I’ve already blogged about buying items Made in the U.S.A. and about spending money at truly local businesses. The third and last major way to shop in an economically and environmentally-friendly way is at thrift stores. And now, a blog post written by my awesome sister Sarah, who is more experienced in the ways of shopping at thrift stores than I am.
Thrifting– the how, why, when, and where.
A little about me: I don’t shop exclusively at thrift stores by any means, but I believe I could do 75% or more of my clothes shopping there if necessary. I work in a coffee shop now, so my clothes are pretty casual, but I’ve bought a number of nice dress skirts, tops, jackets, and even a suit at Goodwill over the last several years.
Why Shop at Thrift Stores?
What if you like shopping but you want to be eco-friendly and socially just? If you’re like me, you have all this guilt about buying things. As Emily has pointed out, you can get tons of eco-friendly products, like organic cotton t-shirts, and shoes made in the U.S. under fair labor practices. The thing is, you are still buying new stuff that takes resources to make.
This is why shopping at thrift stores is a wonderful option. If you shop at a place like Goodwill, not only are you stepping away from unsustainable production practices, you are also contributing to a charity, and giving jobs to local people who might not have them otherwise. You are taking part in the “reuse” and “reduce” segments of the recycling triangle at the same time— by reusing other people’s clothing and by reducing the amount of waste and environmental damage created by supporting unsustainable consumption of goods.
With Goodwill, you can have both quality AND quantity at the same time. This isn’t so great if you’re trying to live a minimalist lifestyle, but if you like having lots of high quality clothing options, or need to buy a bunch of clothes in a limited time period (new job, weight gain or loss, post-pregnancy body shape changes) without spending a huge amount of money, thrifting is for you.
How Do You Thrift Most Effectively?
Thrift stores can be overwhelmingly large for people who are used to shopping in smaller mall boutique stores. Where should you start? What should you look for? My Edit (http://myedit.blogspot.com/) is a great resource for thrifting tips. However, I’ll talk about the four that are most useful to me, plus a bit of advice I’ve picked up along the way:
When you go in, make sure you have plenty of time. Eat before you go. Wear clothes that are easy to take on and off, and underwear that is neutral. Work your way through the store, rack by rack, without a whole lot of dawdling. If you aren’t sure, just put it in the cart and try it on.
First of all, buy good brands. There is no point in paying $4 for something at Goodwill that you can get new in a store for $8. For the most part, skip anything from Target, Old Navy, or Wal-Mart that you see in the thrift store, and concentrate on looking for brands that are good. As you look through the racks, look at the labels. If you aren’t sure what labels to look for, before you even set foot into a thrift store, walk around in a nice mall or department store that carries a lot of brands. This pre-thrifting research will help you understand prices and quality and whether or not you are being ripped off. Although price and quality do not always go hand in hand, in my experience, higher end stores have better quality in order to continue to attract customers willing to pay higher prices. Buying at thrift stores gives you access to an upgrade in your wardrobe. For instance, if you buy clothes at the Gap and Loft, but can’t quite afford Brooks Brothers, Talbots, or Thomas Pink, this is a great chance to try them out and ridiculously low prices. A Brooks Brothers cotton button-front dress shirt is in the $90-100 price range retail, but you can get them at Goodwill for $5. It completely blows me away that more people don’t thrift. Oh well, all the more amazing clothes for me!
If you don’t have time to go through all the racks, your best bets are skirts, dresses, jackets, and sweaters– these are items that people wear the least, so they are likely to be in the best shape. I had never really given this much thought, but it’s true. Everyone is pretty casual around here, so dresses and skirts don’t get worn a lot. Jackets go to church or a few times to work, and are typically well cared for. Most sweaters I see in thrift stores in this area are cheap and terrible, but that’s probably because it’s the south, and we don’t wear a lot of wool like they do in the north. I’m sure that in Hawaii, y’all never wear wool. Which brings me to:
Look for natural fibers– last longer, usually in better shape. Cotton, linen, silk, wool. The only problem I’ve found with this is when the thrift stores wash everything they get (more likely with Goodwill or Salvation Army), and then dry it. The wool sometimes shrinks or wrinkles or felts. Even so, think to yourself: can I take this to the dry cleaner and have it steamed? I have gotten all but two of my cashmere sweaters at thrift stores. The best quality cashmere cardigan I have is from a thrift store and cost under $5. I’ve never been quite sure how to wear it, but I’ve kept it for years. Cotton knit is a no-no, but woven cotton (the kind that oxford shirts are made from) is a big yes. I got my favorite button front shirt from goodwill when I was in high school (10ish years ago). It cost 25 cents and is still going strong.
Check out the Accessories– Want to try out a skinny belt? You can get one at goodwill for $2. Silk scarves? $1-2. Shoes? My excellent condition Ferragmo loafers were $3.99 (they retail for $350 – $400). This is a great experimental category. I hate wasting money on a failed experiment, and love having spent practically nothing on an accessory that makes outfits look fantastic. Recently I started thinking about getting a really nice silk scarf from Hermes. These scarves are made in France. The quality is amazing, and the patterns are stunning. Each scarf is silk-screened by hand, and the edge seams are hand stitched. This is really the “luxury” scarf. But I’m a cautious person, and I don’t want to shell out a couple hundred bucks on something I might not wear. Enter Goodwill. At goodwill, you can buy a scarf for $2. So, I’ve been buying scarves to make sure they are something I’ll really wear. I’ve worn both of the ones I’ve gotten multiple times, so when I am ready, I’ll be able to get an Hermes with confidence that it won’t just sit in a box in my closet.
Where are the best places to go?
The availability of different types of clothing varies by region, and frequently it is necessary to check out stores in a fairly large geographic radius. Sometimes, the best stores are not where you’d expect them to be. We live an hour and a half from Nashville. The Goodwill there is terrible and very picked over, because the people in Nashville know what to look for. But the Goodwill in Shelbyville, about 45 minutes outside of Nashville, is fantastic. This is because that store gets more upscale donations from the Nashville hub, but Shelbyville is rather economically depressed, so the people who live there are not in the market for the Brooks Brothers shirts or Ferragamo loafers. If you live close enough to a Goodwill in an affluent neighborhood, that could be a good option, but since the people who live in that area know what to look for, you’ll need to go more often if you want to find great stuff. Once you have found a Goodwill or other thrift store that works for you, latch onto it like a leech, and visit it regularly. If you spend the kind of money I do and get the amount of clothing I do, once every season should be often enough. If you have a lot of spending money, huge closets, and want a whole lot of outfits, once every few weeks would work.
In terms of specific stores: Goodwill, is my favorite first and foremost. They’re generally enormous. I’ve never been impressed by Salvation Army, but this could be a regional thing. Value Village is another large thrift store chain. It also benefits charity, but is a little pricier (which, in my opinion, is not reflected in quality of merchandise). If you want a smaller location, try checking out upscale thrift stores– those run by the Junior League or Christian (especially Episcopal, or whatever is most affluent in your area) churchwomen’s groups. At the Bargain Mart (Jr. League), I found a Lilly Pulitzer sundress for about $20. These stores will typically have more consistently upscale clothing in better condition, but at consistently higher prices. Still, $20 for a Lilly is 90% off what you’d pay retail, and this money goes to charity as well.
When Is The Best Time To Go?
Thrift stores receive most of their donations over the weekend. It takes them a while to sort, price, and put out the new merchandise. If you can swing it, go early in the week, like on Tuesday. Go during the workday if you can, to avoid crowded aisles and dressing rooms. Goodwill has specials on the weekends though– first weekend of every month is 50% off everything in the store. It’s obscene. I’m too afraid to go to the Shelbyville Goodwill the first weekend in the month. I might come home with a bag of clothes that weighs more than I do. Most stores have special deals certain days of the week or month. Ask an employee, and write it down.
Miscellaneous Other Advice
1. Don’t get carried away—just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean you need to buy it. It’s really not the end of the world though—if you end up donating it back, you can consider that $4 you “wasted” a donation to charity.
2. I recognize that thrift stores freak some people out. The idea of something used is somehow weird. “I’d never buy linens from a thrift store.” Yes, but you’ll sleep in a hotel where hundreds of people have slept (and probably done a whole lot more) on those sheets? You’ll use those towels in a hotel that hundreds of other people have used to wipe their naked bum? But you won’t buy linens that have been used by one family? You’ll borrow clothes from your friends but won’t buy a used shirt? Just pop ‘em in the washing machine with oxy-clean and detergent on a hot setting if other peoples’ germs freak you out.
3. At most places there are discounts available—a card you can buy, student discounts, military discounts, etc. Around here, you can buy a $12 card at goodwill that benefits local schools and at the same time gives you 20% off at goodwill certain days of the month. Student discounts are available most places too. Go ahead and ask.
The end! Thank you Sarah!
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