Saving the World through Secondhand Shopping

Since fast fashion is destroying the planet, the Environmentalist from Hell is getting back to her thrift-shopping roots.

Photo by Duy Hoang via Unsplash

I’ll be honest. I’m a bit shallow and vain. I want to look cool. But I care about the environment. So, I’ve been looking for a secondhand leather jacket for nine long months. Last week at Turnabout, the closest consignment store to my house, my heart skipped a beat when I saw a beautiful leather moto jacket on the rack. My palms started to sweat with excitement. Could my quest be over?!

I tried it on. My heart sank. I could zip it up, but it was too tight across my back. I took it off and inspected it, hoping the garment would magically increase in size. I debated if I could make it work. In the end, I left the store deflated that I’d come so close to finding what I’ve been searching for so long.

I can already hear some of you screaming at me, “Why don’t you just go buy a new one that fits?” Isn’t the time I’ve put into this search worth spending the full price? Probably. But here’s the thing; I don’t want to buy clothes from regular stores any more. Just like 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg told reporters when she traveled 32 hours by train to the World Economic Forum, “I want to practice as I preach.”

I want to shop more ethically, and I still want to look like a badass woman in a cool jacket. What’s an ethical fashionista to do?

I claim to be an environmentalist, but I can do more. I want to shop more ethically. I want a genuine leather jacket because I know how much “vegan leather” sucks, but I also don’t want to directly support the leather industry. And I still want to look like a badass woman in a cool jacket that works for Vancouver’s spring and fall seasons. GAH!!! What’s an ethical fashionista to do?

When I was a teenager, I used to spend hours rummaging through thrift stores, scraping hangers against metal racks searching for treasures. Now as an adult, I don’t have that kind of time, and my patience is wearing thin. This used leather jacket quest has become a Sisyphean task, and I now feel like an environmentalist in hell. I know I could go to a store and pay full price for the new leather jacket of my dreams. But I’ve been reading, and I’ve learned that fashion is fucking up the planet.

Did you know that one garbage truck’s worth of textiles is wasted every single second, and that fashion is responsible for 92 million metric tonnes of solid waste dumped in landfills each year? And did you know that the fashion industry is responsible for about 10% of carbon emissions globally, and 20% of wastewater? And did you further know that garment workers are some of the lowest-paid in the world, very often in unsafe conditions?

In order to keep up with the growing demand for fast fashion, natural fibers have largely been replaced by synthetic ones, i.e. plastics. I.e. fabrics made from oil. Yeah, it’s very likely your clothing is a product of the petroleum industry. How do your stretchy jeans feel now? Sludgy?

Your clothing is a product of the petroleum industry. How do your stretchy jeans feel now? Sludgy?

According to Fast Company, “oil-based polyester has now replaced cotton as the number one fiber in our clothing.” This means that when we wash our synthetic clothing, we’re releasing microplastics into our water system. Esquire magazine went so far as to say “Fast Fashion is Absolutely Destroying the Planet.” They’re not wrong.

So with all that in mind, I’m sucking it up, putting away my online-shopping clicker finger, and hitting the racks at my local thrift and consignment stores.

I acknowledge that a number of privileges help me shop secondhand: I live in a neighbourhood that has over a dozen thrift, consignment, and resale stores within walking distance; I wear a “regular” size and can find clothing that fits me in these stores; my shoe size is average; I have a wacky work schedule that provides me flex time to browse; I don’t have kids or another adult to care for; and I’m able to easily move my body in and out of stores, changerooms, and clothing without assistance.

So here I am, willing and able to bypass the fast-fashion industry, and I’ve been stuck with the question: How? How will I know what to purchase and what to leave behind? Where do I find the good stuff?

First, I need to know where to go. There are three major categories of secondhand store: thrift shops, consignment stores, and online sites. Thrift stores are usually run by volunteers, and the proceeds go to charity. Often they have the lowest prices, but you’re likely to spend more time searching to find fashionable and quality items. Resale/consignment stores have a picky person making choices about what the store puts on their racks. If you’re short on time, you’re likely to find more things you want if you have similar taste to the store’s gatekeeper.

Consignment stores have a picky person making choices, so you’re likely to find more things you want if you have similar taste to the store’s gatekeeper.

There are more and more websites popping up with secondhand vintage and designer labels. ThredUP keeps popping up in targeted ads since I started working on this essay. I haven’t purchased anything from them because the environmental impacts of online shopping aren’t great, thanks to shipping emissions and plastic wrapping. EBay is another place my thrifty friends recommended. It’s important to double-check your measurements against the measurements of the garment before buying, because many online places have a zero-return policy.

Depending on where you live, there might also be local Facebook groups dedicated to clothing swapping or secondhand selling (search “clothing swap” or “buy and sell” along with the name of your hometown or neighbourhood).

But what should I be looking for? First, I’m aiming for natural fibers like cotton, wool, cashmere, linen, silk, leather, and hemp. For the rest, I reached out to some avid frugalista friends. Here’s what they suggested:

  • Check the label. My friends say they try to avoid fast-fashion brands like Forever21 and H&M, because these pieces won’t last long. Interestingly, Insider reported on a study that disagrees. Personally, if I like the piece and the quality feels and looks alright, I might go for it.
  • Look for stains, and tears in the seams. Or, if you’re good at mending, snap these items up and you’ll get a great bargain. Because millennials don’t know how to sew buttons, apparently.
  • Check zippers, and stress points for signs of wear. You want this garment to last you a while, right?
  • Don’t worry about the size on the label, try it on! Designers have gone from vanity sizing to insanity sizing, so the numbers mean nothing anymore. If it’s a quality piece but it doesn’t fit you just right, you can almost always get it altered.
You already have five black-and-white-striped shirts; do you really need another?
  • Always know your wardrobe and what you need, so you don’t get distracted by things that don’t fit with the rest of your style. This also works the other way: you already have five black-and-white-striped shirts; do you really need another?
  • It’s a numbers game, unfortunately. Find the stores you like and visit frequently. If you make good friends with the shopkeepers, they just might message you when that item you’ve been looking for comes in the door. Hmmm, I wonder if they like homemade cookies?
  • Remember, you don’t always have to buy something. There’s no point in buying clothing you don’t need or really love.

I have a friend who’s a secondhand shopping pro, and her philosophy is: “If it doesn’t fit perfectly, it’s not meant for me.” Just like that leather jacket I saw the other day; it was meant for someone else. I went in again a few days later and it was gone, probably to a tiny millennial with a sewing kit.

Looking good isn’t just about having nice threads, it’s about the inner glow that comes from making good choices.

I know that one day I’ll find my jacket. It will be worth the wait, because I know looking good isn’t just about having nice threads, it’s about the inner glow that comes from making good choices. Choices that don’t contribute to environmental destruction.

Now go get that inner green-goddess glow, and let me know if you come across a secondhand black leather moto-style jacket in size 6!

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