Sunday, July 3, 2011

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Clothing

It started as a casual conversation with my coworker in the next cubicle of having too many clothes, and hey, we should have a clothing swap. The seed was planted, and it grew into action (make your ideas become action too!) The first day of summer, June 21st, we held our tenth seasonal clothing and accessories swap. Our winter one in January includes unwanted holiday gifts. My good friend Kristin who pens Wordfall is a fellow organizer.

We do these on our lunch hour and offer light refreshments: lemonade, roasted red pepper hummus with multi grain pita chips and organic cucumbers, strawberries and kettle corn. We also had cherry tomatoes, peaches, and mini campfire s'mores, and vegan cinnamon Cafe Twist cookies. Produce from New Jersey farms, the rest from Trader Joe's.

In the back are books, accessories and beauty products so all sizes could find something. I often hear, "You wouldn't want my things," but we really do! We donate leftovers and all sizes can benefit from secondhand clothes. We get so many small sizes that many people "shop" for their teenage daughters.

A small sampling of what we had. My sister gave me the zebra print bag to contribute. It was brand new but she decided she didn't want it. Someone took it. No takers for the blue broomstick skirt I brought. I would have kept it, but the elastic around the waste was too uncomfortable for me, so I donated it.

We include swimwear. I'm not skeevish about secondhand swimwear. I have two bathing suits both from CATS Resale Shop which I paid about $3 or $4 each for. I'm skeevish about retail pricing on bathing suits, and know from my mother who worked retail about the legions of women have tried those on in dressing rooms and knows how many end up on the floor of fitting rooms.

Here were my finds. I'm including country of origin, because I want to draw awareness to where our clothes are made (see my Origins of an American Closet post). If you're getting something second hand, you don't have to feel guilty contributing to the demand for new resources and questionable labor conditions.

A yellow m/m cardigan (made in China), four scarves (one is Jones New York, the rest are unlabeled, all with no country of origin), and a Body Shop cassis rose lotion (made in the UK).

Raspberry colored shoes perfect for the pool or beach. I would never shop for shoes like this on my own, but am happy to have gotten them. The black Ann Taylor Loft flip flops were donated from a woman who said they were the wrong size, were on the bottom of her closet never worn. Precisely why we hold these swaps! Both have no country of origin.

We donate the leftovers to charitable thrift shops: Housing Works, which benefits low income and homeless New Yorkers living with HIV, and C.A.T.S. Resale Shop in Westwood, New Jersey, which serves as a shop and shelter for homeless cats (they foster some dogs too), and money raised helps pay for veterinary bills and food. I love the idea of unwanted clothes and other items finding a new home, and helping homeless people and animals.

At the C.A.T.S. Resale Shop, I picked up this Old Navy lemon top, $2, made in China, and Jordache top, $2, made in Sri Lanka. I'll be the first to admit that if you gave me a map, I could not find Sri Lanka on it, yet someone there toiled to make this shirt for an American. Luckily that American donated it when it was unwanted so another American could wear it: me.

I love these cotton tops in the summer, which I pair with long flowy skirts and, now, wear the scarves I got at the swap in my head.

I've come across clothes in the garbage often (on the eve of the swap, I found 7 pairs of jeans, two tops, including one Banana Republic and four fleeces peering out of a garbage bin (not in bags), mostly made in China. This is disrespectful to the people who labored to make these clothes, to the planet (our landfills are full enough) and to the people who could benefit getting these clothes for free or a significantly reduced cost.

I get all my clothes second hand now, and if people want to put me down, I don't care. I have an increasing retirement and savings account, no debt, have traveled to Paris, Mexico, Spain, Morocco and more and paid for those trips outright, and it's not because I make an enormous salary. If someone wants to feel superior for paying $90 for something I spent $4 on, I let them!

As for stigma and brand obsessions, I point to the I Love Lucy episode that takes place in Paris. Lucy and Ethel long for dresses by fictional designer Jacques Marcel. Lucy stages a fake hunger strike in her hotel room (of course Ethel sneaks in food), and Ricky caves and agrees to buy a dress. When he finds out they were cheating, he gets a tailor to make dresses out of potato sacks and a horse's feed sack and put in a Jacques Marcel label. Fred goes in on it too. Thinking they are the real deal, Lucy and Ethel proudly stroll along the boulevard, but are horrified when they are told the truth. Jacques Marcel was at a cafe watching, loved the look, and copied them. Lucy and Ethel instantly regret burning their Jacques Marcel "originals." It's all about psychology!

I keep hearing about what lean economic times we are in, but everywhere I look I see women of modest means with expensive designer bags and clothes. My sister and I ponder, do people really like the bag because of the look of it, or it's because of the label? Personally, I wouldn't carry one of those high end designer bags if given one for free. I don't know why women feel the need to live the lifestyle of celebrities, and we should all be saving for rainy days (are these women saving?)

I used to think I was "treating myself" to Anthropologie clothes but now think it was a waste of money. Someone asked me recently, "Do you shop at Anthropologie?" and I said, "No but I wear their clothes." (like my $4 thrift skirt). I'd rather show off organic strawberries and thrifty used finds than a $300 bag. I'm more worried about what goes in my body, not what decorates it.

Our grandmothers made it through the depression and war years and acquired thrifty skills they kept for life, yet I don't know how much we've learned as a nation amid the Great Recession. I'm impressed by savings, resourcefulness, recycling, caring about workers' conditions, animals, and the planet. I'm never impressed when someone tells me they have an enormous shoe or bag collection. That's from an animal's sacrifice, from a worker's toil, from the Earth's limited resources. To me, that's greedy. I'm not envious of a Louis Vuitton bag. That's just a status symbol.

As for "trends" the "in" look thrust on American women by unknown forces each season, I reject that thinking, and encourage other women to. Who wants to look like everyone else? It's just an excuse for retailers to get you in stores. I don't need a woman in Indonesia working in a factory so I can look "in." I'd rather see her bent over a book. My sister said every time Kate Middleton wears something, it sells out. Why don't we work on developing our own sense of style?

Find a thrift shop for charity near you through Consider hosting a clothing swap with your friends or coworkers, or donate your goods to a charity, pass them on through freecycle, or even sell them. Keep the reduce, reuse, recycle thread going.

Check out Angela Barton's Thrift Threads column where readers show off their cute secondhand wears, and The Thrifty Chicks, who advocate for a robust reuse market (as do I!) I think every American town and city should offer a freecycle space for residents to keep things out of landfills and give residents a chance to save money getting things for free.

Have you ever attended a swap? Enjoy thrift or consignment shopping? Scoring thrifty threads at garage sales or on eBay? Swap maternity wear or kids clothing with family members or friends? Do you look at the labels of where your clothes are made and wonder about the conditions they were made in?


  1. Oh, I totally agree with all you have written! I have been gradually buying more and more at our local thrift stores. In general, at my height and weight, it is hard for me to find things that fit right -- so my options are less than ideal whether I am buying new or used. So to get something that really works for me when I need it, I do still buy new things as well. But I have found some great gems second hand. My 10 year old daughter also loves when we get her things at thrift shops or the local bi-annual kids consignment sale. She gets the concept of re-using. I do pay occasional attention to the country of origin of our clothes, but I really like the idea of looking at each piece you come by and at least silently acknowledging the resources and people that went into making the item I am now enjoying. Thanks for sharing and encouraging! (P.S. I also look at these designer handbags and wonder if women actually like the bag or just the association with the designer -- they are certainly not my cup of tea in style!)

  2. Hi Amy. Thanks so much for the support! That's great you are exploring thrift. Shoes are a hard find for me but I'm trying to find more of them used. I have a lot of second hand resources here in Bergen County, NJ, and in NYC, so I'm lucky with the clothes.

    I love the ideal of a bi-annual kids consignment sale! Kids grow threw things so quickly. It's so much about awareness, as you said, silently acknowledging. I don't pressure myself to make the perfect choices with anything all the time (food choices, consumer purchases, etc.) and don't expect that of others, but strive to be aware and do the best I can.

    My mom worked in retail and used to work with people who had no money (paycheck to paycheck) but prided themselves on always wearing the top label things. I'm saddened so many have been sold on a lifestyle they can't afford. I think because my mom didn't care about labels, maybe that rubbed off on me. Do we want marketers to get to kids younger and younger?

  3. "I don't know why women feel the need to live the lifestyle of celebrities"

    I think this is because we worship affluence in this culture and celebrities are the closest most people get to affluence (or the perception thereof, anyhoo). Unfortunately, most celebrities are mired in what I call Skank Culture (I blame Madonna), so all these folks are emulating some really unpleasant folks and garish styles, because for them, it equates "classy" (gag) and rich. I'll shaddup now.

  4. Your input is always welcome and appreciated! I was talking recently with some women about our disappointment in the lack of role models for women and girls today. I think Michelle Obama has done some good things to promote fitness, gardening and healthy eating. But overall, I see a void.

    Madonna's name also came up. During my youth she was prancing around in her underwear singing about "Like a virgin." It's interesting she's using in her teen daughter to sell 80s wear through the Material Girl line at Macy's. On the web site, it says "imported." Again, people laboring all over the world to produce our cheap fashion. I can find 80s fashion at a thrift shop.

  5. You did a great job on this post. I also found something related to your cause from this channel in YouTube. Check it out:

  6. Thank you Sandy! GreenopolisTV sounds like my kind of programming! So important to keep things out of the landfills, rivers, oceans, etc. and reuse as much as possible.

  7. I've gone to about 80% thrifted clothing and I like my clothing now more than ever. I wear mostly Calin Klein and Anne Taylor. I didn't even tell my husband unless he asks...and I don't think he really wants to know anymore.
    xo jana

  8. Hi Jana. Thanks for the comment. And 80 percent - that's great! Imagine if we could all strive for that! There's a scene in P.S. I Love You where fashion loving Hillary Swank's character tells her husband of all her clothes it doesn't count if you get Marc Jacobs on eBay! I also love in Pretty in Pink when Molly Ringwald's character gets a compliment from her father and she starts pointing out her thrift store finds. I do that too! It's something to brag about, never be embarrassed of.

  9. I hosted a "Swap Party" about 3 months ago and was able to get rid of some "tired" clothes hanging in my closet and get some new cool stuff! We are planning another one for fall clothes. I ONLY shop at consignment shops for myself and my daughter. My husband is harder to buy for at thrift stores so we do spend more on his clothes. But I make up the difference since I don't own ANYTHING that hasn't been owned before. :)

  10. That's great about the swap party! I love doing these seasonally for frugal fun. This is something anyone can do and you see the immediate gratification of finding happy new owners for unwanted items. I love consignment shops too and they are a great way to support the local economy (both the shop owner and people selling there). Good for you for being thrifty parents!

  11. AnonymousJuly 16, 2011

    I too buy most of my clothes "pre-loved".
    I usually buy labels, as they are usually the natural fibre of cotton, wool and silk that I love the feel of,and they last a long time.

  12. Thanks for the comment - and I adore that, "pre-loved!" Cotton is my favorite, and I the majority of the time opt for things I can dry clean (to save on the cost but also the questionable dry cleaning materials). Some things I have to dry clean (coats, some vintage scarves), but for the most part I wash everything on cold and hang dry (both kinder to the environment).

    A footnote to this article, I saw in The New York Times today a section on white Louis Vuitton bags ($700 to $2000!, many knock-offs out there) and thought how depressing to see all these carbon copy women out.

  13. Thank you for a fantastic post. I could not agree with you more. I also shop at thrift and consignment stores and am proud of it. I see it as being patriotic, since those dollars all go back in to my community. Don't get me wrong, I like wearing nice clothes. That being said, I refuse to pay full price for something where workers are being exploited, that only increases profits for corporations. If fancy brands made their items humanely and paid people a living wage, I would have no problem paying big money for them. That helps someone have a livelihood. Unfortunately, exploitation is the game in town these days, and that is regardless of the label on most items. Really is very sad, there was a time when artisans were valued.

  14. Thanks for commenting and yes - patriotic! How often the media makes us feel our economy is suffering because we're not all being good Americans and going to the mall or chain stores and buying cheap imported goods. This is what our economy thrives on? I hope not. Main streets need all the help they can get and I love that consignment shops are popping up all over them. I got nice shoes for just $3 this weekend at one. I like wearing nice clothes too and find them secondhand.

    Sadly, there's no way consumers can really know what labor conditions are like. Perhaps there should be an international fair trade board monitoring this. Clothes are one of the few things we consume that's a "need."

  15. Those scarves are gorgeous! I love the colors. Anyone who thinks you have to buy new, trendy designer clothes to look good is a fool! Love your blog.

  16. Hi. Thanks so much for the compliment and your support of secondhand! I wear them all the time in my hair right now. I actually wanted scarves like this and was going to get them at a thrift shop, but was so excited to get them at the swap!

  17. Really great post! I know I'm a bit late with that.

    Tall sizes are hard to find in 2nd stores of any kind. So I do treasure my finds even more. But sometimes I do buy clothes to alter. Big dresses are great for this, long skirts, coats, men's dress shirts and jeans (I completely disassemble them first).

    Most of my shoes are store-bought so I tend to buy basic styles in a good quality and wear them for several years (including some repairs).
    I try to get stuff like underwear and basic tees at one of the organic clothing stores in town and if that doesn't give any results I go for hessnatur.

    Compared to my friends I do have a small wardrobe (which comes in handy because we have a tiny closet) but more to wear! I definitely don't spend more money on clothes than they do and I make up for organic shirts and high-quality shoes with 2nd clothes and sewing skills. I'm quite glad I had to learn needlecraft in school!

    My choices do make a difference to me, and I hope it's more than just making me feel better. Well, one friend has started to drop over a couple of times a month to learn some sewing skills while refashioning some of her unloved duds!

  18. Hi Kate, thank you! And chime in at any time, never too late.

    That's great you learned needlecraft. Home economics is lacking here in states, but everyone should be learning life skills like sewing and cooking. I need to learn to sew!

    It's so important to be aware. It does make a difference and I find it rubs off on others, like with your friend. I remember what Michael Stipe says in R.E.M.'s Begin the Begin, "The finest example is you."

  19. legions of women have tried those on in dressing rooms
    I will never be skeebish about 2nd hand swim suits AGAIN'I recently discovered Goodwill...
    After finding out in Italy that olive green is my true color, what better place to go where all the clothing is color coded?
    Honestly. And no formaldehyde either!

  20. Hi Carol. Great about Goodwill! I've seen exposes on about major retailers like Victoria's Secret reselling used underwear, and have spoken with someone who used to work there who said that she saw that too. Buying something in a department store or major retail chain doesn't guarantee that it's sanitary or never worn.