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Levi Strauss & Co Sponsored Series

Sustainably Attired

TriplePundit's Guide to Buying Used Clothing

By Alexis Petru

Want to save 700 gallons of water for under $10? The next time you buy a new shirt, make sure it’s secondhand. That’s right: According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, it takes 700-2,000 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to make your average cotton T-shirt. And growing cotton is just one small part of the tremendous overall environmental and social impact that the garment industry has on our planet.

But buying used clothing is a great way to opt out of the not-so-green fashion industry – and it’s often more affordable than purchasing environmentally and socially responsible new clothes, which can be quite pricey. Whether you’ve decided to start thrifting because of environmental or financial concerns or you just love the thrill of the hunt (or a combination of all these reasons), TriplePundit is here to help you get started, with our guide to buying secondhand.

Where to shop

Forget the stereotype of the dusty, dank thrift store; today, you’re likely to find secondhand clothes in a bright, clean thrift store, a clothing swap or through an app on your smartphone.

“I love Etsy for one-of-a-kind vintage pieces,” says Jasmin Malik Chua, managing editor of sustainable fashion blog Ecouterre. “Sites like Adored Vintage and Ballyhoo Vintage also do a bang-up job at curating secondhand items so they don't look like they belong in a jumble sale. For in-person shopping, there's Buffalo Exchange, Housing Works and even Goodwill on occasion.”

Don’t overlook the charity secondhand stores, as Chua points out; these shops give you a chance to find affordable threads while raising money for a good cause. At Out of the Closet’s locations in California, Washington, Ohio and Florida, sales from used clothing, shoes and accessories support free HIV testing, as well as medical care for patients with HIV/AIDS. Perhaps the best-known of all nonprofit thrift stores is, of course, Goodwill, which uses the revenue from its 2,900 retail locations and online auction to fund job training programs for youth, seniors, veterans and people with disabilities or criminal backgrounds. And, if you’re in the market for higher-end fashion but still want to support the organization’s good work, check to see if there is a Goodwill Boutique near you; these boutiques feature name-brand apparel at thrift store prices.

And while you can scour the racks at for-profit secondhand stores like Crossroads Trading Co., Buffalo Exchange or your local vintage store, you can also go online to shop used at sites like Etsy, as Chua mentions, thredUP, ReFashioner and the high-end Byronesque.

Clothing swaps are all the rage right now, Chua says, and give you the chance to not only pick up discounted, new-to-you fashions, but to also trade in your unwanted garments. The Global Fashion Exchange just hosted huge swap events in New York City and Los Angeles this fall, but look for in-person events at local consignment stores or organize your own swap party with your friends. Or pick up your smartphone or tablet and swap online; Bib + Tuck and Threadflip are two recommended swap sites from Sass Brown, acting associate dean for the School of Art and Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and author of “Eco Fashion” and “ReFashioned: Cutting-Edge Clothing from Upcycled Materials."

And if you are looking to trade in your old Patagonia gear or are in the market for discounted, used sportswear, check out the company’s Common Threads storefront on eBay where customers can buy or sell secondhand Patagonia items.

But one of the hottest trends in used attire doesn’t involve owning clothes at all. Just like men have been able to rent tuxedos for special occasions, Rent the Runway offers women the chance to borrow designer dresses and accessories for single use through its website or at its new retail locations.

Top thrifting tips

We asked three sustainable fashion experts, Chua, Brown and Johanna Bjӧrk, designer and founder and editor of Goodlifer, for their tips on buying used, and here's what they had to say:

Steer clear of fast fashion: Save the fast fashion fads for swapping websites, Brown says; when you’re shopping vintage, look for quality fabrics and manufacturing. Levi’s is one such brand, according to Desirae Early, manager of sustainability strategy and innovation at Levi Strauss & Co. Because of the jeans classic style and durability, Levi’s is one of the top sellers in secondhand stores around the world, Early says.

Know what size and style works best for your body: You can’t trust sizes in vintage stores, according to Bjӧrk: Pieces may have shrunk, been altered or come from a country with a different sizing system like the United Kingdom. Sizes have also changed over the years; today’s size 8 is not the same as a size 8 from the 1950s, she said.

“Learning to recognize — visually — what will fit you, will help you find those gems that fit like a glove, and save you time – and frustration – in the fitting room,” Bjӧrk says.

In a similar vein, Chua recommends that thrifters learn what eras of clothing and silhouettes fit their bodies best – to avoid looking like you’re wearing a Halloween costume to a dinner party.

Inspect, wash and repeat: Just like you would for any piece of new clothing you would buy, make sure to insect secondhand garments for holes, missing buttons and other defects before you make the final purchase, Chua says. You’ll also want to wash vintage duds before you wear them, especially if you want to get rid of that “old clothes” smell.

And finally, keep an open mind: Don’t enter a thrift store looking for that perfect yellow cocktail dress or double-breasted pinstripe suit; you will most likely never find it, Bjӧrk says.

“Thrifting is all about keeping an open mind and embracing the surprise element of what you happen to find that day,” she says. “My favorite thing about buying used clothing — besides that it’s cheap and environmentally responsible — is that you end up finding unique pieces that are not available anywhere else.”

Image credit: Goodwill Industries

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Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

Read more stories by Alexis Petru