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Second-hand savvy

Shopping for used clothing isn’t just frugal. It also keeps cast-offs out of our landfills.

By Karen Stiller

The day I found the purple T-shirt that said “Talk Nerdy to me” with an image of thick, sturdy glasses so like my own, I experienced that sweet treasure-hunt feeling of victory familiar to people who shop for used clothing. In a household led by a freelance writer and a minister — with three children who desire to be fully clothed each and every day — shopping second-hand has been an economic choice, but one with a positive environmental impact.

Lindsay Coulter, “Queen of Green” for the David Suzuki Foundation, says that our wardrobe choices “can make an impact that is often overlooked.” There are two kinds of environmental costs that decrease when fashionistas go frugal with their frocks: the post-consumer waste of things like wool sweaters leaking methane gas in the landfill, and the pre-consumer process of manufacturing the new clothes we would have bought otherwise. “The materials have already been extracted,” explains Coulter. “The resources have already been tapped for that T-shirt. Instead of sourcing something new, you are able to buy something already produced and used.”

The Ontario Federation for Cerebral Palsy, one of the many Canadian charities that benefit from the proceeds of large segments of the used clothing industry, reports that, on average, 80 percent of the textiles thrown away still have 75 percent of their wearability left, and that textile waste accounts for more than four percent of what lies lingering in Canada’s landfills. Buying used clothing saves not only tons of money but also tons of waste. Before you dive into the sweater racks, however, there are things a savvy shopper should know.

The used clothing industry, like any other part of the retail clothing industry, has both high-end and low-end markets. Thrift stores like Goodwill and Value Village, for example, are great sources of low-cost used clothing and can yield wonderful surprises. But they do require an adventurous spirit, especially for someone new to buying second-hand.

Louise Sider is a manager at a Value Village in Oshawa, Ont. “I think environmentalism has had a huge impact on thrift retail,” she says. “Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have had as many people knowing what [thrift shopping] is or enjoying it.” Today, she adds, while some of her clients are lower-income earners, others drive up in a Mercedes Benz.

Customers should know they are buying “as donated,” meaning you’ll probably want to wash your purchase as soon as you get home, and the item could be imperfect. You’ll want to examine it closely for things like stains, rips, missing buttons and loose hems and seams. “Previously worn” can also mean previously shrunk, so be sure to try things on. You will find great deals on accessories like jewellery, hats and shoes — and, of course, the treasures.

“There was one guy who found an Armani suit for $50,” says Sider. And on the very day Mr. Dressup died, Sider snatched up a Casey and Finnegan button for 99 cents (after her shift, of course — customers always get first dibs!).

Veterans of thrift shopping have story after story of finding high-end or unique garments for very low prices. Because these stores are generally large, plan to spend ample time and bring a friend to make it fun (one honest enough to tell you what you really look like in the vintage orange poncho). Stock can change by the hour, so check back often. Value Village, for example, averages 5,000 new items on the floor each day.

Be warned, however: when shopping for low-cost used clothing, it’s easy to get carried away. The mauve faux-fur coat I bought because it was only $14 — and so much fun — was an embarrassment to my family, who made me swear I would never, ever, ever wear it out in public. Guard against impulse buying, even when it’s cheap.

Consignment stores like Deja Vu Clothiers in Port Perry, Ont., and Inspired by You in Whitby, Ont., represent the upscale end of used clothing shopping. In fact, not all consignment goods have actually been used, says Janet Brooks, owner of Deja Vu. “‘Consignment’ means I’m selling it for someone else. Consigners sell new and gently worn items that have been looked over. The items are laundered and cleaned.”

Brooks can spot a consignment store newbie the minute she walks in the door of the stylish, clean shop. “She sniffs to see if the shop smells,” laughs Brooks. New customers are pleasantly surprised by what they find. “I love to see them get hooked on consignment. My best customers are educated, they know their labels and they know what it costs at the mall,” she says. Profits are divided between the boutique and the garment’s original owner, usually in a 60-40 split. Shop owners will only accept items in excellent condition that they are certain they can sell. While many stores carry women’s clothing exclusively, some also cater to men. Regular clients are so committed they will pop in weekly, knowing that high-quality items come in all the time and garments gradually decrease in price as their two-month shelf life reaches an end.

 “We win our clientele over by the price and the quality,” says Elaine Witts of Inspired by You, which was recently honoured with a Whitby sustainability award for environmental responsibility. On the day I visit, the goods range from a Pucci bikini with the tags still on, going for $185 (available for new at a staggering — and silly — $500 and up), to a Coach bag for $300 or the Esprit one I scoop up for $5. Witts shows me the “wish book” she keeps behind the counter to make note of what regular customers are looking for. “We’ll call up a customer and say, ‘Honey, there’s a fabulous pair of pants that have come in, and you need to see them,’” she says.

 Micheline VanNotten, a Toronto transit driver who lives in Whitby, snags a Guess leather purse for her daughter during my visit to Inspired by You. VanNotten pops in every second week to look for new items. “I’m a bus driver, so I buy my warm sweaters here. The only thing I buy new anymore is undergarments,” she explains. “I love these stores. They are like a secret that people need to know about.”

 For shoppers just getting in on that secret, Brooks suggests starting with a pair of jeans. “They’re broken in already,” she says. Once you’re hooked, tap into the expertise of your local consignment store owner. Chances are they are passionate about clothes, experts on labels and only sell items in near-perfect condition. “I mean, who are the smart people?” asks Brooks. “You can pay $300 for a cocktail dress at the mall, or you can pay $25 here. It’s about a good deal for the consigner, for me and for the customer.” The best deal of all, though, is for the environment.

Karen Stiller is a writer in Port Perry, Ont.

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