With many sectors gearing towards the technological landscape, the thrift business has been revolutionised into becoming a byproduct of social media and generally, the internet.
●6th December 2022
Thrifting is a practice which has been a staple in Nigerian society for many decades, right from the colonial era. The integration of a new culture into the pre-existing African culture led to a shift in the way fashion and lifestyle were perceived. People were ready to experiment with European fashion accessories, but Nigeria was incapacitated by financial constraints, lack of manufacturing powers, and inadequate knowledge on the processes involved in producing these clothing styles. Hence, the market for imported, secondhand clothes boomed.
These clothes majorly came from the donations of wealthy westerners who contributed to charities by giving out their clothes. In order to generate funds for assistance programs, many of these charities sorted through the donations and sold the surplus to secondhand clothing dealers who, in turn, weighed the secondhand clothing by condition and then categorised them into groups which they bundled in bales according to the quality of the content. Then, “clothing merchants from the importing countries visit the offices of exporters to ascertain the quality, negotiate the price, pay for the bales and ship the clothing to the country of origin,” Olumide Abimbola writes.
Whether it is gadgets, electrical appliances, clothing and fashion pieces, or jewelry, Okrika or Tokunbo — as thrift items are locally known as — is always available. Okrika is said to refer to a port town in southern Nigeria where all secondhand clothes used to arrive from. Consequently, in reference to thrift clothing, the term, Okrika, stuck. Bend-down-select is a common thrift lingo that is attributed to the market culture of young women and men bending to sort through clothing items from large heaps. The best time for this is usually when traders have “opened bales” of secondhand clothes, meaning that tonnes of jeans, dresses, tops, jackets, overalls, scarves, etc, have been imported from different locations such as America and Europe through ports in neighbouring West African cities like Lomé and Cotonou.
For some, thrifting is an adventurous activity where there is the possibility of finding limited edition pieces that may not be widely available. In the case of electrical appliances, many people believe that second hand appliances are guaranteed to serve them better. However, for others, it is just simply a financial necessity. There are no quirky reasons, no vast range of alternatives where thrifting just happens to fall in as a category — it is as simple as: that is what they can afford.
However, for something so customary, thrifting has been attacked with a lot of stigma that stems largely from classist biases and dogma. Consumerism is also an affliction that keeps rising against it. As a Marxist concept, Lois Tyson, in her book, Critical Theory Today, explains consumerism as “an ideology that says: “I’m only as good as what I buy.” Thus, it simultaneously fulfills two ideological purposes: it gives me the illusion that I can be as “good” as the wealthy if I can purchase what they purchase or a reasonable facsimile thereof”. This captures the general perception of thrifting that many people maintain. Buying a product that has been used and passed down is reasoned to send a clear message of lack and poverty, one that a lot of people are quick to disassociate from. In a world where you are only as worthy as your financial estimates, there is a cocktail of shame and ridicule that is thrown at thrift shoppers. Another barrier to sourcing for fashion pieces in the thrift market is the lack of inclusion for people who do not wear straight sizes. Many stores are stocked with one-offs, so finding clothes that fulfill the fashion tastes of people who do not fit into these straight sizes is quite tough. These, in addition to the misconception that all thrift items are dirty and unsafe, point to the reasons that many people avoid used clothing.
However, with many sectors gearing towards the technological landscape, the thrift business has been revolutionised into becoming a byproduct of social media and generally, the internet. In other words, social media has bestowed on it a sort of gentrification. A greater percentage of Nigerians are publicly warming up to the idea of thrift shopping, bringing about an era where it is almost cool to admit to being a thrift connoisseur. Again, social media has helped in making the content of fashion enthusiasts, bloggers, and influencers where they rhapsodise about fast fashion and at the crux of it, thrifting, accessible to many. Thanks, but no thanks also to the dwindling Nigerian economy which circumvents basic objects into luxury goods, leaving many people with the option of going for relatively cheaper, fairly used goods — that is, okrika/tokunbo.
The economic downturn has also pushed people to resort to e-commerce where thrift is a major commodity. According to the International Finance Corporation, since 2014, online shoppers in Africa have increased by 14 percent annually compared to a 12 percent global average. Nowadays, there are many thrift store pages on Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, etc, where one can browse through images of different collections of pieces, indicate interest by texting the vendor, make payment, and have their goods delivered to them.
But, there have been arguments that this has caused a spike in the prices of thrift goods and that a lot of these goods have been made inaccessible to the working class, having been taken over by the middle- and upper-class. Just a few months ago, there was a social media scuffle regarding thrifting and Twitter was a minefield of opinions. People claimed that since the term “thrift” became a common substitute for “Okrika”, the cost of secondhand goods skyrocketed. Truly, like all things which have been gentrified, the digital popularity of thrifting can be said to be responsible for the rising prices of its goods.
Regardless, thrift will continue to be an immutable part of Nigerian culture. The recurring need for people to develop sustainable ways of living nudges many into engaging themselves with the sale of thrift items and the people who buy these thrift items are securing fashionable and unique pieces at affordable costs. Also, secondhand fashion pieces keep clothing out of landfills and help in mitigating fashion’s negative environmental impact.
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