The ethics of op-shopping

29 January, 2010 at 7:41 pm 2 comments

What is an op-shop? If you’re not from Australia, op-shops are those places where you can buy second-hand clothes and other items really cheaply. They are usually run by charities, who use the proceeds to fund their organisations. You might call them ‘thrift stores’ or ‘charity shops’.

Sounds like an ethical place to shop, right? But for David Holmgren (co-founder of permaculture), even op-shopping is not a guilt-free pleasure. I think that’s because it can give us a false sense of the value of clothes and allow us to buy heaps of clothes for little money rather than really curb our consumption. My personal feeling is that we are in a time of transition, and op-shops are going to be with us for some time. And in a culture where the new and shiny is prized, I reckon op-shops and other second-hand shops are a nice counter balance celebrating the ‘pre-loved’, reused, repaired etc. Most people don’t yet have the skills to make their own clothes, and a lot of the locally designed and produced clothes are beyond the budgets of most people, so I think second-hand is a good place to start.

Other people object to anyone but ‘the poor’ making use of op-shops. They believe it’s unfair for people who can shop elsewhere to shop at op-shops. I have some thoughts and questions on that.

1. Have these people actually ever been inside an op-shop? It’s not the boxing day sales. You don’t generally see ladies in twin-sets and pearls elbowing defenceless young single mothers out of the way to get to the bargain bin. In fact most op-shops seem to have an over-supply of stuff and there’s plenty for everyone. Most times I’ve been to op-shops, there’s been me, maybe an old lady or two, a couple of students, and the volunteers running the place.

2. Where do you draw the line? Who qualifies as an acceptable op-shop-goer? Do I qualify this year because I’m studying and only working one day a week? Or are we more talking about socio-economic class here? If so, again, where do you draw the line? (And as above, why do you need to draw the line when there seems to be plenty to go round?)

3. What about the benefits to the charities that run op-shops? Would they make any profits if they relied entirely on ‘the poor’ for custom? In fact don’t they make donated items available to the actually poor for free?

4. Or is the objection that if the well-off, fashion-savvy hordes descended on op-shops en masse, that they would take all the good stuff? Well, that is a point, but I think there are three key bits of information to consider. First, there seems to be an endless supply of stuff that people want to give away. Second, “the good stuff” really is in the eye of the beholder. My “good stuff” is entirely different from the old Greek woman’s “good stuff” which is different again from the “good stuff” for a young guy looking for something to wear to a job interview. Third, the early bird catches the worm. There are always new things coming into op-shops. You can find nothing on one day and a treasure trove the next. What you find depends a lot more on how much time you’re prepared to spend looking or coming back and checking than it does on how much money you have to spend.

So on balance, I’m pretty comfortable with shopping at op-shops as an ethical choice at this stage in time. But it’s true that as time goes on, hopefully people will stop buying the masses of imported clothes that they do and therefore the supply to op-shops will dwindle. I reckon that just means that we’ll see far fewer op-shops around, or they will be much smaller, and they might become more like other second-hand shops you see today – namely, more specialist and expensive. But hopefully our expectations of how many clothes we need will also become more realistic. Hey, I’m working on it, okay?

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Entry filed under: A year without new clothes: Confessions of an op-shop addict, Recycling. Tags: , .

The power of a pledge What does ‘no new clothes’ really mean?

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