community assistance projects, but today’s thrift shops are blazing a new path that is reminiscent of the newly espoused “social business” phenomena.

Our fashion-driven, excess lifestyles in the United States contribute to the need to get rid of the old to make room for the new. Last year, the average American got rid of 68 pounds of clothing and textiles, with billions of bags donated to thrift stores.

Currently there are more than 30,000 thrift, consignment and resale shops in the United States. Goodwill Industries is proof that thrift is a billion dollar business, generating $2.8 billion in retail sales in 2009, while supplying jobs, skills and assistance for countless families in the U.S. Some 15,000 of these thrift shops are independents run by churches, schools, and non-profit organizations.

Who is shopping at thrift stores? We all are.

Based on research, some 16-18% of us will shop at a thrift store this year. For consignment/resale shops, the percentage is 12-15%. Compare these percentages to the 11.4% of Americans who shop in factory outlet malls, 19.6% in apparel stores and 21.3% in department stores. Americans of all economic levels, ages and sizes are shopping at thrift stores. Some seek a treasure hunt experience, other necessities and others a new sensibility about shopping and saving.

The thrift concept is thriving because of many challenges in our economy but it is also alive and well due to a new mindset among consumers wishing to help others while they help themselves.

How does shopping at thrift stores help others?


1. Thrift shopping provides lower economic groups access to goods they might not normally be able to afford. Immigrant populations are able to dress themselves and their children with appropriate clothing that allows them to assimilate into our culture easier.

2. The thrift stores are giving back to the community. These non-profits are original examples of social business because they have invested in providing for their community needs – children’s health, job skills, feeding the poor and more.

3. Thrift shopping is appealing to a new breed of eco-chic. Social consciousness and an increased focus on recycling and repurposed goods are at the heart of a portion of thrift purchases. Many conscientious Americans are trying to reduce their carbon footprint and impact on the environment. So repurposing clothing and other household items is seen as a green alternative. In addition, shopping takes on a new “feel good, do good” experience when you know you are contributing to a charity that you believe in.

4. Thrift shopping has a global impact. Have you ever given thought to what happens to the unsalable goods from thrift shops? Or have you seen someone in Africa wearing a t-shirt from your community and wonder how it got there? About half the garments donated to places like The Salvation Army eventually wind up in overseas market stalls or as industrial fiber. That second life translates into 17,000 jobs in the United States, an estimated 100,000 jobs in Africa’s informal economy and a multi-national trade in second-hand clothing valued at more than $1 billion a year. Between 1999 and 2003, the U.S. exported nearly 7 billion pounds of used clothing and worn textiles.

Social enterprise provides the ability to help on many levels. So when you are thinking about clearing out your closet or purchasing a new garment, think thrift and think social.

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