This post was adapted from a talk I gave recently in London. When I was first asked to talk about my tips for secondhand shopping I didn’t know if there was anything to say that people didn’t already know. But, as a seasoned secondhand shopper with over ten years under my belt, I realised I’ve actually collected a lot of information, so why not share some of it with you?

There are still barriers and issues of accessibility when it comes to ethical fashion. Not just due to price but also size ranges and specific needs that come with having bodies that may be outside of  what society sees as ‘normal’. The fact is, it’s not always easy to find sustainable fashion that fits the requirements we have, even for those who may want to shop more consciously and are able to. For those people I would say, alongside us all asking companies to be more inclusive and thoughtful in their designs, the best places to start for your shopping needs are buying less, and buying secondhand.

Buying less causes reduces strain in a general sense, and buying secondhand doesn’t create demand to use new resources or energy for manufacturing, buying something that already exists as opposed to creating demand for something new to be made. And at the same time, it also keeps these items out of landfill. Basically, implementing a more minimal, secondhand focused approached to shopping is great. So here are my tips for kickstarting that secondhand shopping habit, or taking it to the next level.

Tips for total beginners

– Secondhand doesn’t immediately have to mean charity shop, especially if that’s not something you’d be comfortable with right away. You can try sites like depop or ebay, and even ASOS marketplace has a big vintage section now. You can also try brands that are upcycling and recycling materials, such as neo • thread co or People for Urban Progress. Or consider hosting a clothes swap! Just because you’re done with something doesn’t mean your friends may not love it, or vice versa. And seriously, they’re so much fun.

– If you’re going into vintage stores for the first time try and start with smaller ones. Vintage often involves a lot of colour and pattern, so starting in a warehouse is going to be way too overwhelming. Find a boutique and take it slow, looking over and considering a smaller collection of items.

– The same applies to charity shops, if it’s your first time try and find ones that that sort their clothes by colour. You then have something to start from in terms of navigation, and you’ll feel a little less lost. In the UK charity shops can also have great vintage concessions inside their shops (the British Red Cross does this a lot).

– If you’re shopping in the UK there tends to be a bit of a sliding scale: well known charities such as Cancer Research UK and The Salvation Army are likely to get more consistent donations and so often have better stock; on the opposite end small very localised charity shops  (for example a shop supporting a local hospice in a small town) often have very strong local support and a lot of donations too. It’s the less well known shops in between these two poles that might not be as good stock wise, so don’t judge all shops by your experience in one. That being said, still give it a go as you never know what you’ll find!

– Also be aware of the location of your shops and what you’re likely to find there. For example shops in richer parts of town are likely to be more expensive, but may also have more designer labels on the racks. And don’t forget to check out what’s on offer when you’re travelling. Not only will you find truly unique things that no one else will have, but you’ll find things that are suited to the climate of the area that may come in handy (I bought clothes in Finland charity shops that have seen me through winter with ease)

Shirt thrifted from Tokyo, jeans thrifted from Seattle

Going shopping: what to bring with you

– CASH. Most shops accept card these days, but the aim with moving towards secondhand is to move away from the overconsumption of unsustainable and unethical fashion, so try and set yourself a budget and bring that amount physically with you. It’ll help you get into the routine of mindful shopping, and stop you transferring the fast fashion habits on to a different form of cheap shopping, aka defeating the whole point.

– Simple clothes that you can change in and out of easily, for example slip on shoes and comfy trousers, to make the whole experience just a bit easier. Try and also stick to plain colours so that you can style things better when you try them on; it’s hard to see how a patterned item would fit in your closet if you’re also wearing particularly loud trousers

– Your measurements/a measuring tape. It’s good in general to know our measurements, as I believe a big part of creating a long lasting wardrobe is having items that fit us, so it’s good to be prepared in case there’s no changing room. If you find a pair of trousers you love but can’t try on, you can measure them and buy them knowing they’ll fit.

– A charged phone and headphones. I like to listen to music when I’m shopping in order to zone out and avoid getting overwhelmed and making choices I’ll regret later.

When you’re shopping

– Take your time, don’t go in a shop when you’ve got no time and may end up making rash decisions (I also think this should apply to how we shop in general!)

– If you’re in an area that has a lot of stores, plan a route. When I go home to Newcastle, land of brilliant charity shops, there’s a specific walking route I take that loops around and back to my house. Because I set off with more of a plan and know how many shops I’m hitting I avoid that fast fashion trap of wandering in and buying stuff for the wrong reasons.

– Try making a system when you’re in the shop too. In order I usually check homeware, shoes, dresses, trousers/skirts, and finish with tops and shirts. I sort it from areas I’m least likely to find things to sections where I often find the most, so I can go straight to dressing room without getting flustered from carrying more and more stuff around.

– Also make sure to check the books and dvds, these sections often get overlooked but you can find some great stuff in there.

When it comes to the clothes

– Ignore sizing: it fluctuates so much between brands, and donated items can be from a variety of time periods which includes even more margins for error. Give something a chance until you can try it on or measure it to confirm. Also don’t trust the size on the hanger, as things can often be mislabelled or hung in the wrong place.

– Look in both genders: because what is gendered clothing anyway, am I right? The mens sections often has good shirts, t-shirts and jumpers, whilst womens has t-shirts, dresses, trousers and scarves. You can pick up these (often very cheap) scarves for furoshiki, Japanese fabric wrapping, which can also help us all reduce our waste when we give presents.

– Hone your eye: while I do think it’s good to look through everything, I’ve been doing this for over a decade so have gotten pretty good at looking through things quickly. To train your eye start by first looking for colours and patterns that stand out to you, if you have certain colours you avoid you can just skip right over them. I tend to always check whites, blacks, blues and pinks, but may leave other colours depending on what I can see. I also know what patterns I love and hate, so I can skip over something easily but will also stop if I see an interesting floral or something that catches my eye.

– Look with the eyes of a tailor: don’t just look at what’s in front of you, look at the potential it holds. Could the item be taken in, the hem brought up, the sleeves shortened or removed altogether? If you love something but think it’s a little off remember you can get things altered to you, so don’t let that be a deal breaker. Consider taking a class to learn how to sew so you can do this yourself, or find a good local tailor who you trust. Items can last a long time if we see with a tailoring perspective in mind, as even as our tastes or shape may change we can alter them more than once to grow alongside us. 

Once something has caught my eye, I tend to then put it through a few checklists so that I don’t impulsively buy it. I don’t want to bring something into my wardrobe unless I really love it and know I will use it fully.

– Check yourself. Because charity shopping is cheap it’s easy to often transfer the fast fashion urge there, buying cheap things that we like with little thought behind it. What we really want to kick is overindulgence in consumption, so I always stop and try and create five outfits from the piece in my head. If it helps, take photos of the clothes in your wardrobe so you can scroll through and remember what you have, there are even apps you can use to do this now. If I can create enough outfits that I know I would actually wear, then I give myself permission to buy it.

Check the materials. I learned this the hard way, there’s been some items I’ve picked up because I love the aesthetic, but I found I didn’t wear a lot because they were synthetic and not breathable. If I’m going to get a synthetic piece now I would only get it if it’s oversized or a winter item, and I would recommend getting a washing bag for the laundry. If it’s really not breathable, no matter how good it looks you won’t wear it, because nobody likes sweat.

Check the brand labels. If I find something from the likes of Primark I generally won’t buy it, unless it’s incredibly special, because I know the quality may not last. It’s more likely to be an item that’s been worn a few times and given away as part of the fast fashion economy, as opposed to older brands that have already lasted the test of time before being donated.

Check the care instructions. If it’s complicated, for example dry clean only, are you willing to invest into that, or will the extra work of cleaning it stop you from actually wearing it? If it’s the latter, it’s not worth it.

A few other things

You won’t get great things every time, but don’t let that put you off. A lot of charity shops do stock rotation every two weeks as they have to keep the store full, so you can always ask them what day they do their rotation on, and come back in that day for first picks. It also means that one experience doesn’t dictate what it’s always going to be like.

Also consider the time of year and think about what other people might be getting rid of. Just like fast fashion consumers go to the January sales, post Christmas/New Year is when people donate presents they didn’t like, or their old clothes that have been replaced by Christmas shopping. Also buy off season! As winter ends people may get rid of things they don’t want to hold on to for the next winter, buying things even if you can’t wear them now means you’ll be helping your future self out.

Finally, if all that charity shopping means that you want to clear out some stuff of your own, consider holding a clothes swap with friends. Charity shops can be inundated with how much we throw away, so it’s always important to try and sell on to others first, before we overload them with more of our pieces.

Happy shopping and swapping!