Limits to second hand sourcing

In a recent blog post about clothing I mentioned buying second hand, and inevitably didn’t say a great many things about the limits of second hand shopping. In the effort to reduce the appalling impact of the fashion industry on the planet, many people are committing to only buying second hand clothes. It’s good if you can – but not everyone can, and that needs talking about.

If you have an average sort of body shape and proportions, then second hand clothing is a lot more realistic. If you are unusual in any way, the chances of walking into a second hand clothes shop and finding an item that will fit you, is not high. If you need a specialist shop to source things that will fit you, second hand shopping is a limited option – you might be able to do a little bit online now and then.

If you have a minimal wardrobe either to save money or as a green choice, then if a key piece of kit becomes un-wearable, you will need to replace it quickly. You might not be able to afford to wait until something turns up. Equally, if you walk or cycle for transport or work outside, there will be key pieces of kit that you can’t manage without and you won’t reliably be able to source second hand. Greener living choices will inform what kind of clothes you need.

Second hand shopping takes time. Not everyone is time rich. Other greener ways of living are also more time intensive – walking for transport, handwashing your clothes, shopping on foot, growing your own veg, cooking everything from scratch… these things all take time. Finding suitable clothes in charity shops takes time. You might not be able to do all of it. Not being able to find the time for some greener activities because of the time it takes to do other green activities is not something to feel awkward about.

Not all new clothing is created equally. If you are supporting artisan creators, fair trade sellers, handmade creativity, local independent shops, locally sourced materials and the like, this is very different from buying cheap, throwaway fashion.

I potter into charity shops often enough to have a good idea what to expect. It’s rare that I see anything I like and that would fit me – I’m fussy about clothes and only buy things I’m confident I will want to wear for years to come. Inevitably, a large percentage of what’s in the shops is that bland, supermarket stuff that does nothing for me. Clothing is an important form of self expression, and for many of us is how we create and express identity. Wearing stuff that doesn’t feel like you, is miserable, and thus not sustainable. It would be good if more people who can afford to bought more of the good quality, handmade, original stuff and then sent that on to the charity shops!

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

3 responses to “Limits to second hand sourcing

  • Siobhan Johnson

    I volunteer in a charity shop and have done for all of my adult life (on and off), so here’s my best ‘shopping at charity shops’ advice for anyone new to secondhand shopping. It is a lot different from ‘normal’ shopping, but once you get used to it it’s actually fun (or at least not soul-destroying).

    You’ll rarely find handmade clothes at a charity shop because of two reasons: most charity shops can’t sell any item of clothing if there isn’t a size label, and a lot of handmade clothes even artisan ones don’t have one (or a ‘one size fits all’ label). I also think all charity shops can’t legally sell kids clothing without a fire label, and of course HOMEmade clothes don’t have those either. This is sad, so if anyone reading this makes handmade clothes to sell do consider sewing even an basic size label inside your garments, especially ladies clothes. For some reason we’re fine selling men’s clothes by the actual measurement but not ladies – probably because so few major stores sell ladies clothes by measurement.

    We actually get lots of unusual clothes, both in size and in colour/shape/fabric but we have to put out what sells (which depends on the are the shop is in. We’re rural, so it’s ‘nana’ wear here, bigger cities tend towards fashionable clothes, but if you’re after something in the hippy/boho/goth/grunge kind of way check the charity shops in the ‘independent quarters’. Different areas have not only different donation pools to choose their items from, but different target customers. More affluent places have not only more designer goods but a better quality of stock in general, poorer places are going to try to charge you £5 for something from Primark ’cause they just don’t get the stock. You might have better luck finding stuff that you like taking a day trip to a different city/town and making an adventure out of it.

    Bigger size clothes: I always try to save the larger than size 22 clothes by jamming them on an XXL hanger but I’m not supposed to do that. If you’re looking for clothes larger than a 22 do actually look at the labels inside the clothes of ones that have cubes that say XL, XXL or 22 – we so rarely have cubes with bigger sizes but I know a few stores try to put them on the rails. I also do the same with the 6 and 4s but on an S cube, so if you’re looking for very small items check the S because I have never seen an XS cube anywhere in my store.

    Outdoor wear: Ask your local shops if they put out clothes by season or just generally. If they do it by season, ask them when they change their season, that way you don’t waste your time hunting for winter coats in spring if they don’t put them out then.

    Specialist clothes: You can always ask if we have stuff in the back if you’re asking for something specific. Asking to look through the stuff in the back is always a no. Because it’s in the back. The stuff we want you to look through is hung up in the front.

    But, the best thing you can do if you want something in particular, especially if there’s a few items or you’re willing to purchase a spare a two, is tell us your phone number, name and what exactly you’re looking for. Not all shops do this, but the more specific and the more you’re willing to buy, the morel likely we’ll a) accept the request and b) remember to look for them. It’s just a better use of our time (and yours) if you tell us something like ‘I’m looking for hiking stuff, I’m a 14 dress and an 8 shoe’, that way we can put a few bits aside for you and you can come choose from a few items rather than us ringing you up every time we get something you might possibly want. If you want a long list of things that have nothing to do with each other, you’re better off just coming and looking rather than asking to be honest.

    Sizing: There is often upwards of fifty different brands on a charity shop floor. Don’t stick religiously to your dress size especially if you wear ‘women’s’ clothes, because those sizes make 0 sense and have 0 consistency between brands.

    Shopping tips: Decide on what you want before you go. Whilst the best thing about secondhand shopping is that you can try something you’re not sure about for cheap, you’ll save a lot of time and frustration by understanding what your style actually is. I spend about ten minutes in each charity shop I visit since I’ve done this, assuming I’m only looking for clothes. I look in my size, and the size either side. I look for dresses, skirts, leggings and tops. I first look for colours I like and suit me, then if I see one only then do I pull the hanger to look at the item. If it’s not my style, I let it go. This may sound like common sense, but I know plenty of people like my Mum who look at EVERY ITEM. To see if they want it. The concept of not looking at evening dresses until she has a place to wear one is alien to my cousin, for example. This tip leads directly into my best tip: go often. You don’t have to spend loads of time, but you’re more likely to find something the more shops you visit and the more times you visit. Most shops rotate their whole clothing stock every two weeks.

    Learn to sew: I know this isn’t accessible to everyone, but to those that it is I really recommend it. I could always fix a hem or change a button, but I put off learning to sew with a machine for years because I thought it would be difficult. Like yeah, there’s a learning curve, but basic sewing and alteration is nowhere near as hard as I thought it would be. Sewing doesn’t just mean you can alter that really cool dress that’s too big/too small, it also means that you can buy a bunch of plain things and make them into something individual to you, with some studs, a bit of lace, fabric paint, whatever. Learn to look at a garment as a starting point, not as a finished product.

    Never haggle: Dude. It’s for charity. The only way I’m going to give you a discount is if it’s broken or damaged, or you’re buying in an extreme amount of bulk. Any time secondhand shopping gets ‘cool’ again I always see these guides in magazines that recommend haggling in charity shops. Nope, nope, don’t do it. Feel free to try your luck in an antique or vintage store or consignment store or a car boot sale, some will gladly haggle with you. But not in a charity shop.

    The cheapest clothes are at car boot sales, then it’s charity shops, then it’s eBay, then it’s specialist clothing resale apps like Poshmark or depop, but on those last two you’re going to get a higher concentration of designer labels and alternative fashion.

    Another way to get secondhand clothes/shoes is to swap with or borrow from friends/family, especially when it comes to party wear, evening wear, costumes and other stuff that you might only wear once or a couple of times.

  • Yewtree

    For those who are anywhere near Bath, go to Walton Street. The charity shops there are amazing and full of secondhand designer clothes. One of my favourite items of clothing is from one of those and was secondhand from the posh shop on Pulteney Bridge.

    In Canada, charity shops are different as they cover more than one charity so they’re enormous!

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