[Sustainable Tuesdays] First hand natter on second hand clothes (Part 1)

Sustainable Tuesday

Hey gang, been a while since the last Sustainable Tuesdays post, and only because I could not manage to defeat the procrastination and write this post. I really owed you guys the results on the survey on second hand clothes I asked my readers and friends to fill in. But before we dive into the graphs and charts, let me tell you a few more personal stories. I’ll come back next week with the numbers.

When I moved to London for 5 years now, I was really surprised at how many charity shops there are in the UK high streets and always wondered how do they survive, who actually buys from them? It is clear that it is the norm here, and it seems to me to be accepted without questioning that the charity shop is a perfectly reasonable place to buy new (to you) clothes.

But this has not been my experience at all growing up in Romania. I’m not going to bore you with a sob story about growing up in communism (I was 7 when the Iron Curtain fell in Eastern Europe in 1989), but I do remember that although my parents weren’t rich, there weren’t many places where to spend the disposable income on clothes. There just weren’t that many options, all clothes were made in Romania, and original jeans (like Levi’s) were worth their weight in gold and were a main black market item. Don’t get me wrong, people weren’t going around without shirts on their backs, there just weren’t that many choices to buy new things. So there was a lot of hand-me-down going on, tweaking, altering and refashioning to turn what you had into new things (if we only remembered how, those skills would come in so handy nowadays).

Image source: Wikimedia

So the immediate effect after the revolution and the market economy was upon us, was to buy buy buy anything new. No matter how poor quality, from Turkey mostly (China wasn’t there yet in terms on production capabilities), Romanians just wanted new clothes. Because we could buy them and democracy also meant the right to spend one’s income on whatever one wanted. Also, in the early 90s, there was a lot of ‘aid’ from Western countries, consisting of mostly second hand clothes (like Brits give to the charity shops), which was handed out for free by various organisations.

Not sure about other people, but in my family, all of the above meant an intense hatred of second hand clothes. My mum would shudder just walking past a second hand shop, which in Romania are for commercial ventures, not for charities and probably are still stocked with British cast offs. She hated the idea of wearing other people’s clothes, with the possible exception of our very close friends (I have a younger sister and we always swapped clothes). Even that we sometimes had to do on the hush-hush, so that mum wound’t catch on. But actually paying money for old things? No way! I think even now she doesn’t really get the concept of ‘vintage’, unless it’s her mum’s or her clothes from she was young.

I’m not sure it was about the desire to have new things, the reluctance to appear poor, the yuck factor, I can’t say it ever occurred to me to ever go in a second hand shop to buy anything, though I remember girls in Uni scouring them with assiduity. I could just not shake the prejudice.

Source: Wikimedia

So that was my mind set when I moved to Britain. To my shame, I was a mindless fashion consumer. I brought with me 90 pairs of shoes! But in the meantime, through my job, I’ve learnt more about the supply chains, environmental effects of clothes etc and I have (or at least have tried) to mend my ways. And of course, one of the most important things I learnt was that wearing your clothes as much as possible is the best way, as well as buying new (to you) clothes from 2nd hand shops or swapping with friends. But I still find it so hard to get rid of my deeply ingrained avoidance of pre-loved clothes. I still swap clothes with my friends, always give my own clothes to charity or to friends, but have not to this day, ever bought anything in a charity shop (though in my defence, I haven’t bought any new clothes in regular shops either this year).

Therefore, I was challenged to verify (in a very empiric way) if this is how other people feel too of if it’s just my cultural hang-ups that are in my way? It will all be revealed in part 2, same time next week, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, how about you guys? How do you stand on this? Yay or nay?

Happy sustainable Tuesday!

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23 comments

  1. Charity shops are a good place to buy clothes for crossdressing. Trying them on is no problem and advice is on hand.

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  2. Here in Seattle, in addition to the charity stores, there are many consignment shops, some quite upscale, specializing in designer clothes; others “vintage”; others for costume-y clothes. The more upscale, the more the clothing is arranged as in a boutique. Even the charity stores, though, organize the goods by size, type of clothing, etc. so there is no real need or opportunity to rummage about.

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    1. What are ‘consignment shops’? If you need a good rummage, come on over here, I know a few Aladdin’s cave in London 🙂

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      1. They are shops where you leave your clothing to be sold. The shop receives part of the proceeds and part goes to you.

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  3. I have been trying to buy from consignment shops over the past two years, I have found a few shops with good quality clothing at reasonable prices. Also I am trying to evaluate my closet and get rid of the rarely worn, uncomfortable, or “what was I thinking clothes”. Focus on sewing my clothes and only buying shoes, undergarments and accessories.

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    1. How did you find this? I have so many clothes that I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not buying. What I’m still struggling with is making sure that what I do add is part of a bigger plan, that it matches what I already have…

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  4. Thank you for dharing such an insightful post! My parents were okay with second hand clothes so I grew up fine with it. I learnt from a very early age about sterilising clothes and how to make selct from second hand clothes (dirty or clean) some of my best finds were clothes that were so dirty people couldnt see past the dirt and once washed were pretty amazing. I cant say I have ever consistently bought brand new. Charity shops, car boot sales and ebay were always my first port of call. Although since I started sewing I have only been buying fabric and am proud to say I havent bought any clothes in the last 18 months.

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    1. I am trying to do the same re not buying clothes, but to be honest, I have so much already that it will take me years to get down to a reasonable amount so I can feel comfortable buying clothes again (or have the need that will not be fulfilled by sewing my own). Thanks for the comment!

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  5. Whilst I too give to charity shops, I rarely buy from them. I remember, shortly after I moved to the UK, I donated some good suits and dresses to a local charity shop and it didn’t want them. The shop manager told they were too good a quality to be able to sell in their shop – this was before the industry surrounding second hand clothes took off.

    Quality is the main reason I don’t use charity shops much (other than occasionally for teeshirts). There are only a couple in my neighbourhood and the quality of clothes in them is appalling. I think charity shops is a good place to monitor the decline in clothing quality. Occasionally I may see something nice, which is alas usually too small, and I can tell from the label, cut or weight of the fabric that it was made in the 70s or 80s. I think the quality issue is exacerbated by many people using the charity shop as a dustbin. They know they shouldn’t throw the many poor quality, fast fashion items they’ve bought but barely worn away so they give these items to charity.

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    1. I know what you mean Meg! Very interesting comment, Through my job, I have learnt a lot about the charity shop/clothes recycling and this is definitively a trend. On the other hand, I’d rather give my clothes, no matter how old or damaged to a charity like Oxfam who I know it will recycle them, rather than them going to landfill. But this is only because I actually know a lot about them, so I have the certainty it will get recycled.
      I saw your pyramid of usage and I think it’s brilliant, definitely something to aim for, but I don’t think I’m mentally there yet. I find it quite hard to wear things to death. Maybe when I will pair down my wardrobe to be lean enough and I will have less choice, this might end up happening naturally…
      Looking forward to seeing you on the 9th at the Refashion East, I got my ticket today.

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  6. I love charity shops. It’s often where I find most of my fabric. As charity shops rise in popularity they are catching on and pricing things a bit higher than u used to be able go find. However they don’t seem to know the value of fabric and I have found some amazing bargains- 1.5mtrs of 100% worsted wool I picked up for £1! At least 6mtrs of plaid silk dupion for £5! Etc. I don’t often buy clothes from charity shop (or any other shop, yay for sewing) but I don’t have a problem with it

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    1. I am so with you on this one. I should have actually said that although I don’t buy clothes, I do get fabric from charity shops. Do you know about Oxfam online? They deliver as well and have some really nice finds. I got 5m of 100% wool for £13 in Jan, well chuffed!

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  7. In Malaysia, there isn’t a concept of charity shops too, which is why we established this social enterprise 🙂 We are sisters, and we love to thrift, but there isn’t much option here. We think thrifting is great, once you’ve past that made-up mental block of the clothes being worn and dirty. It just needs a good wash, like any old clothes we have in our closet 🙂

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    1. This sounds really interesting. Do you want to drop me an email on the contact from, I’d love to learn more. Maybe event do a guest blog post? I find it very interesting how different cultures perceive this topic.

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    1. I think you are lucky in Britain to have real charity shops. In Ro, you have car boot sales, junk markets or second hand shops with cast offs from Western Europe. I do like the more personal touch of the contact with the staff, plus the diversity of items you can find. I only wish I had the time to rummage properly :).

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      1. Yes I guess we keep all the good stuff for our own charity shops and only export the leftovers. They are certainly very variable in Britain – in richer areas you will get designer clothes, but the price will also be higher. Some of the best things I’ve found have actually been in mid Wales, where the shops don’t know the worth of some of the items, but you do have to invest some time to sift through it all. All part of the fun though 😉
        That said, I do think that charity shops are more popular now and therefore have more quality donations. I remember there being more of a stigma surrounding them during my teens and I rarely bought anything in them until I went to university. These days finding a bargain in a charity shop is something to brag about rather than be embarrassed to tell people.

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      2. It’s funny, my uni mates were in the same camp, bragging about bargains… Guess students everywhere are the same, loving a bargain 🙂

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