One of the most common questions asked by those wishing to start living more sustainably is, “how do I shop when everything eco-made is so expensive?”. The good news is that 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! Thrift stores are the obvious answer.
When shopping for clothing, remember that the two most important factors are fiber and brand. Choose brands that are known for quality, and don’t be afraid to pull out the phone and look things up if you’re unsure. You may end up paying a few extra dollars, but the garment is much more likely to stand up to wear and tear, a very important feature when buying clothes already worn.
Fiber content is a little more complicated. The fiber is the raw material that is spun into yarn. Once that is woven or knit into a textile, it is considered fabric. While the textile is important to the design and use of the garment, it is the fiber that most affects the wearability and longevity.
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 are usually used in higher quality clothing.
Watch out for: Trademark names like SmartWool often contain very little natural content and are primarily engineered synthetic blends.
Viscose and bamboo are probably the most popular in this category. They are derived from wood chips and often are sourced 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% regenerated fibers that make up only a part of the garment, like jacket linings or outerwear shells.
Synthetic might be the dirtiest word currently in my vocabulary. All synthetic fibers are made from crude oil (the same stuff that runs your car), 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 birth defects. There is no such thing as a green synthetic fabric.
Watch out for: Activewear is almost impossible to find without at least some synthetic content. There are many sustainable brands producing natural alternatives, but they are hard to find on the second-hand rounds. If you really need that pair of running pants, look for engineered synthetics (you’ll know them as they tend to be capitalized names and often have registered or trademarked symbols).
Some Helpful Skills
Having some basic sewing skills, or even just basically knowing how to use a needle and thread, can open up a lot of possibilities. Being able to adjust the size or fit, knowing how to replace a button, or even sewing straight seams, will allow you to ignore size and style and just focus on the fabrics and colors you love. Working with knit fabrics is often easiest as they don’t usually require finished seems. Many knits, like jersey (t-shirt fabric), can have their edges left raw and they won’t fray. There are many creative upcycling blogs and books to help you get inspired!
When money is really tight, when you have an inspired project idea 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 can be exhausting, but being able to walk out with 10 items for under $10 is so worth it!
Don’t forget about all the stuff! I personally haven’t had to buy a new candle or kitchen accessory in years! Avoid furnishings with fabric, unless you know how to check them properly, and have the space to clean them outside before bringing them inside. Instead look for items made from plastic, wood, and metal as these can be easily cleaned and don’t tend to harbor hidden bugs and grime.
Thrift shopping requires planning. You should definitely head out with a list in hand of all of the items you actually need, as well as those you 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 load up with the best goodies. There’s nothing worse than arriving home to find you don’t really like your haul and actually don’t need it either. By keeping in mind specific pieces you need and projects you want to work on, you are more likely to come home with a haul you love. By having the flexibility to disregard your list, you are open to that amazing Nau quilted fall jacket that you will wear for years, even though it’s currently 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 being made. 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.