“Thrifting fits the ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ mantra so well…Thrifting may not be the most efficient way to shop, but I love how it encourages me to see the value in old things…”
Last weekend, I went to one store and came home with 1 cotton sundress, 4 lightweight sweaters, 2 pairs of pants, 1 beaded necklace, and 3 khakis for my preschooler. I paid $26.31 for the entire haul. That feat was only possible because I bought all of those items second-hand at a thrift store. While I have always been a value-conscious shopper, for the majority of my life “scoring a bargain” almost always meant buying something new on sale at a deep discount. I only started buying used clothes a few years ago after my firstborn son moved up into the toddler room at his daycare. The more artwork he did there, the more consistently he came home with paint splattered all over his hair, body, and clothes. Though his teachers always told us that it was “just” finger paint and that it would wash out, his clothes would almost invariably remain stained (whether or not I pretreated the stains, or vigorously attempted to scrub them out by hand before and/or after the wash).
That ruined-though-barely-worn clothes routine quickly drove me bonkers. Worst still was my realization that even if I had been successful in removing the stains, my son would soon outgrow his clothes anyway. When I shared these frustrations with my “working moms” support group at Virginia Tech, it was then when I learned of this amazing store featuring gently used children’s clothes and toys that I hadn’t realized even existed–Once Upon a Child.
Buying used (vs. new) clothes for my son has since become my default mode of shopping (n.b., his little brother mostly wears his hand-me-downs). This doesn’t mean that I never buy new for him/them, only that my general pattern is to thrift rather than go to the mall or buy something new online.
It took a little longer for me to start regularly buying myself thrifted clothes. My first purchases were “impulse” maternity items—pieces that I noticed out of the corner of my eye when pregnant with my second child while shopping at Once Upon a Child for my firstborn. I was still then, however, of the mindset that while it made economical sense to buy second-hand for things like Halloween costumes and maternity wear, thrifting wasn’t the way to go when looking for quality “regular” clothes.
I no longer believe that. I now regularly buy more clothes for myself (and my kids) second-hand at thrift stores than I do new anywhere else. I didn’t have an overnight conversion to thrifting, but my shopping habits have gradually changed since moving back to California three years ago as I also began scrutinizing my own consumer choices more closely.
I love how thrifting fits the “reduce-reuse-recycle” mantra so well. People donate clothes and other items to thrift stores that they no longer need—thus allowing them to declutter their lives (a form of reducing) and even receive a tax-deduction for their charitable contributions. When folks like me shop at thrift stores, we prevent these otherwise unwanted items from simply being thrown into a landfill (i.e., we are reusing what others don’t want and accordingly recycling). Buying used products also uses fewer natural resources than new ones do, in part because these goods are generally collected (i.e., donated) locally.
I also love the fact that most thrift stores have some sort of direct charitable connection. Take my two favorite thriftstores: American Way (in Pomona, CA) and Steven’s Hope for Children (in Upland, CA). A portion of American Way’s proceeds goes to Helping Hands for the Blind and the Cancer Federation. And Steven’s Hope for Children helps families of seriously ill or injured children, especially those who have relocated to be near a specialized hospital, by providing (financial and other) assistance to their families so they can stay together.
What is also unique about thrift stores is that many of them provide vocational training or rehabilitation to people on some form of state aid. While I don’t mean to sound condescending, I think it’s great that thrift stores provide employment opportunities for the developmentally disabled and disadvantaged.
I’ll blog later about how “sweatshop” labor is behind much of the clothes sold today and how my growing consternation about that has also led me to go the second-hand route when possible. So I’ll close now with two final reasons why I thrift.
Quite simply, it’s fun. Thrifting may not be the most efficient way to shop, but I love how it encourages me to see the value in old things and even in styles of clothes I wouldn’t normally gravitate toward in retail shops. I’ve recently even followed the advice of some seasoned thriftstore-loving bloggers, which is to buy thrifted clothes with an eye of making some minor alterations (e.g., transform a dress into a skirt, a sweater into a cardigan, a long-sleeved shirt into a tank top).
Finally and obviously, thrifting is great for stewardship and fiscal management. Spending significantly less on clothing does great things for my family’s pocketbook. To be sure, we are privileged enough to be able to afford to buy retail, but I love how I can regularly purchase pieces for my kids or myself for a fraction of what I would have to pay even at a big box or outlet store and thus put the money I would otherwise have spent to better ends.
Yesterday, I bought 1 tunic-style top for me and 3 cotton t-shirts for my growing preschooler for $2.50. My friend who had come along with me (and who hadn’t thrifted in years but ended up leaving with an impressive haul of her own) turned to me and said, “Wow, that’s less than a latte.” Indeed she was right.
Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (2011) and is working on a second book on Asian American Christian Ethics. Read more about her work on her website.