Shopping second-hand is hardly a new concept – the practice of making do with castoffs and finding treasure in trash has existed for as long as there have been those desperate, thrifty or creative enough to try it. Renewed environmentalist concerns are now begging us to revisit and revitalise these ideas.
Why? Well, because increasingly, eco-friendly living is being sold as the exclusive domain of those who have too much time, too much money or both.
It would be easy to give up on the whole damn thing and reconcile myself to the idea that being green simply costs too much of the two things I most lack, and I fear more and more people are doing just that. But alternatives to time-consuming projects and high-priced “green” goods do exist – I promise.
When I graduated university, I started working and since I could afford to buy new, I did. My closet began to fill with the latest fast fashion and my condo was tastefully decorated with the finest (read: cheapest) big-box store starter furniture – you know, the stuff that looks great until you actually start to use it.
My life was filled with stuff, not substance. It looked good, but it didn’t last.
After a few years, the green politics of the small British Columbia town I had moved to had begun to filter into my life. I’d always recycled (who doesn’t?), but prevailing attitudes and the complete lack of shopping in this tiny town made me look critically at the other end of things: what and how much I was consuming.
I realised I was buying things not because I needed them, but because I wanted them and was almost pathologically unable to resist their purchase. The feeling of wanting something without immediately getting it was deeply uncomfortable. Buying new things was an itch always begging to be scratched, but when I did give in, the satisfaction lasted for a just a few weeks before being replaced by a brand new wanting.
There was always something more, something better, something new and improved. It was endless.
Clearly, I needed an intervention. I went cold-turkey and cancelled my cable to stop the steady stream of advertisements flowing into my home. I stopped shopping as a leisure activity, and when I truly did need something, I started sourcing it from second-hand shops and sites instead.
This is where things got interesting. Initially, I approached this endeavour as a Great Sacrifice – I was a 21st century martyr, giving up her love of new clothes and trendy home décor in order to reduce her environmental impact. I was basically singlehandedly saving the world by buying someone else’s sweaters. You’re welcome.
Ridiculous? Perhaps, but these grandiose dreams may not have been too far off. The Council for Textile Recycling (yes, this is a real thing) estimates that buying used clothing prevents 2.5 billion tons of textile products from entering the waste stream each year and if the benefits to the environment don’t do anything for you, consider that you’ll save a ton of money, too.
Buying used clothing, sports gear, baby items and furniture typically saves 50% to 75% of the price you’d pay brand new.
The most surprising benefit I found, however, was how it changed my perception of quality – when you’re rifling through racks of second-hand clothing, you can see exactly how a garment holds up to repeated washes and wears.
When you’re looking at an item two or three years into its life, quality shows. Cheap furniture looks great in the showroom but quickly sags, scuffs and stains. Buying second-hand is the perfect way to invest in well-made pieces, the exact stuff you might not otherwise be able to afford.
Have I convinced you? If so, here’s a few quick tips to get you started.
First of all, where clothing is concerned there’s second-hand and then there’s vintage – often they’re the same thing with $50 difference in the price tag. If you’re trying to save money, I’d recommend hitting up big charity shops like Value Village or Salvation Army. You’ll need patience to wade through the racks, but it’ll pay off. Check for stains, test zippers, and don’t fall into the trap of buying something you less-than-love just because it’s only a few dollars.
For furniture, second-hand sites and consignment shops will be your best bets. Look for solid construction, clean upholstery, and don’t discount wood furniture with a few scratches or dings. Some sandpaper and new stain or paint can make a battered bookshelf look brand new again.
These days, scavenging and second-hand shopping are my happy places. I’ve rescued coffee tables from back alleys and bought sweet coats for my daughter that cost less than a fancy coffee (I’ve also accidentally eaten dumpster burritos, but that’s a story for another time).
It feels like absolute magic when I can revive something that might have otherwise been thrown out and provides a much needed antidote to our frantic must-have consumer culture.
Internet, I am a martyr no more – hallelujah, I’ve been healed! – By Madeleine Somerville
Image – A Thrift Town customer browses for merchandise October 14, 2008 in San Francisco, California. (AFP)