I put together this zero waste guide to thrift shopping because I think – too often – people are put off by buying second hand. It can be seen as dirty or below someone, when in fact it’s an amazing way to get what you need without wasting more resources. This guide will address three types of things people commonly thrift and some tips on how to find quality items.
But first, I’d like to address a few of the questions people often have when thinking about thrift shopping and zero waste.
Isn’t buying stuff anti-zero waste? Yes. (And no.) Zero waste is very much focused on refusing items, meaning that the most important step in your zero waste journey is simply to refuse as much as possible. That being said, it’s entirely unrealistic to assume people will never buy anything. Buying second hand is a great way to mitigate your impact on the environment. Rather than feeding into the larger economy and wasting further resources, you can source something that’s already been created and reuse it.
So how do I keep my shopping zero waste? Buy only what you need – don’t be tempted by the low, low prices of thrift stores! You can also be mindful of choosing items made from materials that will have a productive life after you’re done with them. For example, textiles that can be composted, tools that can be recycled, etc.
Does thrift shopping take away from poor people? This is a pretty common misconception, but no. Thrift stores are inundated with too many items to ever be able to sell/display everything. So, no. A middle class person shopping at a second hand store is not snatching much-needed items from lower-income people. There is more than enough to go around. Check out this article from The Atlantic that touches on the statistics behind the unimaginable amount of clothing going through thrift stores.
With all that touched upon, let’s get to the good stuff: the zero waste guide to thrift shopping!
I would say that about 90% of my wardrobe is thrifted, and I’ve become quite the connoisseur of shopping the racks of local thrift stores. It can be a bit intimidating to see racks upon racks of unsorted clothes ahead of you, but with a little practice you’ll be finding treasures in no time!
Not interested in doing your clothes thrifting IRL? ReStitch, ThredUp, Etsy, eBay, and other companies help you do it online – much easier than pouring through racks of clothes in your local Goodwill.
1. Shop in the right area
It just makes sense: if you have a particular style in mind, go thrift shopping in the areas of your city where people look like that. For example, I prefer higher-end basics from name brands. Therefore I head to the richer parts of town, avoiding the trendier items and looking for the staples tossed aside by those wealthier consumers.
If you live in a small area or have a very different style from those around you, you may have to dig deeper or travel a bit further afield for what you want. That’s OK – it’s all part of the thrift shopping adventure.
2. Look for 100% natural fibers
Natural fiber clothing is really important. Remember above, how I talked about choosing items that would be able to gracefully retire once you’re done with them? Natural fibers can be composted at the end of their life cycle – win! Plus, they won’t release harmful microfibers into our water – it’s estimated 30% of plastic in the ocean is from microfibers. Find out more about microfibers here.
So instead of synthetic, shop for great natural fibers like: linen, cotton, silk, wool, cashmere, or bamboo. I personally live in second-hand FLAX linen clothing!
3. Keep an eye out for great brands – but don’t get stuck on name alone
On the one hand, finding high-end designers can be really exciting and their items can be snatched up for a steal. On the other hand, higher-end designers are not immune to shoddy construction, poor fabrics, and all the other issues of fast fashion brands. Compounding this is the fact that if you don’t live in a city or larger town, there’s a good chance a lot of the clothes will – honestly – just be crap.
I live in a mid-sized Midwestern town. I’m pretty realistic about what I’m going to find. (Although I have found 3 vintage Christian Dior lingerie pieces, so never say never.)
So instead of thinking name brand only, I prefer to keep a few preferred designers in mind as I’m looking (Eileen Fisher, Calvin Klein), but otherwise shop by construction, textile, and style.
For a great lesson on how to see if a garment is well-made, check out this post by Recovering Shopaholic.
4. Don’t buy just because it’s cheap
Once you get into the groove of thrift shopping, it can become exciting to find a new score. But do you really need what you’re finding? (Case in point: I almost bought a vintage white floor-length dress last week. When would I ever wear that?!)
Be sure that what you’re purchasing makes sense in terms of cost, style, and ability to integrate with the rest of your wardrobe. It’s all to easy to impulse purchase something just because it has a 50% off tag.
5. Wash everything properly
Having worked with populations prone to bed bugs, we were recommended to simply wash very, very hot and dry on high for about an hour. That should generally be sufficient.
If you purchase delicates that you don’t want to nuke in the washer/dryer, that is up to your discretion. I buy a lot of cashmere that I’m obviously not going to do that to, but I generally do a visual check before I purchase. I then soak it for an extended period of time in the tub – if nothing else you should see a bed bug or two floating to the surface after drowning. (If that ever happened, I’d put the item in the dryer and hope for the best!)
Linens and textiles
Textiles are an amazing zero waste weapon that the modern household rarely has enough of. We’ve fallen into the trap of paper towels, wet wipes, plastic bags, and so many other wasteful single-use items that have simple low-waste alternatives.
1. Keep a zero waste perspective on what you can use them for
Linens are so useful and can be a great way to bring some beauty and style into otherwise purely functional items for very, very cheap. (Again, Etsy is a great place to find cute vintage options if you can’t source good options in-person!)
Napkins: as a napkin, paper towel alternative, future DIY beeswax wrap, zero waste tissue, furoshiki-style wrapping. I always have a few napkins tossed into my purse as well, you just never know what they might be needed for.
Tablecloths/bedsheets: as a tablecloth, picnic blanket, future cloth bags for bulk shopping if you have any kind of sewing skills.
Pillowcases: as oversized cloth bags for bulk shopping or bread bags, covers for fermenting projects or cheesecloth replacement.
2. Look for natural fibers
Just like clothing, all your linens should ideally be natural fibers that won’t release microfibers into the water when washed. They’ll also be able to be tossed in the compost once they’re finally at the end of their life cycle. (Don’t forget to use them as rags for cleaning once they’ve become too ugly/dirty for daily use!)
Plus, if you stick to natural fiber items, I think they look nicer and you’ll also have a better chance of finding higher-quality vintage items.
3. Check the item for stains and make a decision
Linens and textiles have a tendency to be stained; after all, that’s probably why they were donated in the first place. If you’re looking to cut up the textile for a project, you can probably just avoid the stained part. If you want to use the whole thing, you need to decide if A) the stain seems like it can be taken out and B) you want to deal with it once you get it home.
Most commercial stain removers are highly toxic and not very zero waste at all. Zero waste alternative options exist, but just be aware they’re not as effective as other options. Head over to Paris to Go’s super-helpful post to get some recipes depending on the type of stain you’re dealing with.
4. Wash well
Duh. Unlike clothes, which are a bit more delicate as they may become misshapen on high heat, I have no such qualms about 99% of the textiles I purchase. Wash everything in hot water or a long cycle, then put them in a dryer on high heat for at least an hour. Lethal temperatures are around 120F so you’ll need to reach that temperature for a sustained amount of time.
(If it’s hot and sunny outside, you could also throw everything into a sealed bag and let it sit in the sun for several hours before washing.)
I would say about 85% of the items in my kitchen were purchased second hand. With such an influx of affordable kitchen items, people buy things they won’t actually use. Once that item’s donated, I swoop in and give it the love it deserves.
Be wary, though: shopping for kitchen items can be tricky as so much of it is just terrible quality. Look for vintage items (more likely to last), single-material items (glass jars, stainless steel tools, wooden spoons), and fully-functional items (kitchen items break easily anyway).
1. Items worth buying second hand
- cast iron: cast iron anything is an amazing way to purchase something that will last longer than you. We have 3 cast iron pans we use for stove top, baking, and just about everything. Some needed a little love, but if you know how to care for cast iron you can fix up just about any piece.
- glass jars: glass jars are pretty expensive new and can be purchased for less than a dollar in most thrift stores. There are so many Ball, Mason, and Kerr jars floating around in the world, you should never have to purchase new. Whether you use them for canning or storage or drinking glasses, jars are a staple of the zero waste house.
- silver serving utensils: this may be a personal preference, but old silver is easy to restore and looks great. Pick up a couple of cheap pieces, restore them, and feel extra fancy when you’re serving your next meal!
- wooden cutting boards: have you ever tried to buy a cutting board new? So expensive! Instead, search through your thrift store and pick up one at a fraction of the usual price. Be careful of any mold or cracks in the board as that can spell out a short life for it.
Can’t find what you need IRL? Amazon Warehouse offers deep discounts on items that have been returned due to cosmetic damage. 50% off an expensive gadget because of a scratch is totally worth it!
2. Don’t buy nifty gadgets – they will just take up space
This may just be me, but I could very easily walk out of the thrift store with a waffle-maker, juicer, vintage heating rack, and more. Do I need them? Of course not! Chances are the cool gadgets will be unnecessary in your house and languish in your cabinets, unused, for the most part.
My personal exceptions would be crock pots and instant pots – so useful and worth the purchase. But again, this totally depends on your lifestyle and how much/what you do in the kitchen.
3. Consider the item’s end-of-life
Clothes and linens are pretty simple: if you’ve bought natural fibers, they’ll just break down eventually. Kitchen items are less likely to be that simple, but it’s worth giving it some thought.
Some materials are easier: stainless steel can be recycled without degradation, if you can find somewhere to take it. Some recycling facilities take broken glass if you let them know ahead of time. Wooden items can be composted. Some larger cities have places that will recycle ceramic.
Of course, some items may also just end up in the landfill. Not optimal, but it happens. Do your best to plan around that, but accept it may be a fact.