The Commercialization Of El-Wekala Thrift Shopping

Thrift stores low prices have begun to serve as an appealing invite even to more economically advantaged shoppers which is putting the retailers at a crossroad between choosing higher profit or ethicality.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past year or so, you have definitely come across a video or a post of someone sharing their thrifting experience at El- Wekala. With the stigma around thrifting being partially removed, and it becoming widely popularized, the demand on the idea of owning a vintage or second- hand clothing item has sky rocketed; thus creating newly found business opportunities and market openings. However, it has created an issue for people who actually rely on thrift shops as their only source of shopping for new clothes.


Thrifting 101:

Let’s take it step by step. Let us first start with the idea of thrifting and why it became popularized with the start of the new millennia. Thrifting refers to the act of shopping for items that are usually pre-owned by others at a reduced price from flea markets or thrift stores, occasionally the shops are run for charitable purposes.

The movement towards the popularization of thrifting stems from the rise of awareness about the environment, and the welfare of workers producing the clothes. In order for fast fashion retailers to produce the amount of clothes needed to keep up with the ever-changing trends with reasonable prices, it is usually on account of the workers producing the clothes. Workers are usually placed in dangerous and unhygienic environments, with wages of less than a dollar per hour, which makes them more vulnerable and of higher risk to work-related accidents. Some companies would even turn to child labor in order to decrease their expenses even further, allowing them to sell their products at a lower price therefore increasing their profit. The continuous need for “in-season” and trendy collections in stores results in shops such as Zara and H&M to receive shipments weekly and sometimes even bi-weekly. In order to produce and suffice the enormous amounts of shipments needed for the retailers, manufacturers have to work nonstop, and that has a tremendous impact on the environment. The fashion industry is a major water consumer as huge quantities are used in the manufacturing process for dyeing the fabrics and throughout the entire process. Additionally, cotton as a crop needs a lot of water to grow- for reference 20,000 liters of water is needed to produce just 1 kg of cotton- which could even lead to the desertification of some areas. Not to mention, the waste water from the manufacturing process contains highly toxic substances, such as lead and arsenic, which are extremely harmful to the aquatic life and the health of people living near those areas; as the water is most likely to get dumped into nearby rivers. The fashion industry is, in fact, the second largest polluter in the world right after the oil industry.

All of these factors combine to elaborate the fact of why thrifting is more environmentally friendly, and with the rise of environmentalists, the popularity for thrifting was on the rise as well. Thrift shopping is also wallet-friendly; the items’ prices are usually placed within reach for the lower income bracket, making it the ultimate solution for people who are less wealthy to be able to afford new items, ranging from clothes all the way to furniture.


The gentrification of thrifting:

Whether it is the rush of finding a brand-new haute couture coat between the racks for the same price of a cotton t-shirt, or it is the experience of buying multiple pieces with the same price of a single piece you would usually buy at the mall, thrifted and second-hand items have begun to become a trend in the past year or so.

Bloggers and vloggers have begun to document their journey through the endless racks of El-Wekala in search for lost brand items discarded between the heaps of clothes, which drove lots of people to try the same experience for themselves. Due to this ongoing generational trend, the retailers at El-Wekala are forced to choose between accommodating the increase of demand or catering to lower-income shoppers.

Gentrification is a term used to describe the process of changing a once lower-class area into a wealthier one by improving housing, and improving facilities which raises the retailing price of the area, inevitably displacing the original inhabitants of the area. This is essentially what is occurring right now with thrifting. The retailers at El- Wekala are noticing the definite shift in their customers, and with it being an already haggle-based trade, in which they place a higher price than the original intended price, and compromise with the buyer to reach middle ground, the retailers are placing their prices even higher with their newly found customer base. The new demand for thrifting is forcing the retailers to a crossroad where they have to choose who will they supply their service to; either to their intended crowd, people who are on the lower-income bracket with the intended low prices for items, or their newly found crowd who would pay higher than their original crowd. And due to this increase in prices, people who needed the low prices that once existed will need to find a new resource to get their needs, hence the gentrification of thrifting.


Thrifting out of absolute necessity vs thrifting for fun:

The prices are not the only issue that was created due to this trend, but it’s the scarcity of the items existing already. Some items are already not found easily while thrifting such as plus sized clothes or children clothes. With limited sources, economically challenged people are already struggling to find certain types of clothes, so it would be highly unethical to exclusively search and locate plus sized clothes, like upcycling or using an over-sized statement piece, for example. While people who are thrifting out of absolute necessity might not choose the exact same pieces which someone who is thrifting for fun would, it does not mean that they do not deserve some of the more extravagant pieces found while thrifting or a silly piece such as an ugly Christmas sweater.


Reselling thrifted items: the newly found business opportunity:

With the increase of demand on thrifting, and the fascination of people with the concept of high- end clothing for reduced prices, business-oriented people were able to locate a gap in the market and took advantage of it. If you search “thrift” or “second-hand” on Instagram, no less than a dozen of accounts will immediately pop up, which are solely focused on thrifting and reselling those thrifted items. Some people exclusively go thrifting for the sole purpose of upselling those items for a profit margin that can go as high as five times the original price that was purchased for.

In case you are not aware of how El-Wekala works, retailers buy clothes in bulk from stores or shipment containers filled with off-season collections or items that were deemed ‘faulty’, such as a dislocated tag or a looped stitch, so it does not depend entirely on donating such as American or European thrift stores. Therefore, you are more than likely to encounter sweaters from H&M that you found last season, or a pullover that you own from Zara two years ago. So, when you come across an account selling said pullover or sweater with the same price you bought it for two years ago, does not that sound a tad bit sketchy or unethical?

However, buying from a reseller and going thrift shopping are two entirely different experiences. When you go thrifting, you can spend hours among hours racking through the shelves and haggling the price with retailers to find your desired pieces, while when you are buying through a reseller, you are purchasing the item from the comfort of your bed, while the person behind the account has already spent their effort going through the previous experience, so essentially you are paying for two entirely different shopping experiences. Also, such accounts cater to a niche market and marginalize their audience.

On the other side, this can be a bit problematic when considering that the privileged are at an advantage for engaging in those kinds of ‘entrepreneurial’ activities, which requires the time-consuming act of sifting through those never-ending racks, and the time-flexibility of being able to spend the entire day or to visit early in the morning when they are just restocking their clothes,  which are a luxury that working individuals simply do not have.


How to thrift shop consciously?

Now, there is no harm in going thrift shopping once in a while to get the experience, as mentioned before, it is indeed good for the environment and for your wallet. However, one must be responsible while doing so and keep others in mind. Try to make a list beforehand of your desired items to make it easier to focus, and get what you really want rather than just getting overwhelmed by the amounts of clothes you will encounter. It will be tempting to buy 10 pieces for the price you would normally buy only 2 pieces with, but over-consumption is another area of trouble we already need to tackle. You might want to steer away from the lowly priced stacks, and hit the slightly pricier racks as the extra 50 pound might not create that much of an issue for you, but could mean buying a brand-new outfit for someone else.

You could also try locating some actual thrift stores found here in Egypt. Yes, those do actually exist! A quick google search will direct you to which area you need to head to (hint: it is Maadi). So next time you consider thrifting, be aware of where your money is going and what its impact will be