One of the most sustainable lifestyle changes you can make is to shop for clothing and accessories secondhand. I like to say that all the clothes you could need already exist in the world. The problem with most fashion brands these days is that the clothing is designed to wear out, or go out of style quickly. It’s called fast fashion, and it uses a mind-blowing amount of resources to make pieces designed to be worn a few times and then thrown away. In the US alone, over 15 million tons of used textile and clothing waste is generated each year.
The beautiful thing about secondhand shopping is that most pieces have been around long enough to tell how they will wear over the years; if they’re going to pill, wrinkle or fade, they will likely already be showing signs. This makes it easy to pick out quality pieces for your wardrobe that will last a long time and require little maintenance.
Thrift stores can get a little overwhelming since they’re not always as organized as regular clothing stores, so I’ve compiled a list of my top tips and guidelines for what you bring home and why. With these simple tips, you’ll be thrifting like a pro.
Shop your list
Think about it - I wouldn't go grocery shopping without a list or I'd end up with just chocolate, wine, and 3 types of cheese. Why would I shop for clothing - a much more long-term purchase - without a list? I take a tip from Bea Johnson and schedule just a few purposeful shopping trips throughout the year; she likes to go once in the spring and once in the fall. The rest of the year, I keep a list of pieces I'd like to add to my wardrobe. The list is usually fairly short. Of course there are times that I fall in love with a silk dress or an embroidered jean jacket and I decide to treat myself, but most of the time, sticking to a list ensures that I go home with just a handful of pieces that fit my lifestyle and my wardrobe. If I notice that there are multiple occasions where I really need an open cardigan or a black pair of pants, for example, then I add that to the list. If one of my basics like a black tank top or a nude bra finally wears out, I recycle it (check out this blog by trashisfortossers for tips) and search for a new one.
Having a list also means that if I happen to stop by my favorite thrift store and I see something from my list, I know right away whether it’s the right fit for my wardrobe. It takes the love-at-first-sight excitement out of the equation. Shopping with a list reduces distractions and helps me go home with exactly what I want and need.
Establish rules for what you bring into your wardrobe
One of my main rules is that a new piece has to go with at least 5 different outfits in my closet. This rule helps me buy pieces that fit my style and are both comfortable and versatile enough to wear on the daily. Because the truth is, I have three pairs of pants I alternate between and a few classic pieces I layer with, like my black tank top, my striped crew neck, or my gray wool cardigan. If an item of clothing doesn’t go with at least five of my go-to outfits, how often am I really going to wear it?
For formal wear, I tweaked the rule a bit: if I’m buying an outfit for a wedding, a party or a business conference, I have to think of at least 5 other occasions I’d wear it in the next year. This rule keeps me from buying items that are too trendy or occasion specific, and instead I end up with timeless pieces that can be worn again and again, and styled in different ways.
Another of my rules is: one thing in, one thing out. I keep a minimalist home, and this rule helps me to only bring home things I love, which means my home is tidier and feels more like me. To keep this minimalist vibe, and to deal with limited closet space (remember, I live on a boat!) I have decided that for everything I bring into my home, I have to let go of another item I already have. I thought this rule would feel limiting or restrictive, but it has actually freed me to change my wardrobe without having an overflowing closet of things I never wear.
Try everything on
A classic thrifting mistake is to buy something because it’s only a few dollars, without trying it on or taking the time to see if it’s the right fit for you. Just because something is your size doesn’t mean it will fit; women’s sizing is actually unique to each brand, making it quite arbitrary. I take regular breaks in my shopping to try on a few items at a time so I don’t get overwhelmed by a whole basket of clothing or, even worse, get tempted to just check out with all the things that caught my eye. When I try things on, I take a photo so I can remember how each piece made me feel when it comes to checkout time. I make sure to wear comfortable shoes and some versatile base layers like jeans and a tank top that are easy to take on and off, but reflective of my everyday wardrobe so I can see how each piece fits in.
Know your repair tolerance
Personally, I don’t mind if an item has a broken zipper or needs to be hemmed. Although I usually don’t have the time or follow-through to fix them on my own, they are usually a $15-30 repair, so if I really love the piece, I add that to the “cost” of the garment and usually decide to go for it. Tough stains or tears are a little more time intensive to fix, so you’ve gotta love the piece enough to make it a project. Sometimes it’s an easy dry clean or a fun #visiblemending project, but make sure it’s worth the experiment.
Get some inspiration and get to it!
Figure out your style by making Pinterest boards for each season and then trying on similar styles at Nordstrom or another department store - leave your wallet at home ;) - to make sure they’re a good look for you. Go with a friend who will be honest about how things fit and flatter. Then take your freshly inspired list and hit the secondhand stores.
If you’re not sure where to start, try exploring the vintage stores in your area. If you happen to be in Ballard, my favorites are Lucky Vintage, Gold Dogs and Buffalo Exchange. My co-owner at Eco Collective, Summer Hanson, put together a great map of secondhand stores in the Seattle area. She also highlighted some of them in this article from Emeraldology.
Some of my favorite online vintage resources include @honeydovevintage and @shopsimplybare. And of course the OG of online vintage, eBay. In the age of Amazon, I had totally forgotten about eBay as a resource for finding used versions of exactly what you want, but it's such a useful tool. You can even create an alert for a specific brand or search term to find the right thing in your size, and let the seller know you have packaging preferences - I usually ask for plastic-free or reused shipping materials.
Sometimes people prefer to buy certain things new, like underwear, tennis shoes or a swimsuit. If you do choose to buy new, my friend Sedona Christina put together a wonderful resource of sustainable brands to choose from. My favorites are Pact, Hara the Label, Everlane, Reformation, and one that she didn't list, Eileen Fisher. I value organic and natural materials in my clothes, and these brands have some great options for linen, cotton and hemp clothing. These fabrics are more sustainable than synthetic materials and they also tend to be breathable, durable, and comfortable.
These guidelines have helped me curate a closet of items I really love and wear all the time. I’ve gotten so good at secondhand shopping over the years, and so much better at leaving items behind if they don't fit my wardrobe or my lifestyle. Now, every addition to my closet is more rewarding and feel more like me.
Did you like these secondhand shopping tips? Do you have a favorite tip to share? Tell us in the comments below!
Photos by Anya Nnenna for Eco Collective