January 25, 2013

Ethics of Thrifting

I'm re-opening our Etsy shop soon, so of course I've been doing some treasure hunting.  I also rummaged through my grandmother's impressive haul of vintage goodies and am now staring at a five foot tall stack of boxes filled with fabulous finds that I have to research, measure, photograph and list.  While I'm doing this, I've got treasure hunting on the brain.

I think a lot about the ethics of thrifting.  Is that weird?  You might have already gleaned, I am an avid treasure hunter.  I hit yard sales almost every Saturday in the warm weather months, I hit estate sales monthly, thrift stores weekly, and antique shops every now and then.  I like to decorate our townhome with vintage finds, of course, but I also love the experience of treasure hunting.  I always go with a friend or Hubs, but my grandma got me hooked, so when I'm in my hometown, she's my yard-saling buddy.  My Mom and I are a pretty awesome treasure hunting duo too.  I opened an Etsy shop with my Mom to sell some treasures we loved but just don't have space for.  Actually, our rule when stocking the shop is: "if I had a bigger house, would I keep this?"  The answer has to be an emphatic YES for it to go in the shop.

I love finding nifty things (and sharing them with people!), but sometimes I feel guilty.

The guilt source: I'm not poor.

Hubs makes a tidy little income and I'm no chump either.  I don't need to buy steeply discounted goods to decorate my home.  I have a lovely home and plethora of pretty things.  Frankly, there's little in this world I "need" because our house is pretty packed.  But there are people who don't have a lot of money and I think they deserve a shot at a home that makes them feel comfy too, and sometimes a little vase or nice drinking glasses could be just the thing to make a home cheery (and, well, practical because glasses are pretty damn handy)!!  Am I taking this joy away from people in need by being a thrifting monster?

The rationale: there's enough to go around.

I figure, there seems to be an endless supply of stuff people don't want.  I think there's enough to go around.  I've never seen a thrift shop or yard sale devoid of stuff.  But still, when I walk into a thrift shop with my Dooney and Bourke bag (from T.J. Maxx, mind you) and next to me is a woman who is carrying a torn canvas sac instead of a purse, trying to pool together enough change for a casserole dish, I feel a little spoiled.  Am I alone???

The guilt source: plus I am selling it!

Yup, some of my Etsy shop items are from thrift shops, yard sales, estate sales, etc.  Sometimes our prices are on par with what we paid (like if it's something we bought at an antique shop, and just want to break even), but sometime we charge more than we paid.  I feel guilty!!  Especially when people think evil thoughts about this kind of transaction, like a commenter on 8 foot 6.

The rationale: it's a service, too.

My Dad told me not to think of the etsy shop as just goods - we are providing a service, too.  Not everyone (like Hubs for example) relishes pawing through stinky stuff in a stinky thrift store or estate sale to pluck out that one gem and then spend an hour scrubbing it clean.  I spend hours researching and photographing items for sale.  Sometimes it takes hitting five yard sales over two years to complete set of dishes.  Plus, I'm pretty hardcore about this sometimes.  I wake up at 6:00am (or earlier) on Saturdays.  I have waited for 3 hours for an estate sale to open.  I hit thrift stores all over North America, even on vacation.  If someone in Nova Scotia is missing a plate from their set (remember how worked up I was?) and I find the missing piece in Minnesota, isn't it awesome I can throw it up on etsy and the two can meet??  Or let's not forget the salad server miracle.

Frankly, it's way more work than I thought when I opened the shop, so I think should make a little money.  But, I do tend to price things under their "market value," to keep great vintage pieces within reach.  And feel less guilt.

The guilt source: I am a taker.

So in addition to finding cool stuff I love, I'm turning a small profit.  I've found awesomely valuable stuff for pennies.  I feel like a taker. 

The rationale: my purchase does good.

Many thrift stores have a somewhat altruistic mission.  Value Village, although a profit machine, purchases donations made to not-for-profit organizations.  The Salvation Army supports its communities.  Sometimes even buying something can keep sweet finds from making their way into landfills if they don't find another person to love them (or find them in time).

I'm sure there are lots of other aspects I could agonize over, but this is on my mind right now.  Do you ever think about this?  At the end of the day, though, it's just stuff, so I'm not going to get terribly worked up about this.  While I ponder (and list stuff), here's a little eye peek at what will be for sale soon.  And, if you're on the hunt for treasures but feel guilty too, try flea markets!  I found a great article on flea market shopping tips on Ryan Homes.  I find flea markets are that happy middle road between (higher) antique store prices and the sometimes disappointing thrift shops.  Remember my deals from the flea market in Hungary?

We're adding more textiles, including aprons and vintage table linens.
Set of 6 shot glasses with circle/square pattern
Vintage wall hanging (tea towel) with metric conversions - easily removed from frame for use
Vintage tin
Depression glass set of liqueur glasses
Full set (with original box) of glasses made of pure sunshine and awesomeness.
Funky bar set, I think these handles are bakelite
Amber pendant with 8K gold setting
Glasses I want so badly

29 comments:

  1. I don't get why people would have a problem with you selling your stuff on Etsy. I happen to love milk glass. I also happen to not always have the time to hunt what I want down in thrift stores and garage sales. I'm more than happy to get vintage stuff of Etsy and willing to pay for the fact that someone else did all the legwork. You go girl.

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    1. I see it the same way. I collect McCoy but rarely find it thrifting, so I'm happy to see it in antique shops or online. I don't care where the seller found it or what they paid. But I guess some people don't like paying for that service. Shannon, from 8 foot 6, had some really negative comments about her selling her vintage finds so it got me thinking about that.

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  2. Hi Tanya! I have been reading your blog for about 6 months now, I drop by about 2-3 times per week. I come by becuase find your reflexivity very refreshing. You share your mishaps and success and I really like that you think about the impacts of your actions. I have been struggling with my love of collecting fab vintage finds versus my desire to minimize consumption for quite awhile now. Thanks for voicing it! I feel that thrifting etc is encouraging people to reuse and take care of things that are already here versus consuming a new thing just `cos. So, big picture, what you are doing is better for the planet. By the way (and I am so aware of the irony), is that tea towel still available? I live in Ottawa and would love to purchase it at some point. (Signed Michele, aka Ottawaalternagrrl).

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    1. Hi Michele,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I wonder if people find my thinking out loud interesting or annoying (probably both). It's nice to hear you like reading the blog, including my mishaps and philosophizing!

      I like your thinking: we're keeping consumption of new goods low by loving vintage (I buy used non-vintage, too sometimes because the price is right). I think there is a real value in an outlook that appreciates quality of days gone by and doesn't focus on the next biggest and bestest thing to run out and buy.

      The tea towel is not even listed yet! I'm still photographing and researching items for sale (my grandpa is helping right now). If you're interested, we can chat about price via email and meet somewhere in Ottawa. I can also just list it and let readers be the first to know when the shop goes live!

      dans.le.townhouse@gmail.com

      P.S. It's so awesome to be able to say "hey" to local readers!!

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  3. I think it's really admirable that you think about this stuff. I don't think you need to feel guilty about thrifting, ever, but I do think it's important to consider these issues. Have you seen the Macklemore "Thrift Shop" music video? (Not linking to it because I don't really want to promote it.) I know it's all in good fun, but it actually makes me incredibly angry. I've been to the Goodwill Outlet where he shot a bunch of the video (in Seattle) and while it can be fun, it can also be really sad, and the video/song seems to TOTALLY disregard the questionable aspects of young, affluent suburban kids thrifting for fun. On the other hand, I guess Goodwill has now teamed up with him and is using the song/video as a way to promote themselves...so it's all very hard to think through. I'd second what the poster above me said as well - at least if you're thrifting, you're not contributing to a cycle of waste.

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    1. I haven't seen the video, but I will try to find it to take a peek. I like that you're also thinking about affluent folks thrifting for fun. It's such a complicated issue (when I over think it, anyway). On the one hand, everyone wants to save money. On the other hand, some people need thrift shops to be able to clothe themselves.

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  4. As a business owner, I've struggled with this myself. My first year in business, I underpriced myself considerably - and all I got in return was a lot of incredibly ungrateful clients because all they wanted were "bargain basement prices." In the end, you have to see value in what you do - because you are providing a service. I never thrift, but I want to. I simply don't have time. And if it weren't for people like you who devote a significant amount of time and energy to finding, cleaning, and appropriately pricing merchandise, I'd probably never see these sort of awesome vintage finds. When I started to realize that people wanted to work with ME because of the services I was providing, things turned around dramatically in my business model. I think it's the same situation you're in - people are getting a great treasure, for sure, but they are also getting all the hard work YOU put into it. Of course it's important to be balanced and fair (I do constant market research as well) - but a friend once said to me, "If you don't find value in what you do, no one else will." So no more doubts, girly!

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    1. I pledge to find value in my work. Today is certainly seems like work. Three hours and we've done about 10 items. I think I am a little bit of a perfectionist. But I like to know every.single.thing about what I buy online, so I write these monster descriptions with long histories and every nook and cranny measured, examined and photographed, lol. So right now I'm feeling not guilty about asking for a little cash for connecting folks with treasures.

      P.S. Your work is gorgeous. You could charge a zillion for your stationary and I'd still think it's underpriced. So you're right about value - I value your wares more than mine because I could never do yours.

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  5. OH so much I could say on this post but I should hold my tongue.
    Being a former manager of one said store in this list and worked in 2 other big chain thrifts, I have complete knowledge on what the behind the scenes stories are of these "donations" and "charities"
    DONT FEEL GUILT AT ALL TANYA!!!!
    These companies should feel the guilt not you.

    There is so so much you are not aware of.
    Keep on shoppin'
    Amy

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    1. Now I am intrigued! I want so badly to know about the behind the scenes!!!! Can we email chat about this if I promise to keep it a secret???

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  6. For some reason, people who sell vintage or thrifted items seem to be the only ones who apologize for their business practices. I don't hear grocers or clothing retailers agonizing over making a profit. When we first opened the store, we felt obligated to explain ourselves and keep our prices dirt cheap. But guess what...you can't stay in business that way. My SIL quit a very lucrative job to open the store, and he has a wife and two sons to support. He also has thousands of dollars a month he has to pay in overhead...rent, insurance, utilities, taxes, shipping costs, auction house buyer's premiums, part-time help salary, restoration costs...and he spends countless hours online searching for quality vintage furniture. Like you, if he sees something really promising at an estate sale, he will sit for hours in the dark to get the first spot in line.

    You just said you have a stack of boxes five feet high to research, measure, photograph and list, which will take you hours to do. Sellers also have to pay to list their items and then pay a percentage of the sales price as well. (For example, V&M takes 20% of everything we sell on their site.)

    Expecting a vintage seller not to make a profit is like expecting people to work without a paycheck. We're in BUSINESS, and, like your dad said, we're providing a service. The average person doesn't have time to hunt for treasures, doesn't really understand the auction process or want to go to the trouble of arranging shipping from across the country, hasn't worked hard to develop a network of pickers and, frankly, doesn't really want to sit for hours waiting for estate sales to open. They want someone else to do all that work. So another part of what we charge for the item includes the legwork.

    I say stop feeling guilty. We have had these same discussions about ethics many times, and we've abandoned the guilt. We still offer our customers some great bargains, and there's a built-in incentive to price fairly, because if we overcharge, customers will buy from our competitors. But if we find a rare piece that we know will sell at auction for $10,000, then we sell it at auction and don't put it in the store with a $400 price tag, even though some of our customers may think we should. I have to wonder, though, if those same people would sell a car for $500 if it was worth $5000, simply because they felt guilty about making money. I think not.

    Another thing we've quit feeling guilty about is getting valuable pieces dirt cheap. We used to worry that we were cheating the seller, but my SIL and I spend hours every single day researching furniture and accessories online. Before we sell anything, we do an exhaustive search to find out who designed it and how much it's worth. I believe it's the seller's responsibility to do that research, not the buyer's responsibility to tell him he's not asking enough. We once sold a set of Dux chairs for $10 each without doing adequate research, and when we realized our mistake, we weren't upset with the buyer. We were upset with ourselves for being so lazy...and we won't make that mistake again.

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  7. Ooops...sorry I got wound up and wrote a mini-post on your blog...but this is something I have strong feelings about!

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    1. I love your mini post! It's true - I don't think other kinds of businesses worry. Maybe because I'm not a legit business, I don't feel I've earned the right to make money. Even if I do spend time doing it. I was also a consumer longer and had grumpy thoughts about antique shop prices. I was once knocked over by a local antique dealer at an Estate sale who, by shoving me, made it to the ONLY item I wanted. first I drove to his shop sometime later and was so angry with the price. I would have had to have paid 10x the estate sale price for the service of him shoving me. This kind of negative experiences shaped my views. It's taken some convincing for me to see the other side - it's someone's bread and butter, and other people really need/value the service provided. It's hard work, too, and also irregular in terms of income and finds. Plus, I'm an exception as someone who treasure hunted for my own joy, before taking a stab at selling things. So my views were really narrow before, from a limited perspective. But I am seeing the light, seeing what I now do (even if not for a career) as a service and worth payment. And respecting those who do this professionally even more. But I will never shove, lol.

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  8. I love that you share your finds, i also feel guilty sometimes when i am in a thrift shop, but I also feel like I donate a lot of stuff to them..and sometimes NICE stuff...so maybe that makes me feel a little better about it? IDK, i get where you are coming from.

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    1. I forgot to even think about that!! I also donate a lot of stuff. So maybe I'm just part of a delicious cycle of thrifting?? Great point I hadn't even thought of.

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    2. Maybe this is what she was referring to? http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/14/salvation-army-in-chicago_n_796669.html

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  9. I actually do think about it as well One thing that you haven't mentioned (and I haven't read all the comments yet) is that the Salvation Army uses the store to help train people and give them employment so you are helping people learn a valuable skill by shopping there.

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    1. That's good to know! I knew the Salvation Army supported communities, but haven't really educated myself much on how. Thanks for the info :)

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  10. Tanya, you are such a kind and reflective soul!
    Don't feel guilty about running a vintage shop on Etsy. It's not as if you are buying every item in Value Village and marking it up--it's more like you are curating items that fit into a specific niche, that happen to be found at such establishments. Do you get where I am coming from?
    Additionally, it really is the luck of the draw--I'm sure there have been fantastic items that you have missed out on! It's not as if you have snatched up every last gem out there! Chin up, gal!

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    1. I'm glad my being neurotic and over thinking things comes across as kind. I can kind of dwell on things, once I get an idea in my head. But I do think a lot about how privileged I am and how my actions are impacting the lives of others.

      I get what you're saying. I'm not buying all the sweet stuff, but then I am part of a group of people doing this - there are lots of people who don't need to thrift who thrift. But you're right - I have probably missed out on a ton of fabulous things that I am sure went to good homes.

      But I think I need to do more to give back.

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  11. Oh my, when I read this "The guilt source: I'm not poor." it hit home. I started my blog 3 years ago with the intent on promoting my interior design services and do e-designs. But I have yet to do any of it, why? Because I am not poor. Yep, I feel the same way about putting a value on services. I feel that most of the people I would design for need every last penny and I feel guilty if I charged them because I don't need the money. It has been a quandary for me, so I do nothing. I see so many bloggers doing e-design services and sometimes it makes me cringe, their designs are so flat and trendy, they have no business selling their "services". I have even gone as far as to not really share a lot of my designs in my own home, for fear that the readers will think I am too expensive for them to hire. I do a lot of DIY projects when in reality I can afford to hire someone to do it for me, but that isn't who I am. I love the challenge and satisfaction of completing a DIY. I can design high end, but I can also design on budget. Sigh.

    But back to you! Yes, your time is valuable, I would rather buy something on line via an Etsy store {and pay a bit more} than hit a TON of estate sales and thrift shops looking for that one item that I might not find. Having an Etsy shop is a lot of work, pictures, descriptions, tags, convos, packing, shipping {your time at the post office} , you deserve to make a little profit, no matter what your bank account holds!

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    1. Your blog is so lovely, Stephanie! Maybe it's easier for me to say this from an outside perspective, but I can completely see value in your talent and services and think you should do it!! People could definitely benefit from your e-services and I can only imagine the amount of work that goes into it. And I, for one, would love to see more of your home, especially when you're showing DIY projects mixed in.

      I think my issue with the income point, specifically, is less to do with making money (although I brought that up to) and more to do with sourcing my inventory from a place designed to help people who are economically disadvantaged (like a thrift store).

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  12. Your post totally hit home for me.

    My daughter had a beautiful orange sweater that she bought at a thrift store for a couple of bucks. Being a teen, she was finished wearing it after a year.

    I thought about turning into an awesome pillow cover since I was freshening up my family room. But I felt too guilty. I felt that maybe someone needed that sweater more than I needed to cut it up and make a pillow cover out of it.

    I let it go to the donation pile, because I don't want to keep things that make me feel guilty, but since then I've gotten OK with the fact that thrift shops have *thousands* of similar sweaters, so that *one* sweater wasn't likely to change anyone's life. I still consider it the one that got away.

    As for your business, please take pride in the fact that you are making some money by saving lots of stuff from the garbage dump and giving things new life.

    Good luck on the new biz!

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    1. I've totally done this too!! I've wanted to dismantle something or experiment on it and felt wasteful, knowing someone, somewhere, would do anything for a perfectly good sweater or whatnot. Sometimes I have to force myself to think of the oodles of stuff available at any given time and remind myself that as long as I am using something, it's not wasteful.

      Thanks for the well wishes!! It's fun to do and it's something my my and grandma (our newest business partner) do together, so it's becoming much more than a (tiny) income source.

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  13. I have enjoyed reading all of these comments. I too, really love going to all the estate and garage sales. Don't feel guilty about making a profit. I was going to sell on ebay and etsy, but you know, I have not because it is so much work!

    I would say that I am part of the poor of the middle class.

    I will be 65 in a couple of months,and have had a lot of illnesses. My mind still thinks creatively, but the body just won't get with it.

    One thing you might do when you are out,and if you see someone else who looks poor, and can't get together the $10.00 they are asking for something-- buy it and give it to them. It will make their day.

    There is a "soul" thing that I try to do three times a day -- give a compliment. It is amazing to watch strangers light up. I have paid for drugs when people have not had enough money (I think it was 5.00 -- but I ck. with the pharmysist first). I have had the cashier put the balance of someone's grocery items on my tab, when the person in front of me was frantic with 3 children, she was using food stamps, and she was trying to buy good food. None of these things have cost me very much -- but if I can, I do. We raised 5 children, put them through private education, and had very little extra money to spend.
    I know how appreciative I was when the head all the soccer teams saw me trying to sign up for soccer and having to decide who should play and who should not because we just did not have enough money for all five (I had 5 kids in 7 years)-- so she said "pay for two, and get three free."

    Please do not think that we were/are poor because we did not have an education. I graduated from a four year college -- and my husband graduated from Notre Dame with a Masters in Math, plus 50 hours but he teaches in a private school, that he helped develop, (which has won 3 Blue Ribbons), but the pay just does not go far.

    I know about finding things -- I paid three dollars for a gray casserole dish and cover -- I chose it because I had never seen a gray one. It is worth $400.00 -- and I have had it for three years -- I have yet to figure out where to sell it.
    Any ideas?

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    1. I love your idea of buying something for someone if I see them unable to purchase it. I've always felt sheepish about this, like I'm flaunting having (at least some) money. But you're right: it might make someone's day and I'd certainly want someone to help me if I was in need. I am so amazed you raised 5 children!!! It is so admirable you were able to do that (and enroll them in soccer and everything). A large family can make even the largest of incomes disappear quickly. I can't imagine have ONE kid - the cost of diapers alone!

      I am no expert on selling things. There is the usual etsy and ebay route. Some antique shops will sell on consignment and I think you make more money that way. I might approach an organization for folks who collect whatever kind of piece you have and see if they have a message board where you can contact collectors. I sold a set of glass salad tongs because I blogged about them once and someone wanting the set found me!! It could be that easy :) Good luck selling them and thanks for the comment.

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  14. This post got me thinking and I think thrifting even if you can afford not to is a good thing.

    I think about it like this. Lets say you buy a plate at Target. The from the sale goes to the Target corporation (and its employees), the manufacturer, and the production which probably takes place in China.

    If you buy a plate at Goodwill, the money doesn't go to the manufacturer or a large corporation (they were paid during the first transaction) it all goes to Goodwill. That money goes to their employees, to running the stores, and to charity. I'd rather have my money go there than elsewhere.

    And if you're going to alter the item (spray paint, etc.) it seems like a waste of money to get the new thing.

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    1. The *money from the sale...

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