One of the most common questions people ask when trying to live more sustainably is, “how do I shop for clothing when everything eco-made is so expensive?” The good news is, the best thing you can do for the environment is to buy second hand. You are not only saving virgin materials, you are also avoiding the carbon cost of recycling, and you are shopping locally. Thrifting is the obvious answer.
I’m gonna pop some tags, only got twenty dollars in my pocket
– Macklemore & Lewis
When shopping for clothing, remember that the two most important factors are fiber and brand. You can use your phone to check the quality of unfamiliar brands. You may end up paying a few extra dollars, but the garment will withstand more wear and tear. Longevity is a fundamental feature when buying clothes already worn.
Fiber content is a little more complicated. All yarn is spun from fiber. Fiber is considered fabric once it’s woven or knitted into a textile. The textile is essential to the design and use of the garment, but it’s the fiber that most affects the wearability and lifespan.
The natural fiber category includes animal and plant fibers like cotton, silk, wool, leather, and linen. Natural fibers tend to be very breathable and wick (pull moisture from your skin) quite well. They all have individual qualities and features. But since they tend to be more expensive to produce (though they have a lower carbon footprint), they usually appear in higher quality clothing.
Watch out for: Trademark names like SmartWool often contain very little natural content and are primarily engineered synthetic blends.
To learn more: As part of a couch-buying guide, part four of the series focuses on the sustainable aspects of natural fibers.
Viscose and bamboo are probably the most popular in this category. The content is wood chips, which often come from production waste. They tend to have an incredibly low carbon footprint, but the chemicals required during processing can strip their eco-cred.
Watch out for: Viscose and bamboo blends will likely pill. Instead, look for 100 percent regenerated fibers that make up part of the garment, like jacket linings or outerwear shells.
To learn more: This article explains regenerated (aka manufactured) fabrics. Discover the difference between modal, viscose, tencel, lyocell, rayon, and more.
Synthetic might be the dirtiest word currently in my vocabulary. Crude oil (the same stuff that runs your car), is the base ingredient in synthetic textiles. They require harsh chemicals to produce, and heavily contribute to pollution and toxic waste. Those factors then cause factory employees to suffer disease, chronic conditions, and congenital disabilities. There is no such thing as a green synthetic fabric.
Watch out for: Activewear is almost impossible to acquire without at least some synthetic content. Many sustainable brands are producing natural alternatives, but they are hard to find on the second-hand rounds. If you need a pair of running pants, look for engineered synthetics. You’ll recognize them because they tend to have capitalized names and often show registered or trademarked symbols.
Some Helpful Skills
Having rudimentary sewing skills can open up a lot of possibilities. Being able to adjust the size or fit, knowing how to replace a button, and sewing straight seams allow you to focus on the fabrics and colors you love. Working with jersey knit fabrics is often easiest as they don’t require finished seems. Many knits, like t-shirt fabric, can have their edges left raw and they won’t fray.
When money is really tight, or when you have an inspired project idea, or when you just have some extra time and a desire to get your hands dirty, grab your kitchen or gardening gloves and head down to the nearest thrift store outlet. Digging through the bins is exhausting. But walking out with ten items for under ten dollars is so worth it.
Don’t forget about all the other stuff. I haven’t had to buy a new candle or kitchen accessory in years. Avoid furnishings with fabric. You need to know how to check them correctly and have the space to clean them outside before bringing them inside. Look instead for items made from plastic, wood, and metal. These are easily cleaned and don’t tend to harbor hidden bugs and grime.
Thrift shopping requires planning. You should head out with a list in hand of all of the items you need and want. Then you should prepare to throw that list on the floor and get busy. On any given day there will be different options and different sales and knowing what you want, but not being bound by it, will help you focus. There’s nothing worse than arriving home to find you don’t really like or need your haul. By keeping in mind the specific pieces you need and the projects you want to work on, you are more likely to come home with pieces you love. By having the flexibility to disregard your list, you are open to that surprising Nau quilted fall jacket that you will wear for years. Even though it’s the beginning of summer.
Many environmentalists have hard and fast rules they will not break, especially when it comes to fashion. Except when buying second hand. A belt made from non-ethical leather, when purchased second hand, is better for the environment and the animals than a new belt using virgin synthetics or leather. By buying second hand, you are keeping that item from a landfill and contributing directly to less product entering the market. The thrift store is the one place you can say, “it’s polyester and probably going to fall apart in a minute, but it’s so perfect for this one night!” and still be helping the Earth.