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UTSG: Automated Violence: Who Will Guard the Guards?

We will discuss automated decision-making systems (ADMs) being deployed by police services, with a specific focus on the RCMP’s “Project Wide Awake.” The surveillance program, sans privacy impact assessment, has garnered little media attention despite the chilling precedent it sets regarding privacy rights in Canada. In June 2017, the RCMP acquired and launched a social media surveillance program specifically targeting Black Lives Matter activists in Vancouver, BC. Our discussion will highlight some of the key features of the project and unpack a series of questions, including: Was there an objective to collecting data on BLM activists? Was the data disclosed to any other databases and third-parties, such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) database? And has this data been used to train ADMs? We will highlight how mass surveillance programs can exacerbate discriminatory and violent policing behaviours when data collection mechanisms and ADMs go unvetted and unchecked.

Daniella Barreto
Amnesty International Canada
Digital Activism Coordinator

Daniella Barreto is a public health researcher and anti-racist queer activist. She holds an MSc. in population and public health and continues advocacy work with sex workers and people living with HIV. She is a co-founder of RUDE: The Podcast, a professional photographer and Nuance writing fellow. She is currently Digital Activism Coordinator at Amnesty International Canada.

Nicole Leaver
Artificial Intelligence Impact Alliance
Public Sector Technology Researcher

Nicole Leaver is a progressive policy researcher and graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. Her current research focuses on automated decision-making systems and inequality in Canada. She is a public sector technology researcher at the Artificial Intelligence Impact Alliance and a co-founder of RUDE: The Podcast.

UTSG: State of AI Ethics

NOTE: The feedback from this session will be integrated into the research project that we have going on at MAIEI this summer where we are joined by interns from across the world working on this subject! For more information, check out: https://montrealethics.ai/meet-the-16-inaugural-maiei-summer-research-interns/

Centre for Ethics – University of Toronto is hosting the Montreal AI Ethics Institute and the local AI ethics community at their offices to discuss the very important subject of State of AI Ethics – there has been a surge in the interest on the societal impacts of AI, especially with a whole host of declarations and sets of guidelines that have been published trying to capture these impacts from different angles. Yet, there are quite a few aspects that are missing in this conversation, especially when it comes to how these efforts are funded, what is the underlying diversity in the teams that put together these reports/research and most importantly are we missing key, unrepresented voices that need to be a part of the conversation but those that don’t necessarily have access to media sources to emphasize their work and opinions.

In this session we’ll be looking to gain a holistic understanding by leveraging insights from a diversity of backgrounds and fields, both from a social science and technical perspective. We’ll be building on the work from the Research Internship Program project at MAIEI (material for that will be sent out closer to the session, please make sure to keep an eye out for the email around August 13/14).

Guiding questions for the session:

1) What are the unheard voices in the current discourse of AI ethics and how do we bring them into the fold of AI ethics enabling them to make meaningful technical and policy contributions? There are a set of AI ethics “elite” and influencers that are driving the conversation, agenda and research directions via their audiences on social media and prior connections from their work which are marginalizing the voices of the people who are on the ground facing the effects of automation.

2) Given the current deluge of declarations, guidelines, and other initiatives that are trying to map out the developments in the field of AI ethics, who are the most underserved audiences when it comes to implementing AI ethics in a practical manner? The ultimate goal of work being done in AI ethics needs to be beyond just academic and theoretical interest and instead help people implement these practices in their research and work so that we can mitigate harms emerging from irresponsible uses of AI systems.

Please visit the Eventbrite link to get more information on the readings and the schedule for the event!

https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/toronto-ai-ethics-state-of-ai-ethics-tickets-67720276169

How physicians in Canada invent new surgeries

A conversation with Dr. Sunit Das on ethical oversight in surgery innovation

How physicians in Canada invent new surgeries

Taking risks and testing new ideas are the cornerstones of advancing science and technology. But when it comes to developing new surgical techniques, experimentation can be a matter of life or death for patients who volunteer.

To understand how and why surgeons innovate, The Varsity interviewed Dr. Sunit Das, an Assistant Professor at U of T’s Department of Surgery and neurosurgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital. 

Why innovate?

Although the practice of surgery has come a long way, there is considerable potential to improve surgeries in order to make them safer, quicker, more efficient, and less expensive.

“Engineers talk about the fact that it’s the existence of problems that drive their work,” explained Das. “And, in a way, surgical innovation could say much the same.”

Of course, innovation inevitably carries the risk of failure. Das explained that part of the ethical dilemma of surgical innovation stems from weighing the benefits of testing an unfamiliar technique against a proven and well-known procedure. 

The difficulty of this decision depends on the effectiveness of existing procedures. When surgeons test a new technique against one that is rarely effective, ethically it might not be a costly risk to take. For example, according to Das, physicians can often test new chemotherapeutic agents with patients who have recurrent cancers, since there are usually no effective alternative therapies for their conditions.

New surgeries for these conditions are often worth the risks. It is much harder to try to innovate when a technique that is relatively safe and effective already exists.

For any innovative procedure, ethical practice requires doctors to fulfill certain responsibilities when offering experimental treatments to patients. Currently, there is a four-step process in place for approving new surgical techniques in Canada. 

The stages of surgical innovation

Surgical innovation begins with preclinical work and the development of a technique. Stage 1 follows, at which surgeons use the experimental technique for the first time on a human patient. In this early stage, the goal is to determine the safety and efficacy of the procedure in a small, select group of patients.

In Stage 2, surgeons apply the surgical procedure to a broader selection of patients to determine the reproducibility of Stage 1’s results. They also determine how to best apply the intervention, as well as develop the technique’s efficiency.

Throughout the development of any new surgery, patients and their caregivers must give special consent to receive it. This suspends or modifies the duty of surgeons to minimize harm. By the conclusion of Stage 3, the new surgery becomes a standard procedure, removing the need for physicians to require special consent from patients.

How do experimental surgeries receive ethical oversight?

Monitoring the progress of surgical innovation is critical — a lack of oversight could lead to mistakes that present patients with unnecessary risks.

For many hospitals, Research Ethics Boards (REBs) ensure experimental techniques meet ethical requirements. When surgeons intend to make an experimental procedure available for patients, they must submit a clearly defined protocol to an REB for approval.

However, there are drawbacks to placing an REB in charge of surgery. To start, REBs often do not have surgeons on them. Service on an REB is a time-consuming responsibility and “time is one of the things that surgeons tend to lack,” said Das.

An REB’s oversight can also substantially slow the development of a surgical technique, said Das, in ways he believes are unnecessary.

To develop a surgical technique, explained Das, researchers undergo a process that is iterative. That is, surgeons often apply an experimental technique, learn how they could improve it during the process of the surgery, and change the protocol to reflect the improvement.

“The nature of an REB is antagonistic to [iteration],” said Das. Under an REB’s oversight, each time the surgeons decide to alter their protocol, they need to apply for an amendment, causing their application to require review by the REB.

While Das noted that the additional review does ensure that the REB is on the same page as the surgeons, he believes that an alternative approval process could increase the efficiency of surgical innovation.

The Surgeon-in-Chief as an alternative source of oversight

Das believes in placing the burden of responsibility on the Surgeon-in-Chief of a hospital to ensure that experimental surgeries meet ethical requirements.

The expertise of the Surgeon-in-Chief addresses the first perceived shortfall of REBs — that such boards lack physicians directly experienced in surgery. He noted that “there are nuances to the idea of surgical innovation [that he believes] are more available to a Surgeon-in-Chief than they necessarily might be to an REB.”  This could allow the Surgeon-in-Chief to have a better grasp of how an experimental procedure works.

Das also addressed the issue of REBs reducing efficiency. He said that a Surgeon-in-Chief with the onus of responsibility would allow “a type of communication and a type of nimbleness to change that simply is not inherent to the way that something works with an REB” and would therefore support iterative development.

“I think Toronto has been a leader in the world in terms of thinking about this problem [of obstacles to iteration],” said Das. In fact, he noted that the model of placing the Surgeon-in-Chief of a hospital in charge of oversight, instead of an REB, evolved at Toronto General Hospital.

Since then, institutions, such as St. Michael’s Hospital and Toronto Western Hospital, have adopted this model of ethical approval. As an advocate of this approach, Das has co-authored a paper about this in The American Journal of Bioethics. 

He acknowledged, however, that the model does have shortfalls. “One of the inherent dangers to placing the oversight element to innovation with a Surgeon-in-Chief is that there might be [conflicts of interest] that could get in the way of proper oversight,” he said.

A conflict of interest, said Das, could result from the promise of prestige of a successful innovation overshadowing the Surgeon-in-Chief’s responsibilities to the hospital, surgeons, and patients to ensure proper oversight when approving experimental procedures.

“For me, being involved in surgical innovation has had beneficial effects on my career and on my standing in the international community of neurosurgery. I gain prestige by work that I do as an innovator… and the hospital gains prestige from the work that I do,” said Das.

“There’s the danger that those risks, those responsibilities could be clouded by the possibility of benefit in terms of prestige to a surgeon and to a hospital by innovation.”

Always innovating

Surgeons think about research ethics to address the conflict between the goals of securing patient safety and improving patient outcomes by developing new procedures. They cannot advance what they offer patients without stepping outside a place that is comfortable and known. Taking risks is fundamental to making progress.

“Surgical innovation in a way is deciding to do something differently, despite knowing that we have a way of doing things safely and well,” said Das. “It’s simply that we think we can finally do something that, in a way, will be safer and be better.”

Lecture: Corporate Social Responsibility in the Era of A.I.

The lecture, addressing corporate social responsibility in business ethics, will be delivered by Michael Motala, an Ethics of Artificial Intelligence Graduate Research Fellow at U of T’s Centre for Ethics and PhD student in political science.

How to trust AI with life-or-death decisions

A lecture on the ethics of consequential AI systems

How to trust AI with life-or-death decisions

As advances in AI reach new heights, there are certain traits that AI systems must have if humans are to trust them to make consequential decisions, according to U of T Computer Science Professor Emeritus Dr. Ronald Baecker at his lecture, “What Society Must Require of AI.” In an effort to learn more about how society will change as artificial intelligence (AI) advances, I attended the talk on June 5 and left more informed of the important role that people have to play in shaping this fast-changing technology.

How is today’s AI different from past technologies?

AI has been used in the field of computer science for decades, yet it has recently been accelerating at a strikingly fast pace, with machine learning catalyzing progress in the field.

Machine learning has improved pattern recognition to such an extent that it can now make consequential decisions normally made by humans. However, AI systems that apply machine learning can sometimes make mistakes.

For many AI systems, this result is acceptable. Such nonconsequential systems rarely make life-or-death decisions, explained Baecker, and their mistakes are “usually benign and can be corrected by trying again.”

But for consequential systems, which are AI-based software that addresses more complex problems, such mistakes are unacceptable.

Problems could arise when using AI to drive autonomous vehicles, diagnose medical conditions, inform decisions made in the justice system, and guide military drones. Mistakes in these areas could result in the loss of human life.

Baecker said that the research community must work to improve consequential AI, which he explains through his proposed “societal demands on AI.” He noted that these demands must give AI human-like attributes in order to improve the decisions that it makes.

Would you trust consequential AI?

When we agree to implement solutions for complex problems, said Baecker, we normally need to understand the “purpose and context” behind the solution suggested by a person or organization.

“If doctors, police officers, or governments make [critical] decisions or perform actions, they will be held responsible,” explained Baecker. “[They] may have to account or explain the logic behind these actions or decisions.”

However, the decision-making processes behind today’s AI systems are often difficult for people to understand. If we cannot understand the reasoning behind an AI’s decisions, it may be difficult for us to detect mistakes by the system and to justify its correct decisions.

Two questions we must answer to trust consequential AI

If a system makes a mistake, how can we easily detect it? The procedures that certain machine learning systems use cannot be easily explained, as their complexity ⁠— based on “hundreds of thousands of processing elements and associated numerical weights” ⁠— cannot be communicated to or understood by users. 

Even if the system works fine, how can we trust the results? For example, physicians reassure patients by explaining the reasoning for their treatment recommendations, so that patients understand what their decisions entail and why they are valid. It’s difficult to reassure users skeptical of an AI system’s decision when the decision-making process may be impossible to adequately explain.

It’s difficult to reassure users skeptical of an AI system’s decision when the decision-making process may be impossible to adequately explain.

Another real-life problem arises when courts use AI-embedded software to predict a defendant’s recidivism in order to aid in the setting of bonds. If that software system were inscrutable, then how could a defendant challenge the system’s reasoning on a decision that affects their freedom?

I found Baecker’s point fascinating: for society to be able to trust consequential AI systems, which may become integrated with everyday technologies, we must trust them like human decision-makers, and to do so, we must answer these questions.

Baecker’s point deserves more attention from us students, who, beyond using consumer technology every day, will likely experience the societal consequences of these AI systems once they are widely adopted.

Society must hold AI systems to stringent standards to trust them with life-or-death decisions

Baecker suggests that AI-embedded systems and algorithms must exhibit key characteristics of human decision-makers, with a list that he noted: “seems overwhelming.”

A trustworthy complex AI system, said Baecker, must display competence, dependability and reliability, openness, transparency and explainability, trustworthiness, responsibility and accountability, sensitivity, empathy, compassion, fairness, justice, and ethical behaviour. 

Baecker noted that the list is not exhaustive — it omits other attributes of true intelligence, such as common sense, intuition, context use, and discretion.

But at the same time, he also recognized that his list of requirements is an “extreme position,” which necessitates very high standards for a complex AI system to be considered trustworthy.

However, Baecker reinforced his belief that complex AI systems must be held to these stringent standards for society to be able to trust them to make life-or-death decisions.

“We as a research community must work towards endowing algorithmic agents with these attributes,” said Baecker. “And we must speak up to inform society that such conditions are now not satisfied, and to insist that people not be intimidated by hype and by high-tech mumbo-jumbo.”

“Society must insist on something like what I have proposed, or refinements of it, if we are to trust AI agents with matters of human welfare, health, life, and death.”

Where computers and clinics intersect

Raw Talk Podcast hosts expert panel discussions about AI’s role in healthcare

Where computers and clinics intersect

Experts in medicine, academia, and industry explored the promises and perils of the applications of artificial intelligence (AI) in health care during panel discussions with the Raw Talk Podcast on May 7. The event was organized by graduate students of U of T’s Institute of Medical Science.

The two panels, collectively named “Medicine Meets Machine: The Emerging Role of AI in Healthcare,” aimed to demystify sensationalism and clarify misconceptions about the growing field of study.

“On one hand, it seems like everyone has heard about [AI],” said Co-executive Producer Grace Jacobs. “But on the other hand, it seems like there’s a lot of misunderstanding and misconceptions that are quite common.”

How AI is used in health care

While discussing the reality of AI, several panelists emphasized that it should be viewed and treated as a tool. “It is statistics where you don’t have to predefine your model exactly,” said Dr. Jason Lerch of the University of Oxford.

Other speakers agreed that AI is an expansion of — or a replacement for — traditional statistics, image processing, and risk scores, as it can provide doctors with more robust and accurate information. However, final health care recommendations and decisions remain in the hands of doctors and patients.

“You always need a pilot,” said Dr. Marzyeh Ghassemi, a U of T assistant professor of computer science and medicine.

But what advantages can this tool provide? Ghassemi thinks it can assimilate clues from a wider range of patients’ conditions to predict treatment outcomes, replacing the experience-based intuition that doctors currently rely on.

Speaking on her time in the Intensive Care Unit as an MIT PhD student, Ghassemi said, “A patient would come in, and I swear they would look to me exactly the same as prior patients, and the… senior doctors would call it. They would say, ‘oh, this one’s not going to make it. They’re going to die.’ And I would say, ‘Okay… why?’ And they said, ‘I’m not sure. I have a sense.’”

“They used different words — gestalt, sense — but they all essentially said the same thing. ‘I just — I have a sense.'”

Doctors develop this sense by seeing many cases during their training, but they can intuit only the cases that they had personally experienced; AI algorithms can potentially understand many more cases using a wider dataset.

Accessing those cases requires access to patient data, and access to data requires conversations about consent and privacy. Ghassemi and Dr. Sunit Das, a neurosurgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital and Scientist at the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science, said that “de-identification” — the removal of information that can be traced back to individual identities — protects privacy.

Large de-identified datasets from the United States and the United Kingdom are available for AI research, but generally, Canada lags behind these countries in making health data available for this purpose.

Dr. Alison Paprica, Vice-President of Health Strategy and Partnerships at the Vector Institute, agreed that data should be used for research, but argued that de-identification alone does not eliminate risk.

“You’re not just giving a dataset to anybody,” she said. “You’re giving a dataset to people who are extremely skilled at finding relationships and patterns and maybe piecing together information in ways that most people couldn’t. So I think there’s going to be heightened sensitivity around re-identification risk.”

Society must manage this risk and balance it against the benefits. “How do we balance that?” Paprica asked. She suggested that consulting all involved stakeholders could help strike that equilibrium.

Advice for scientists aiming to use AI in their research

So what advice did the panelists have for scientists hoping to harness the power of AI in their own research?

Ghassemi stressed the importance of knowing what you’re doing: researchers have created many tools that make AI research easy to implement, but conscientious scientists need to know the statistical and training principles behind the methods.

“If you’re not aware of how these things are trained,” she said, “it’s really easy to misuse them. Like, shockingly easy to misuse them.”

Other panelists advised users to take care when choosing data to train the algorithms. “A learning algorithm can’t overcome bad data that goes in, or can’t completely overcome it,” said Lerch.

Moderator Dr. Shreejoy Tripathy summed up a key takeaway on applying AI to health care: “Understand your data… And understand your algorithms.”

Exploring the gentrification of thrift stores

The ethics of splurging on the dollar bin

Exploring the gentrification of thrift stores

A nostalgic smell drifts from piles of stained mom jeans and multi-colored windbreakers at a local Queen Street thrift store. Loud alternative rock music blares through a broken-down speaker as herds of fashion-conscious youth crowd the sale rack — a familiar scene at this beloved consignment store. A group of rowdy, suburban teenagers gather at a nearby register as a cashier rings up several items in hand.

Vintage Levi’s shorts, $10. Old Raptors Jersey, $9. Ramones Band Tee, $10. Aviator Sunglasses, $5.

Once considered suitable only for the poor and working class, ‘thrifting’ has vastly expanded into mainstream culture, trickling its way to upper middle class hipsters and fashion bloggers. Major fashion magazines such as VOGUE have caught onto the ‘thrifting’ trend, with celebrity fashion gurus such as Alexa Chung utilizing thrift stores as a part of their style arsenal.

Can we blame Macklemore for donning your grandfather’s hand me downs?

With the average cost of living continuing to rise in Toronto, the rising prices of second hand clothing do not make it easier on those who truly need it most. Major thrift stores such as Value Village have been criticized by consumers for their drastic price changes.

Though a $20 jacket for most shoppers would be considered reasonable, some may consider it a stretch out of their budget. For consignment stores operating under a for-profit agenda, it seems contradictory to hike up the prices of donated clothing that is meant to benefit those in need. After all, shoppers flock to thrift stores for their low prices and unique finds. Is affordability a fashion fad?

Humble beginnings

Consignment stores made their way into larger cities in the early 1900s as a means of raising money for charitable causes. Charitable organizations such as The Salvation Army opened their own consignment stores under a religious agenda and, to this day, are still operating under their religious mission.  

The Salvation Army opened several Toronto buildings in the early 1900s, opening their first known ‘thrift-store’ in 1908.  The opening of consignment stores has also helped the increasing immigrant population, especially under a looming economic crisis.

The Yonge Street Mission (YSM), a local Toronto charity, opened its thrift store Double Take in 1999, to serve a growing immigrant community in the Regent Park neighbourhood. The store is a part of YSM’s Double Take program, which is a community training and employment initiative for people who may face obstacles with regular employment and those who are newcomers to Canada. Their goal is to help people living in poverty build stronger futures and work their way out of poverty.

The store, unlike many other thrift stores, prides itself in providing quality clothing for its customers at low prices that have not changed since its opening. Kathy Webster, manager of Double Take, explains that their pricing practises haven’t changed in the 10 years that she’s worked at the store, and they are simply to “provide low cost quality clothing and housewares and furniture.” However, Webster also says that, in order to cover costs, Double Take needs to “get some value out of the higher end things.”

“This has always been a destination for a lot of people… bargain hunters, students, people who actually live in Cabbagetown, which is just north of here [Regent Park]. It’s a very well-to-do area and a great many of the residents in Cabbagetown shop here because they know it’s good quality, it’s clean,” continues Webster. “They don’t feel that they’re walking into a thrift shop.”

Double Take also provides first-time employment for community members involved in the program. Clients of the programs offered at YSM are also issued gift certificates which they can use to shop at Double Take for interview or career clothing and household necessities.

When asked about the gentrification of thrift stores and the recent trends in thrifting culture, Webster says, “That doesn’t take away from the fact that people who don’t have a lot of money shop here. As far as I’m concerned, this [store] is open to everybody and I’m happy to see any kind of customers coming in.”

Thrifting culture takes a turn

In recent years, local business owners have caught onto the thrifting trend, opening their own consignment stores, though marketing it under a different agenda.

Fashionably Yours, a designer consignment store, curates a selection of second-hand luxury vintage clothing on their website and at their flagship Queen Street West location. Customers also have the option to sell their luxury second-hand items through them.

Plato’s Closet, a trendy second-hand clothing store, targets the hip, ‘fashion-forward’ teenager with locations across suburban communities in Ontario. Customers can sell their gently-used, unwanted clothing to the store, given that it meets certain conditions bonus points for brand names.

Startups such as Depop are also targeting fashion-conscious, trendy youth on a budget by creating apps for users to sell their second-hand clothing, accessories, and more.

So how exactly has the gentrification of thrift stores and the rise of ‘thrifting culture’ affected local charities?

In late 2016, Goodwill closed its Toronto locations as a result of a cash flow crisis. Faced with competition from fellow thrift stores such as Value Village, the company failed to remain financially stable despite receiving masses of clothing donations each day.

Thrifters weigh in

Meghan Garvida, a veteran thrifter and third-year student at U of T, describes her love story with the thrifting phenomenon and weighs in on its recent popularity. “I got into thrifting because my elementary school was right across the Value Village, so afterschool my friends and I would go to the thrift store, but technically, it originally started with my parents.” But when Garvida was growing up, “thrifting wasn’t well recognized. Honestly, people thought it was weird. Because it was such a cheaper option, my parents and I would go.”

Garvida prides herself on finding quality branded clothing at fraction prices. When asked about the gentrification of thrift stores and her experience with Value Village’s inflating prices, she shares a sentiment common among many longtime thrifters. “I’ve seen a big difference especially in their stores, like jackets used to be $7.99. And no-name brands are nowadays 17 dollars,” she laments. “This is a thrift store, this is meant for people who don’t have money and cannot afford to go to the mall.”

Nevertheless, Garvida explains that a few trend cycles ago, “it was all about the malls, what’s trending in stores.” Nowadays, however, “the trends are more focused, like vintage, retro vibes, and that’s something we don’t necessarily always have in store or… something that [every store] in the mall would have.”

Recent U of T graduate and avid thrifter Sila Naz Elgin came to thrifting in a similar way to Garvida. “Second-hand clothing and such isn’t looked at warmly in Turkish culture, so until I met someone who introduced me to Value Village in Waterloo I didn’t look at it positively,” explains Elgin in an email to The Varsity. “After that, it became a family affair, and was super convenient for an immigrant family that didn’t have a lot of money to find some really nice pieces.”

But Elgin’s fondness for thrifting is fading. “In recent years I’ve come to detest the industry because I think it’s turned into another one of those ‘fashion of the year’ fads,” she writes. “I used to be able to walk into a thrift store and find some genuine pieces from the 90s, which is kind of what I vibe for in my personal style. Lately, it became impossible; and I had workers respond with ‘90s aren’t in right now.’”

Josie Meza-Silva, a second-year student at U of T, shares Garvida’s concern over rising prices not only at major thrift stores but also at retail stores, alluding to the ‘low prices’ that attract thrifters in the first place. “You’d be lucky if you went to a mall and bought a plain t-shirt for less than $20, let alone big brand name prices. Even the thrift shops nowadays are getting expensive selling shirts at around $5 – $10 each.”

Echoing Elgin’s discontent, Meza-Silva continues, “Just the other day I went to a Value Village and I saw teenagers dressed in big brand name clothing with carts filled to the brim with clothes. The trendy culture of “thrifting” I’d say was influenced by the fashion industry. People who want to be seen as fashionable can’t afford the brand name “retro look” and turn to thrifting as a cheap alternative.”

While Mrinalini Fernandes, a third-year student at UTM, also notes that “Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed a large increase in cost at thrift stores and so the price has started to lose its appeal.,” she explains that “The main reason I continue to shop at thrift stores is because it’s a more sustainable and eco friendly way to recycle and reuse things no longer needed while reducing waste.”

Third-year U of T student Serena Viola also advocates the sustainability of thrifting culture. She writes that she doesn’t “think that something so versatile as thrifting should be a fad for fashion. At the end of the day, it is pre worn/used items that are being recycled- and they should be priced in a reasonable range.”

“Once, in Kensington Market I saw a pair of second hand levis jeans for over 80 dollars… The reason why this matters so much to me is because I thrift for environmental and humanitarian reasons. The fast fashion industry uses a lot of resources and is notorious for incredibly horrendous working conditions,” shares Viola.

The cost of self-expression

Overall, the search for self-expression seems to be a recurring theme in thrifting culture. Garvida explains, “When you go to a thrift store, you’ll have a one of a kind item and if someone asks where you got it, nobody else can find it. It’s something nowadays where people want to go to the thrift store to be that one-of-a-kind person.”  

She has a point.

Thrift stores evoke a certain aesthetic that seems awfully unique. Old clothes tell a story that mass-produced clothing cannot. Purchase a pair of culottes at a major retail store and you’re sure to have the same outfit as hundreds of other people. But purchase a pair of vintage jeans, and you stand out.

Shoppers want to be able to express their individuality while being able to save a few dollars, but does being ‘one of a kind’ come at an ethical cost? For-profit thrift stores that are meant to help struggling individuals have been evolving to cater to well-off clientele, instead of the economically disadvantaged. So who is really profiting?