Jean Cheney has always been a keen op-shopper, but on a recent trip to find bargains in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges she got an unwelcome shock.
“I went to three Salvos in my area looking for a few different bits and pieces, and a pair of women’s boots [was] $40 … didn’t matter the quality, the style, the branding,” Cheney says.
“I have a Kmart in my town and … there’s a Big W and Target. I can buy those products brand new for about that price.”
Cheney is not the only one who has found basic items that might once have sold for a few dollars in a charity shop are now priced at $20 or even $30.
Donna Wilson op shops with her sister every weekend around Newcastle, New South Wales, and has noticed a “frustrating” rise in prices.
“Some shops really do their research, and others sell Kmart items for more than retail,” she says.
Mardi Jane says she has been op-shopping across the South Australian Riverland for more than 10 years and has noticed clothing prices rise during the last year in particular.
“I guess there are two types of op shoppers – those that are in search of something different or unique … and for those the pricing may not be an issue,” she says.
“Then there are those living through hard times who may rely on having affordable choices from an op shop – I feel high pricing may really add burden to this group of customers.”
Clothing at church-run op shops is still being sold for as little as $2 or $3, the shoppers say, but they find the larger stores have put their prices up.
Charitable op shops, such as the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul Society, tend to have higher overheads particularly rent, whereas others may not if they are based on premises owned by a church or other institution.
The general manager of Vinnies stores in Queensland, Drew Eide, says pricing is typically decided by volunteers who follow guidelines that take account of the quality of donations, as well as the region.
“In higher-earning suburbs, the donations may be of higher quality and priced accordingly,” Eide says.
Vinnies’ reference points for pricing increase with the general rise in the cost of goods, he says.
“Like all businesses, our costs have increased over the last few years.”
Charitable op shops also have to find a balance between keeping prices low for those in need, while also bringing in revenue to cover overheads and fund their charitable efforts.
Eide says their priority is somewhere in the middle, aiming to “keep our prices affordable while still striving to raise vital funds for our charity work”.
“But for those struggling financially, we do what we can to make sure they don’t miss out.”
Salvos stores have a similar pricing strategy. The general manager of customer and strategy, Edwina Morgan, says: “Our prices are reflective of the Australian consumer market, and although perception is that inflation has had an impact on preloved or second-hand clothing prices broadly, we are continuing to focus on providing a diverse range of price points across our store network to cater to all types of needs and wants.”
Rising prices for secondhand clothing may also be an indicator of changing consumer patterns. Over the past decade, secondhand shopping has largely lost its stigma as more and more people search for a bargain or unique find.
Hannah Klose started her fashion blog Never Ever Pay Retail in 2014 as a way to break down misconceptions about secondhand clothing.
“There’s definitely been an attitude shift and I think people are more conscious as consumers,” Klose says.
“People’s perceptions of op shopping have completely changed. If you look anecdotally at the amount of pre-loved clothing markets that are now all over the city in Brisbane alone, there is definitely an appetite there.”
Much of that demand is driven by a desire for sustainability. Fast fashion is a major source of carbon emissions and landfills.
Only about 15% of donated clothes are sold, with tonnes of items dumped in landfill each day. Morgan says the Salvos receive a “huge array of donations” which are regularly rotated to maximize their chances of being sold.
Maggie Zhou, an influencer who encourages slow fashion, says the growing popularity of shopping for secondhand clothing is probably not to blame for rising prices.
“When we’re talking about how trendy, rich kids are buying out op shops and upping the prices [I wonder] how accurate is that, because there is still so much unsold,” Zhou says.
“There’s a lot at stake; we’ve got a climate crisis and we’ve got the livelihoods of the millions of garment workers around the world,” Zhou says.
Zhou contrasts the value of buying secondhand with the growth of fast fashion brands such as Shein, which churns out tens of thousands of items each day and uses social media algorithms to market their brand, sometimes through “flash sales” with items sold for as little us$5.
Shein and similar platforms cater to fleetingly popular, online micro trends. The items it sells are not designed to last, both in fashion and in quality, meaning they are more likely to end up in landfill.
According to the UN Environment Programme, the fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for eight to 10% of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.