I Went Four Years Without Buying New Clothing – Learn How You Can Too

By Ella Kim-Marriott

Ella is a second year UBC student from Vancouver, BC studying sociology and geography with hopes of furthering research on the topic of consumerism. She currently works at the package-free grocery store Nada, and volunteers for various environmental organizations such as Greenpeace.

Recently in the media, there has been a lot of talk about ways to make our individual consumption more sustainable. While it is great to see so many people switching to reusable straws and taking up plant-based diets, we need to further the conversation. In particular, we need to pushback at industries that produce the products that are polluting our planet. One of the world’s most polluting industries is the fast fashion industry, but it is also one of the easiest industries to stop supporting.

This is my story. In May of 2019, it will be four years since I made a vow to myself to not buy any new clothing, and I could not be happier with my decision. It’s not that I do not buy clothing. In fact, some of my friends and family would even describe me as a shopaholic. So, how did I go four years without buying any new clothing? One word: thrifting.

Growing up with thrifting

I am sure that most of us are familiar with the term “thrifting”. It has been popularized all over Youtube, through apps like DEPOP, and some of you, like me, grew up thrifting. Of course the reasons why we thrift differ. For example, I grew up thrifting because my family was lower income. I always loved fashion, so from an early age we were taught that thrifting was the best way to save money.

When I entered high school, thrifting became a sort of hobby that I would do with my friends. It was fun to help each other look through mountains of clothing and develop our styles together, all the while laughing and imagining the previous owners of the pieces we found. At this time, however, I probably thrifted and shopped at fast fashion stores about the same amount. What I did not know at the time was that my mother had another reason for why she preferred thrifting to shopping at a mall. She was conscious of the environmental and the ethical costs attached to buying into fast fashion.

Discovering the dark side of fast fashion

I did not become fully conscious of these costs until Grade 10. I already identified myself as an environmentalist at this point, but I was more aware of the obvious topics; climate change, the ozone layer, recycling and composting. But something changed in Grade 10. I was in the TREK Outdoor Education Program, and we talked about the environment and how we could help it almost everyday. One of the ways that we learned was through watching great documentaries, like The Clean Bin Project. In TREK I developed an adoration for learning through watching documentaries and started to binge environmental documentaries covering a variety of topics.

One documentary in particular really stuck with me and changed my entire outlook on the fashion industry. That documentary is called The True Cost, and I love this film because of its seamless (no pun intended) execution. The filmmakers interviewed a wide range of experts in different areas, and the cinematography is powerful, particularly when they have shots of the factory workers in developing countries. They do an excellent job of covering the fashion industry’s many faces, talking about the cotton farmers, the corporations, and everything in between. This film broke my heart but also opened my eyes to the industry I had been thoughtlessly supporting. As someone who advocated for protecting the environment, I was ashamed. But I was also empowered. And so, on May 1st, 2015, I decided to make a promise to myself that I would not buy any new clothing, and in the spirit of living a minimalist lifestyle, would only thrift shop for necessities.

Making the switch

I have a few takeaways from that first year of swearing off fast fashion. First of all, it is so much easier than we realize. Second, changing habits is a learning process, and we don’t need to be so hard on ourselves. At first I kept a list of all the items that I bought that “broke” my vow, which was really just composed of socks that my parents bought me for my birthday, and a jersey I had to buy for a sports team I was on. Looking back, I could have cut myself more slack or at least have not felt guilty for those couple of items.

The final takeaway from my year of not buying any new clothing is that once you do not do something for a year, you feel like you can do it for the rest of your life. Honestly it astounded me how much my attitude and behaviour around fashion changed. I started to hate malls and overconsumption in general, and now I am studying overconsumption at UBC. Not only that, but my style improved! My favourite thing about thrift shopping is that everything is somewhat one of a kind. It is so much more rewarding to find pieces you love at the thrift store, in my opinion, and the end result is a completely individualistic wardrobe.

I did not think that I was being radical by making this vow to myself. Many people (like my mom) basically or truly do only thrift shop, and live way more minimalist lifestyles than I do. The reason why I made this a sort of “challenge” for myself was because I wanted to be able to tell people exactly what I was doing so that I could be held accountable, and so that it seemed attainable and realistic enough that other people who maybe weren’t as familiar with thrift shopping could take on the same challenge.

Now, it’s been almost four years since I officially stopped supporting the fast fashion industry. I am so thankful for all of the support I have had, and that I get to continue my learning and growth in the field of environmental conservation as it pertains to reducing overconsumption.

Ideally, while I hope to someday go completely zero waste, I do have a long way to go. But at least I am confident in my choices regarding fashion.

If you are inspired by me to take the thrifting challenge yourself, below I have composed a list of 10 tips and tricks for beginner and/or experienced thrift shoppers, or anyone who is trying to reduce their consumer product waste.

1. Basics of Thrift Shopping

Wear comfortable clothes that are easy to change in and out of; bring water and reusable bags; set a budget for yourself; make a list of what you are looking for before you go and try to stick to it; and bring hand sanitizer if you feel the need. And make sure you try everything on before you buy it! Sure, it takes more time, but thrifted clothes can fit nothing like you expect them to, or sizes can be mislabelled.

2. Look for versatile staple and layering pieces

Always look for staple and layering pieces when you shop. When you buy something, try to picture how often you’ll wear it. If it can be worn often, in multiple ways and with different outfits, it’s worth buying. But if it’s a single wear purchase, you may want to reconsider. PLUS versatile pieces can be found at a thrift store for the exact same price if not cheaper than fast fashion stores.

3. Know your limits

Some people draw a limit to what they feel they absolutely can’t buy second hand; for some, it’s socks and underwear, for others it’s shoes or swimwear. Know your limits, and do not feel guilty about buying new for the few items that you do not feel comfortable thrifting. That being said, it should be easy to find second-hand alternatives for everything else.

4. One in, one out

This is the golden rule when you are someone who is into fashion but want to uphold the principles of a circular economy. When you buy something new, consider donating a piece of your wardrobe that you think someone could get better use out of. This is the best way to keep clothing circulating, while also keeping your own wardrobe fresh without hoarding clothes or contributing to textile waste.

5. Cheap does not mean necessity

This is a really important thing to keep in mind, especially for newcomer thrift shoppers. The first time you go thrifting and see almost all of the clothing priced at under $10, it’s tempting to go a bit crazy. Just because something is well priced DOES NOT mean that you need it. If you want to be a smart and sustainable shopper you need to focus on the necessities. My tip is to make a shopping list over time of all the specific items you are looking for, and when you go shopping to only look for them.

6. Shop with like-minded friends

Go thrifting with people who do NOT pressure you to spend money on things you do not need. I learned this the hard way.

7. Do your research

There are a ton of thrift stores, vintage stores and organizations that do clothing pickups, but are they all sustainable or ethical? It’s good to do your research before donating or shopping somewhere, because you may find that you prefer a certain company’s mission. To be a conscious consumer, you want to know where the money you are spending goes and make sure the clothing you donate is not just being shipped off to pollute a developing country

If you live in Vancouver, BC, some of my favourite thrift stores by category are as follows:

  • Money goes to great causes: Community Thrift & Vintage (PHS Community Services Society),
  • Aunt Leah’s Urban Thrift (Aunt Leah’s Place), Still Fabulous (BC Children’s Hospital), Wildlife
  • Thrift store (The Gathering Place, Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter and more), SPCA
  • Thrift Store, VGH Thrift Store
  • Allows for trading: The Young and the Restless Clothing Exchange (plus 50% off for students!)
  • Best prices: The Rag Machine, The Society of Saint Vincent De Paul Thrift Store, Value
  • Village, Salvation Army, MCC Thrift Shop
  • Vintage and consignment: F as in Frank, Mintage, Front & Company (Sells consignment and new items), Turnabout

8. Find other options

Going to a thrift store is definitely not the only way to get second hand clothing! You can borrow clothing from friends or family, or ask them “I need one of those! When you get rid of it, can I have it?”

You can even organize clothing swaps amongst your friends or your community! There may be a free store in your neighbourhood (@ubcfreestore is a great option for UBC students, especially looking for appliances!), and online platforms like Craigslist, second hand Facebook pages and apps like Depop provide alternatives to making a trip to your local thrift.

9. Fix it first

Before buying a replacement for something you already own, try to fix it! And if you aren’t great at fixing clothing, don’t buy thrift items that you have to mend. This could mean a huge stain you’d have to bleach out, or a tear in the seam you’d have to sew. If you regularly take the time to mend your clothing, then ignore this tip. But if you’re like me and rarely have the time (or being honest, the knowledge of how to), then don’t buy items you will have to fix. *Note: Or check out local “fix-it” events in your area! They bring all the tools you need and provide guidance and a helping hand in mending everything from ripped socks to clogged vacuums.

10. When you get home from the thrift store

Look for rips, stains, missing buttons, etc. in case you need to return something, since sometimes it is hard to do this at the store, especially if you’re in a rush. Wash all of the clothing you purchased, go through your checklist and refine it for your next thrift trip, and make note of what you got so that you don’t end up with too many of the same things in your wardrobe.

I hope that these 10 tips help to set you on your sustainable fashion journey! If you feel inspired, SPEC and I want to challenge you to start your thrifting journey, or to share your thrifting experiences with us, using the hashtag #SPECthriftingchallenge on social media. Best of luck and remember, slow and steady (fashion) wins the race!

Follow my social media: Ella__km

Another great account to follow for thrifted fashion inspiration: thriftedthis