Who Sells to the Reseller? Thrift Stores Grapple With the Impact of COVID-19

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Photo: Nick Canchola

Who Sells to the Reseller? Thrift stores grapple with the impact of COVID-19
By Nick Canchola

How do thrift stores even get clothing? Many assume it’s only through community donations, consignment, and smaller purchases, but most thrift stores actually buy in bulk from large wholesale retailers like Mid-West Textile Co, USagain and A&E Used Clothing Wholesale

These giant wholesale facilities are painstakingly tasked with sorting through piles and piles of used American clothing. The amount of product that is processed yearly through secondhand wholesalers is remarkably high, exporter Samiyatex states in their Sustainability & Upcycling tab, “On average, we’ve sorted 10 million lbs of clothing and 4 million lbs of shoes...” 

According to Samiyatex’s website, 50% of their inventory is exported to developing countries in Africa, and 20% is unsellable and cut into cleaning rags. Another 20% of inventory is sold to India where the clothing is recycled into new yarn products (i.e. socks, carpet underpadding). The last 1-2% is considered valuable vintage items and sold to various retailers with the remaining 8-9% of product unusable.

U.S. thrift stores are not the primary client for Samiyatex and other secondhand wholesalers. Most of the sorted clothing is exported to developing countries, where the products are sold to private sellers and distributed in local markets. 

The pandemic has affected the fashion industry in many ways from in-person shopping experiences to overall supply chain management. Yet, the pandemic’s impact is especially felt by these secondhand clothing exporters who have faced their own set of obstacles due to the international nature of the industry. Fear of spreading the virus halted overseas purchases during the first few months of the outbreak, which resulted in a surplus of used clothing in warehouses. BOF reported that “In the United States, the value of [used clothing] exports from March to July fell 45 percent compared with the same period last year, government data shows.” It wasn’t until recently that consumers regained trust in purchasing. Recycling Magazine writes, 

“In the case of used clothing the average journey time it takes for a shipment to travel as sea freight to its end market in Africa or Asia is typically much longer than the virus can survive outside the body even on hard surfaces.”

Still, COVID-19 applies pressure to an already failing industry. A 2016 BBC analysis of data from the United Nations showed an early downward trend in used clothing exports. This can be attributed to the current rise of fast fashion, which inadvertently caused an increase in low quality donated goods that countries simply don’t want anymore. In 2018, the East African Federation even announced their intention to cease all imports of used clothes from the US by 2019 to focus on local businesses.

Agency checked in with some local Los Angeles thrift stores to hear how COVID-19 has affected their business. 

Keren Lobel of Jet Rag Vintage off La Brea explained how they were forced to shut down operations for roughly two months. 

“There has been a decrease [of sales] since the outbreak of Covid, but customers are slowly starting to come back,” said Lobel. 

Being an organization that exclusively works with secondhand garment wholesalers, Jet Rag Vintage might have benefited from one less obstacle. Bulk inventory transactions are generally simpler compared to competing businesses that restock inventory through daily donations, like Culver City’s Love the City Thrift Store

Store owner Emma Hall explained that, before COVID-19, Love The City took clothing donations every day. Now, the donation process is much more complex. 

“We started to set up individual donation days where people in the community or organizations could bring goods that we would then store for two weeks minimum. Then, we would go in, organize those items, clean them, price them, and transport them back to our storage itself,” Hall said

Aside from inventory, Hall explained that their overall purpose in the space of secondhand selling goes beyond monetary profits. Love The City hopes to serve the Los Angeles community. She explains, “Something that we do is in our name, love the city. We are really here to try and help the least fortunate and those who are most in need.” 

Love the City partners with organizations like You Matter L.A., which works with those experiencing homelessness, and the Culver Needs Committee, a subset of the Culver City Unified School District that provides aid to low-income families whose access to clothes and home goods has been impacted by the pandemic. 

Hall explained that she wishes general consumers were more cognizant of what is done with their clothes after their use.

“The last resort should be throwing it out. Usually, there is always an option before throwing it away,” she said. “I wish people knew that you can recycle your clothes... You can customize them. You can give them a friend.”

Hall also says that she wishes folks understood how far a piece of clothing goes when you decide to donate it to a local thrift store rather than discarding it. 

“You really can make an impact and a difference. And it can actually make someone's day. Like you can see people light up because they are able to find something that, you know. Even though it belonged to someone else, it's a joy for them to be able to find this great deal on something that they need.”

There is no one exact solution to the growing supply of secondhand clothing. What you do with your old clothes has consequences - whether that means holding onto that jacket for a couple more seasons, donating only quality garments to local organizations, or recycling an old shirt into dish rags. Our habits contribute to a greater ecosystem of existing apparel and each one of us can lessen the load.

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