Plastic Free Challenge Day 28: Second Hand Clothes

mini chic consignment san francisco
(Picture credit: mini-chic San Francisco)
Last blog post of this week dedicated to living plastic-free with kids!
Written by Zero Waste California. We are lucky to live in an area where there's so many opportunities to buy second-hand!

The Earth is drowning in unwanted clothes. Each year, the average American throws away 65-80 pounds of clothing. In fact, next to oil companies, fashion is the dirtiest industry in the world  (source). Today's post discusses topics ranging from buying second hand, buying clothes from sustainable companies and donating.

Second hand stores, or thrift stores, are a great way to save money and help produce less waste. But less start with these essential questions: why do we need thrift stores? And why do we have such a surplus amount of clothes and goods in general?

vivienne westwood buy less choose well

Thrift stores help the community, often by funding community assistance projects and providing jobs, skills, and assistance for families. Some even directly support charities and animal shelters.

More often than not, thrift stores have so much more to offer than just clothing! They are a great resource to find shoes, accessories, appliances, jars, dishes, silverware, art, picture frames…. Yeah, pretty much everything. In fact, almost all my mason jars have come from either yard sales or thrift stores.  

But some say thrift stores are doing more harm than good.

fast fashion and oil companies

(Photo Credit:

The overwhelming argument against the sustainability of thrift stores seems to be that it “contributes to pollution overseas.”  However, the problems seem to lie in our fast fashion industry, and not in the thrift store itself.

fast fashion industry not sustainable

Fast fashion is what it implies: cheap clothes mass produced at an alarming rate. Almost all clothing brands, fashion chains, and department stores are facilitators of fast fashion.  But thrift stores are not to blame for this. Fast fashion is the primary cause of global clothing pollution, without question.



  • In 2014, over 16 million tons of textile waste was generated, according to the U.S. EPA. Of this amount, only 2.62 million tons were recycled, 3.14 million tons were combusted for energy recovery, and 10.46 million tons were sent to landfill. (Source)
  • According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Americans throw away at least 300 million pairs of shoes each year. The majority of shoes are not recyclable, and most will end up in landfill. The average running shoe lasts about 400-600 miles.
  • The average American throws away approximately 65-80 pounds of used clothing per year.
  • Companies are shipping an obscene amount of unsold clothing to third world countries. In these places, clothing cannot get processed fast enough, it arrives in too large a volume, and piles up, often going unused. Sometimes, the surplus materials are burned. Regardless, unsold clothing is a result of fast fashion.

        But there are many more options to consider before you toss your tattered t-shirt. And there is definitely donation etiquette that you might not be aware of.


        fast fashion buried with clothes

         Trying to donate tattered and heavily worn clothing is as helpful as throwing a wad of trash in the donation bin. It’s simply not going to re-sell. And your coffee stained NSYNC shirt from 1994 with the armpit hole is not to make some girl’s day in a country where they have more t-shirts than food. So donate things that are actually of value, and find better ways to reuse or upcycle clothes into other useful items, from quilts, to dog clothes, to dish rags.

        Read: The pros and cons of donating clothes to charity

        Additionally, we have some tips for donating other good quality clothing items, that may not be so obvious

        Donating specific clothes and materials

        Towels and Blankets:  These items are historically difficult to donate. However, many animal shelters are desperate for towels and blankets. Call your local animal shelter, or even veterinary office. If you are in the Bay Area, the Humane Society tucked inside the San Jose Petco (on El Paseo de Saratoga) could really use full sized towels, washcloths, and blankets (cut into small 1’x1.5’ or 1’x1’-ish dimensions). There is even a donation bin outside their doors for after hours drop-offs!

        Bras: bras could be a difficult item to upcycle, but is an organization happy to accept second hand bras. 

        Business Attire: men and women alike can benefit from business attire and homeless shelters and women’s shelters usually know individuals who could benefit from some clean apparel to help give them a fresh start.

        Shoes: Did you know Nike recycles their old tennis shoes to create base material for athletic fields? Find out some more tips to on recycling shoes, here.

        Panty hose/Nylons: Once ripped, these are virtually unusable as far as panty hose go. But this site has found plenty of other ways to reuse your ripped up panty hose. If your hose is too tattered to reuse, NoNonsense has a mail-in recycling program available through their website.


        MONKEI MILES san francisco second hand store for kids

        (Photo credit: Monkei Miles San Francisco)

        Stephanie has some awesome tips for buying your littles one’s second hand items.

        During the 1st years of your children, it’s pretty easy to buy second hand clothes in great condition: kiddos grow up so fast, they outgrow their clothes every 3 to 6 months during the first 2 years, leaving behind pieces of clothing that look brand new. The owner of a kids second hand store told me once that she had more than enough stock of clothings from 0 to 2 year old but it was harder to sell. How is it possible? According to her, when people have babies, they buy a lot in advance (they accumulate), usually new, and they receive lots of gifts, new too. It’s such a waste when so much is already available for half the price or less.

        The clothing industry has spent decades brainwashing us. They want us to buy “new” all the time, as if it will make us better people. But the wind is turning, buying new from the fast fashion industry is now widely denounced as a serious threat for the planet hence for us. Second hand is the new black!

        I’m going to tell you a secret: every piece of clothing I find in a kids second hand store is a victory for me, I’m so proud, it’s like winning the lottery :-) I save money, I save the planet, it’s a victory against the despicable fast fashion industry. It feels so good! The rare times I buy new clothes for my daughters is once or twice a year to support a friend who has a kids clothing business. That’s it, really.

        One more thing I’m convinced of: kids do NOT care about whether a toy or a t-shirt is pre-loved, we do.

        Your kids will be perfectly happy whether their clothes are new or not, as long as they are in good condition. More than that, what a beautiful value to teach them.

        To help you start a second hand routine, here’s a list of stores I know that offer clothing and gears that don’t hurt the planet. Please go visit them if you’re around and support them if you like what they’re doing:

        There are probably more: send us your favorites ones and we’ll add them!


        clothing swap party

        Clothing swaps, or swap meets,  are a great opportunity to not only trade clothes, but form a strong bond with your community. Some swap meets have a certain item minimum to attend, for example, 3 t-shirts, or one pair of jeans, or a hat and two shirts, etc.

        Make it fun, make it sustainable. Sell baked goods and donate the money to a good cause!

        How to Host A Clothing Swap



        The current system has a lot of room for improvement. Thrift stores in general have the right idea, but a better solution would be to find a way to repurpose items before they are sent overseas. Some companies have already embraced this idea.


        evrnu textile recycling



        Tonle starts with scrap waste as a result of clothing manufacturing, and create handmade clothing in a truly zero waste fashion, not wasting a single thread. This family company is based in Cambodia, and most dresses run around $50 or less.

        tonle zero waste fashion

        Sneaker Masks by Zhijun Wang

        This may sound obscure, but air pollution is such a serious problem in China, citizens must wear masks in order to breathe. Eco-trepreneur Zhijun Wang is reusing old running shoes in order to make air pollution masks that really kick. Did Zhijun discover an environmentally friendly new way to run your mouth? I’d say yes.


        More Resources

        Turning Old Into New with Reused Sustainable Fibers

        The Better Cotton Initiative

        Levi’s Stadium Field of Jeans project saves 12 tons of denim from landfill

        Dirty laundry: Are your clothes polluting the ocean?

        No nonsense, taking steps toward a greener planet


        Join the conversation!