For Ana Cajina, manager of local consignment shop Frugalista in Columbia Heights, the COVID-19 pandemic brought an influx of a new customer demographic: college students.
“I saw a shift in the pandemic. After two years, I can see now that young adults — 18, 20, 21 year-olds, college students — are more open to buying from a secondhand store,” Cajina said in an interview with The Hoya. “In 2015, I didn’t see that. I guess because it has grown online.”
Cajina attributes this rise in interest in secondhand shopping from younger generations to online thrift stores like Poshmark, which many young people turned to when in-person shopping was unsafe because of COVID-19.
This trend in consignment shopping continued even after the height of the pandemic had passed, and followed when people began to shop in physical stores again, according to Cajina.
“I would say that being in the business and with my parents having been in the business since 1999, I have never seen our customers at this younger age until two or three years ago,” Cajina said.
Shopping for previously used items has become Gen-Z’s new favorite pastime, shifting the connotation of secondhand clothes from something deemed uncouth, a classist generalization, to the height of “cultured,” Cajina said.
“They’re seeing that it is okay to buy secondhand. I can see that it is changing in their minds, like, ‘Yeah, I can buy this. It belonged to somebody, but I can reuse it myself because it’s still good,’” Cajina told The Hoya.
Georgetown’s thrift store scene is a thriving environment. Thrift stores provide a way for shoppers to take an environmentally-conscious stance, with the inherently recycled nature of secondhand clothes diverting much of the pollution clothing production creates and saving thousands of pounds of materials from ending up in dumps around the world.
Gen-Z is responsible for almost doubling the value of the second-hand clothing market with their new interest in purchasing previously-used items and even selling items they no longer wear instead of throwing them out.
Thrift stores find their roots in helping to serve low income community members, providing clothes and household items, often from donations, for lower prices than other stores.
Though now thrifting seems to some as just a trendy hobby, thrifting is a necessity for low income communities, according to Becks Truong (COL ’24).
“It depends on income, students’ availability to access clothes, and also sizing because I know some of those shops aren’t always inclusive,” Truong said. “The accessibility of stores plays a huge factor in what people can wear and what people can buy.”
Thrift shopping also presents an opportunity to create new relationships and strengthen bonds across communities, according to Isabella King (COL ’24).
King, who helped plan Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority’s thrift pop-up store in Red Square on Georgetown’s campus Feb. 27, told The Hoya she was able to meet new people while also raising money for Active Minds, a nonprofit organization and Georgetown club that promotes mental health awareness.
“It was a really good experience and I had fun talking to the people who were shopping there and telling them ‘Oh, you should look at the shirt’ or helping them with their clothes,” King said.
With fashion trends, like low-waisted jeans and butterfly clips, from decades ago circling back into popularity, being able to find hidden gems wedged in between faded high school sweatshirts and bedazzled Christmas sweaters at your local Goodwill has become a mark of a true fashion pro.
Sifting through piles of clothing, separating the “I’m taking this” from the “definitely not,” is a time-consuming yet rewarding process, according to Rita Alan (COL ’24), co-leader of an environmental policy team at Georgetown Renewable Energy and Environmental Network (GREEN).
“Not everything’s going to be something that fits your style or works for you, but there definitely are things that are super cute,” Alan told The Hoya. “I would also say just keep an open mind and sort of be able to see the beauty in things that have already been worn.”
As someone who has managed a permanent consignment store since the 1990s, Cajina echoed these sentiments.
“I love to interact with people. People are coming, they talk to you. And because we are small, we know you. You’re not just one customer that you’re coming in, like at Target, which is a big corporation. So when I see your face once, and I see it the next time, I’m like, ‘He came back, he liked what he got from here.’”
Through consignment shopping, people can combine the act of bonding and community building with a sort of treasure hunt, sifting through discarded scraps of fabric to find a once-loved article of clothing and give it new life, all while uplifting small businesses.
Green is In
The price paid for fashion extends far beyond the confines of a wallet. With each piece of clothing requiring liters of water to produce, and with 85% of textiles ending up in dumps each year, the negative environmental impact of manufacturing a new shirt or pair of pants is exacerbated by fast-paced production that tries to keep up with the latest fashion trends.
By squeezing out as many uses from one item of clothing as possible, thrifting alleviates some of this environmental burden, according to Carolyn Becker, senior manager of community engagement at the Goodwill of Greater Washington. Fast fashion produces 10% of all carbon emissions, so buying secondhand clothing is an environmentally conscious choice.
“From a sustainability standpoint, of course when it comes to thrifting with the power of secondhand, it’s an environmentally friendly and environmentally smart thing to do, using the things that you love and that you’ve gently used in donating them so that we can keep millions and just millions and millions of pounds of items out of area landfills,” Becker said in an interview with The Hoya.
Getting into the mindset of reusing requires giving certain pieces of clothing a chance, even if they do not seem to be a perfect match style-wise at the first glance, according to Alan, who helped create Uncommon Threads, GREEN’s thrift rack.
Alan and her co-leader, Paul Aversa (SFS ’25), helped develop a small-scale thrift store comprised of donated clothing from students, located in The Corp’s Uncommon Grounds, hoping to provide a low-cost and sustainable option for those on campus. Some challenges the mini-store has faced are awareness and certain shopping practices pushed by fast-paced fashion.
“You have to be open-minded because with fast fashion, we look at things and we’re immediately like, ‘Oh — it’s a yes or no,’” Alan said. “We see things as super trendy because of all of these like micro-trends that have been created by TikTok and how fast word spreads online.”
Young people, especially among Gen-Z, seem to be driving a trend in thrifting largely due to the understood environmental benefits associated with the practice, according to Sharon Figueroa, an employee at Urban Thrift in nearby Kensington, Md.
“Thrifting is becoming very popular, and I try to stress it all the time because it’s so good for the environment. And these kids are going to be living with the environment a whole lot longer than I am,” Figueroa said in an interview with The Hoya.
Georgetown students seem aware of the harmful impact that fast fashion can have on the environment and are thrifting more as a result, according to King.
“A lot of people in our generation are moving toward being more environmentally friendly when it comes to clothing choices,” King said. “Reusing, recycling these clothes is becoming a very big thing now, along with thrift stores becoming very revitalized and very popular among our generation.”
On the selling side, thrift stores and consignors also agree on the importance of buying secondhand clothes as a means of recycling, according to Sehvar Bor, the owner of Pretty Chic, a secondhand and consignment store located on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown.
“I encourage promoting secondhand because it’s also recycling. You’re helping the environment,” Bor said in an interview with The Hoya. “You’re getting good use of the same shoe or same clothing.”
A Second(-hand) Family
Thrift stores also often look to enrich their local communities. By serving the citizens of the greater D.C. area though offering certain discounted days or providing educational opportunities like high school diploma programs, thrift stores are giving back to the District.
For Cajina, running a secondhand shop is about more than just selling clothes. It’s also about forming a community in D.C. and supporting women business owners, like Cajina and her mother.
“I like to see the faces of the customers when I remember something about them because, like I said, you’re not just one more customer,” Cajina said. “You’re not just somebody that comes in and pays the money. No, you are helping keep us in business. This is a women-owned business, and we appreciate that you’re taking your time and taking your money and decided to spend it here. It means a lot.”
The Goodwill of Greater Washington, located on South Dakota Avenue, also offers programs to help members of the D.C. community receive job training and other professional development services.
“Goodwill actually offers a variety of free job training programs and career coaching services to those in need in the community. And some of those job training programs and career training programs include energy and construction, hospitality in the past,” Becker said. “Goodwill funds our mission through our stores as well as contract services and other ventures like our online store.”
Some thrift stores like the Goodwill of Greater Washington are committed to providing support to their communities through professional development and high school diploma education programs, according to Becker.
“Year after year, we provide job placement assistance services or career programs, career coaching to hundreds of members of the D.C. community,” Becker said. “Hundreds of District residents are obtaining and earning their high school diplomas and we know the power of a high school diploma in any industry and just the feelings of pride that you have when you earn that document in the future that lies ahead is truly incredible,” Becker said.
For Alan, thrifting offers the opportunity to give back to the Georgetown community as well. However, even though thrifting has seen a recent rise in popularity, Alan says some students still do not see the value in buying used clothes.
“We need to work on the visibility and not just spreading the word about this possible thrift store, but actually spreading the word on how it works and who it benefits because all the proceeds go to Mutual Aid.”