The Taming of Pants: Sorting As Production of Docile Objects in the Secondhand Clothing Market

Friday, 3 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
CLM.2.04 (Clement House)
Emma Greeson, University of California San Diego, San Diego, CA
This article draws on a year of observations, participant observation, and semi-structured formal and informal interviews to compare three types of used clothing markets in Krakow, Poland—bulk used clothing, consignment, and vintage—to describe the nature of production in a recycling market. Popular understanding of recycling and secondhand markets tends to cast the central mechanism of these markets as one of distribution and not of production. Whereas economic understandings of recycling and secondhand markets tend to consider production as that which happens in the primary market and thus outside of the secondhand market, global value chain (GVC) research has shown that production in the global bulk used clothing market takes place through myriad acts of classification enacted by actors along the chain. I argue that by understanding the objects in markets as being made more or less docile through sorting practices (processes of rejection or acceptance and subsequent classification), it is possible to understand production in the three kinds of used clothing markets under one framework.

I discuss how market objects are created in the bulk, consignment, and vintage markets for used clothing. Whereas bulk used clothing is a mass good, consignment and vintage items are more individualized. Bulk used clothing is a mass good at all points of sale (wholesale, in wholesale-owned shops, and individually-owned shops), but it is least docile in independently-owned bulk used clothing shops because it is least susceptible to control through processes of sorting. Wholesalers and actors in the consignment and vintage clothing markets have greater capacity to sort clothes close to the point of sale in shops than do independent shop owners.

Sorting is a key feature of all markets, though it is more visible in markets where the goods are heterogeneous. Production can be understood as the creation of objects, which can take the form of culturally re-constituted things, which I refer to as market objects. The creation of market objects through sorting should be understood as underlying schemes of knowledge or uncertainty in all kinds of markets. Knowledge in markets, i.e., the way in which information is organized and value judgments are made, is organized relative to market objects, which can be more or less docile. Production is sometimes the making of physical objects, but it is always the making of knowable market objects via material, organizational, and symbolic processes. Knowledge in standard or status markets is organized relative to market objects, which are themselves made and re-made at different moments of the market process.