We’re living in the golden age of thrift-shopping. Whereas buying second-hand was once a cornerstone of classism, it’s experienced a soaring popularity from social media, and younger generations concerned with the environmental impact of fast-fashion. Whole Instagram and TikTok accounts are dedicated to sharing incredible thrift shop finds, and how to style them. The benefits of thrifting are myriad: not only does every purchase reduce the amount of waste put into a landfill, it’s also likely to be much more unique.
At my all-girls high school, I remember that on the rare days we were allowed to wear something other than our uniform, it was guaranteed that at least two girls in our small class would be wearing the same item from Urban Outfitters or American Eagle. The privilege of thrifting is that you have a chance to own items from other eras, other design styles, and other price points than you would find at the mall or online.
I have a lot of friends that say they don’t thrift because they won’t find things that fit them, but there’s so much more than clothes to thrift! Most of my home’s furniture and decor is secondhand. I can count on one hand the pieces of furniture in my home that were purchased new. I thrifted all my wedding table décor, and most of my toddler daughter’s books and toys, and that’s just the start.
The ethics of thrifting
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, we discard 16 million tons of textiles a year, which is about 6 percent of all our waste. 10 million tons of that gets sent to landfills. That’s just textiles, not all the other items you find in thrift stores. These numbers are important to keep in mind when some would argue thrifting is gentrification: the middle and upper class slumming in a hobby that is essential to the lower class. That is a concern, but in the grand scheme of the narrative on waste and environment, it’s clearly in the best interest of the entire population to reuse and recycle as much as possible. There’s more than enough to go around when so much waste is generated.
Another benefit of thrifted clothing and items becoming ubiquitous: they cease to be a marker of low-income. Children can’t bully each other for their clothes if they’re all wearing secondhand. I’m a firm believer that children’s clothes are some of the best things to thrift, since they grow out of them before they can be worn out. (Be sure to wash them first, as they all come with a tell-tale thrift store smell—the deodorizer often sprayed on the clothes comes right out in the laundry.)
However, despite thrift-shopping being a net-good, there are some pitfalls to watch out for. While in a nearby city recently, I went to three Goodwills, frustrated that the prices were 50 percent higher than the others I’ve frequented for a decade, and finally asked a clerk about it. She explained that since thrifting has become more popular, the manager of the district had instructed the locations to raise their prices. This is a problem on several levels: it prices out those who truly need secondhand materials and goods, and also undercuts the reason thrifting is popular anyway—the low prices.
The second issue is reselling. As soon as a vintage item becomes popular, there’s a host of people ready to buy it at bottom-barrel prices, then turn around resell on their online shops for a significant upcharge, thus robbing those of lower income the chance to own something trendy and in-style. For example, over the last few years, the bohemian home trend made wicker and rattan items as hot as they were in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They used to be cheap easy to find, but not anymore, unless you’re ready to spend a hefty price.
There’s a key difference between finding a beat-up piece of furniture, cleaning and restoring it to sell, and another between just reselling the newest vintage trend as is. Ultimately, it’s getting upcycled when likely otherwise it would go in the trash, but it’s more ethical for us not to go there.
Tips for thrift-shopping
I’ve learned that thrifting is a creative pursuit. I have to be willing to see things in a different context than that pile on the shelf. It challenges me to ask what other uses a thing may have beyond what it was intended. Old crockery can make great succulent planters, for example. I have to go in with an open mind, and that’s when I find the treasures. If I have something extremely specific in mind that I want, it’s unlikely I’ll find it. When I go in not looking for anything specific? That’s when I find something beautiful.
That said, I often search for gently used versions of stuff I need and will have to buy anyway. While it’s a bad idea to have an exact item you want (You won’t be finding any Anthropologie primrose mirrors at Goodwill, I promise,) it’s actually smart to run errands at a thrift shop, instead of Target. There are some things you will always be able to find. Every thrift store is hemorrhaging baskets and picture frames: brown, black, or brass, they have it all. Other examples to look for are office supplies, certain kitchen utensils, crafting supplies, wall art, lamps, and books. All these everyday household items can be expensive, and it’s nice to have a stash so you can use things without feeling like you have to ration. I literally keep a plastic bin of extra candles so I can replace the ones we use regularly, and have different colors on hand to switch out for new seasons. Often you will find items still in their original packaging.
When it comes to clothes, some simple tips can go a long way: Ignore sizing on vintage brands. Sizes have changed big time. Consider wearing leggings and a cami to shop so you can easily try on clothes, especially since most stores have done away with fitting rooms because of Covid. Always check out the “put back rack,” as these have already been pulled out by others as finds, generally for a reason. Don't buy things just because they're a great deal or good brand. Even if you find a perfect designer suit for $10, if you don’t wear suits, it’s still just a waste of money.
Where to thrift
The number one question my friends ask me about thrifting: where do you go? The answer is everywhere! You never know where you’ll find something amazing. Goodwill and Salvation Army are two staples, but most cities and neighborhoods have other, local charities that have their own locations. Search your Google map for Thrift Shop near me. Check out local estate sales, or local auctions. Many cities and neighborhoods also host giant consignment sales for children’s clothes and toys since they grow out of them so quickly.
If you’re shopping online, look on Facebook (FB) Marketplace, Thredup, Poshmark, Depop, and Ebay. You can also join Facebook groups for specific brands you really love, like Anthropologie or Hill House or LoveShackFancy. There’s a lot of selling and trading of dresses and items that have been worn only once.
If you’re looking for something specific, FB Marketplace is the new place to shop online and locally for used items. Craigslist is mostly defunct and has long been overrun by spammers and ads.
Ask yourself what neighborhoods or cities near you cater to wealthy or elderly demographics? For instance, the best thrifting I’ve ever done is in Palm Springs, California. As a retirement haven, the treasures donated from those downsizing or leftover estate items is untold.
Also keep in mind thrift stores are always changing in their supply; just because they don’t have anything good once, doesn’t mean they won’t the next time. There’s one thrift store in my small city that generally has nothing good. Mostly crystal and old bulky furniture and old lady clothes. Still, I sometimes stop by, and on occasion, have struck gold: once I found two velvet blue armchairs for $50 each. Another time, there was an inlaid, hand-painted dresser for $125.
A healthy shopping hobby
Despite its many benefits, thrifting isn’t for everyone. If you don’t like to shop, thrifting will be a chore, as there is an inherent element of the hunt. You have to be patient and enjoy hunting for finds. But if you love to shop, thrifting is a dream, because you can buy so many things without breaking the bank, with the added plus of a happy, fuzzy feeling of having done something beneficial for the environment. For me, thrifting is a joy and pleasure. Happy Hunting!