Charity shops are good for the planet, my wallet and my anxiety

A pile of clothes, including coats, tops and trousers

Last autumn I made a resolution to stop buying fast fashion. I’ve been making a conscious effort to reduce my carbon footprint – going vegan, switching to a renewable energy supplier, planning holidays that don’t involve flying – and it turns out fashion is a serious environmental offender. So it had to go.

The thing is, I really like clothes. I love the excitement of finding a new piece you love and planning what to wear with it for the first time. I love the comfort of old favourites that make you feel more like yourself when you put them on. I follow fashion channels on YouTube and lurk various subreddits. I’ll happily people-watch for ages if it means I get to see what they’re wearing.

So I wasn’t sure how I’d fare without the ease of the usual high street retailers or online shops. But I figured I’d give it a go and see how long I could last.

Most articles about “ethical fashion” seem to focus solely on still buying new clothes, just from different companies. (I blame affiliate links.) Those products understandably tend to be more expensive, and people have varying ideas of what constitutes an ethical supplier. I did order some trousers from Lucy & Yak, a brand which looks to have good credentials, but ended up returning them as the fit didn’t suit me. (Although I may order from them again in the future.)

So since September last year, all my new clothes have been old clothes, courtesy of the glorious charity shop.

I used to spend a lot of time in charity shops as a skint student, but fell out of the habit as I got older. But now my love has been rekindled, and I’m not sure why I ever stopped.

Shopping without the guilt

While I only swore off it last year, I’ve known for a while that fast fashion is pretty horrible from an ethical and environmental standpoint. The fashion industry is a major contributor of greenhouse gases, water pollution and landfill waste. And I’d hope we can all agree that sweatshops are bad. This video is a good 5-minute summary of the issues.

So I can buy a t-shirt that supports companies which exploit their workers and pollute the planet, and support a culture of overconsumption which encourages us to think of everything we own as single-use and disposable… or I can buy a t-shirt that supports Cancer Research and encourages us to make the best possible use of objects which already exist. Option B sounds better to me. The amount of money that charity shops actually raise for their charities varies, but it’s undeniable that reusing clothes which already exist is less wasteful than buying new ones.

My charity shop habit also goes hand-in-hand with some other lifestyle changes. As a vegan, I don’t want to buy new items made with leather or other materials that involve killing or hurting animals. But replacement materials made from plastic isn’t very sustainable either, and I don’t want to be financially responsible for boots that won’t decompose until 3019.

Buying second-hand clothes gets around that little moral problem. I don’t feel like I’m supporting or encouraging either practice – I’m just making use of something which already exists, and that feels a lot better. (“But what if nobody was buying new clothes made from leather or plastic so you couldn’t get them second-hand? What then?” Well, that sounds good to me, but I think we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.)

I tend to beat myself up about a lot of things, but buying clothes no longer has to be one of them. I’ve found that surprisingly freeing.

Giving my wallet a break

I’ve kept a budget with details of all my purchases for a while, so it’s easy to have a look at how much this shopping habit has cost. Turns out I was averaging about £730 a year on clothes. That’s about £60 a month.

In 2017, I somehow spent over £1,100. This number seemed outrageous to me when I first saw it, but then I looked at the breakdown of purchases, and it was easy to see things adding up. £30 at H&M here, £50 at Schuh there – and then a £200 spree at Urban Outfitters after I’d had a rubbish day at work. Retail therapy was definitely a thing for me.

Since swearing off fast fashion and only buying second-hand, I’ve spent about £20 a month on clothes. I’m spending more time in the shops (more out of fun than necessity), but a lot less money. I can live with that.

There’s also the thrill of the lucky find. I scored a £300 coat for a tenner this week! It’s not exactly weather-appropriate right now, but when autumn rolls around again, I’ll be so ready.

Getting out of my comfort zone

I am a cautious person by nature, and this definitely affected how I used to shop for clothes. I’d eye up interesting outfits on mannequins or Pinterest, but when it came to deciding what to buy, I’d go with what I knew – same shops, same fits, same basics.

Charity shops have forced me to get out of that rut a bit. Rifling through the racks, I find clothes that I wouldn’t normally consider looking at. And sometimes I realise I actually like them. For example, I’ve bought:

  • a silky shirt with two bizarre, melty-looking leopards on the back
  • bright red culottes
  • some very Spice Girls cargo pants
  • an amazing oversized tee featuring skeletons on motorbikes (great for sleeping in)

I really enjoy wearing all these things, and I don’t think I would have bought them if it hadn’t been from a charity shop.

It’s also a lot easier to take a fashion risk when the item is only £3. If I find I don’t end up wearing something, I can always just donate it again. And that’s a very different feeling to that old buyer’s remorse of spending £100 on some shoes that turn out to be a little too uncomfortable.

That said, I do still buy plenty of ‘safe’ clothes in charity shops as well. Just ask me how many stripy tops I’ve got. (Please don’t.)

Close-up on a silky top with two badly-painted leopards
Bow before the majesty of the Melted Leopards!

Sticking points

I haven’t bought any shoes in about 18 months. Charity shops just don’t tend to have a big shoe selection. I don’t have a ton of shoes anyway (7 pairs, including sandals, running shoes and hiking boots) and the ones I have now seem to be lasting. But when the time comes, I may have to try my luck on Depop and hope I don’t get burnt by dodgy sellers again.

I’ve also excluded socks and underwear from my second-hand spree, because frankly that’s a very different market.

But there are some things I thought I’d have to make an exception for that have actually worked out. The best example is probably athletic gear. It turns out several of my local charity shops are packed with barely-worn gym tops and leggings. It’s pretty common for people to resolve to work out, buy some workout clothes and then never actually use them. (I have also been this person, I get it.)

I should acknowledge that I am lucky to have the time and ability to putter around all these shops, and that the sizes I wear are easy to find – I realise this won’t be as convenient for everyone.

Also, for a lot of people on a budget, charity shopping is a necessity, rather than an ethical decision. So maybe what I should actually do is back off the bargains and make do with the clothes I already have. I don’t know, ethics are hard! I’m working on it.

In conclusion

Thank you, charity shops! You’re great, and I’ll fight anyone who complains about you ‘taking over the high street’. No stripy top will make it to the landfill while I’m around.

And neither will the melted leopards. I will protect the leopards at all costs.

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