How I shop for secondhand clothing that doesn’t come from thrift stores

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Vanessa Lim/Staff

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In the last few years, secondhand shopping has become an increasingly popular way to find cheap clothes without supporting the fast fashion industry, in addition to being a fun activity to do with friends. It’s even blossomed into an entire industry for people who thrift for valuable and vintage items and resell them online. Although thrift shopping can be fun, it’s not the sustainable and ethical experience people might think it is. Not only does the popularity of thrift shopping cause smaller-scale shortages of clothing for people who can’t afford to buy new clothing, it has also generally caused thrift store prices to soar. Even though thrifting may be sustainable, it certainly causes significant problems in low-income communities.

Luckily, there are other ways to find affordable and sustainable clothes without harming communities that can’t afford the rising thrift store prices. At this point, I actually buy the vast majority of my clothing secondhand, but I haven’t stepped foot in a thrift store in more than a year. Here’s how I do it.

Buy secondhand from friends and family

My favorite way to shop sustainably is to buy secondhand from friends and family. It’s a great way to find fun clothing at a relatively cheap price. My methods are also sustainable because most of the people who I buy clothing from live close to me, so I can walk to pick up clothing and collect what I bought in a reusable bag. I’ve always been someone who inherited other people’s clothing, whether it be friends, people from my synagogue or my siblings. Instead of doing a little spring-cleaning and tossing unwanted clothing, it’s becoming increasingly popular for people to try and sell their clothing online or to friends and acquaintances, especially on college campuses and small communities. If you’re in any large campus groups, see if anyone is selling items, especially as students are graduating or moving in the coming semesters. Some people prefer to sell to friends before donating or selling online, so if you have any senior friends, reach out and see if they’re doing any spring-cleaning. This can be especially effective if you have trouble finding items in your size. I’ll occasionally reach out to friends who I know are a similar size if I know they’re selling clothing or moving.

Inevitably, however, some items purchased from friends and family might not fit quite right. When this happens, I repurpose clothing by using some scissors, a needle and a thread to make items fit better or make entirely new pieces. The most sustainable kind of shopping you can do is shopping in your own closet! Sometimes, I take old items and cut them apart to make fun, new things. And don’t rule out looking through your parents’ and siblings’ old clothing (after asking them). There can be fun patterns and fabrics to repurpose that you don’t even have to buy because they’ve been sitting in your house for the past 10 years. 

Buy consciously from online sellers

Another option is buying through social media. Check out things such as the Facebook “Free and For Sale” page, Facebook Marketplace and social media accounts that people make when they clean out their closets. Though watching Instagram stories can be tedious, every once in a while, I’ll come across someone who has made an Instagram account to sell clothing that they already own. You can also search for such accounts, but being able to find people locally can be challenging. Using Facebook Marketplace and “for sale” pages can be a great way to get clothing, but it can take a little internet scouring and dedication to find the best items before they’re claimed. I’ve had great success buying through social media, even though sometimes, things don’t fit, or other times, I’m too late to buy an item I really like. You can also check out thrift websites such as Depop and Poshmark, although items on these sites might be a bit overpriced.

However, you’ll want to be aware of accounts that are reselling thrift-bought clothing at higher prices. Though this can be a cool and sustainable way to buy clothing, it falls under the ethical dilemma of contributing to increased thrift store prices. When clothing is bought from thrift stores and sold at a higher price, affordable clothing is being funneled away from those who might need it the most.

Ethical and sustainable shopping can be difficult on a tight budget. Luckily, there are ways to be sustainable without increasing inequity in your community. If you’re a crafty, artistic person, focus on looking for cool fabrics that you can repurpose. If you have a large social network, reach out to friends who might be selling clothing. If you have a lot of free time, keep refreshing those marketplace pages to see new items as people sell. While it might require a bit more effort, you can still find fun, sustainable and ethical clothing without entering a thrift store.

Contact Elysa Dombro at [email protected].