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Clothing has always been my source of inspiration and a way to cultivate my sense of self. Used clothing in particular lets me play and explore with my style, while helping me incorporate fashion into my zero-waste lifestyle. Buy-sell-trade stores are wonderful places to shop because they help reduce the fashion industry’s carbon footprint. They keep older clothing in circulation, and give people the opportunity to replenish and refresh their wardrobes without buying new items.
As the manager of a buy-sell-trade clothing store, I can speak to the positive ways that shopping for, gifting, and donating used clothing affects our communities and our planet. For example, used clothing is full of possibility and potential; it’s unique, affordable, and far more environmentally friendly than buying brand-new garments. Trends come and go as quickly as the seasons, but true style can last a lifetime.
Dangerous Mass Production
We live in an era of “fast fashion” and mass production, where retailers are constantly churning out newly manufactured clothes to keep up with the demand for trendy pieces. Most of the clothing produced today is poorly made, and quickly becomes worn or out of style. Participating in the fast-fashion cycle means participating in an industry with a mindset built on disposable clothing and disregard for our environment. Fast-fashion retailers, such as Forever 21, Target, and Walmart, are constantly churning out new designs, sometimes on a weekly basis. Inexpensive synthetic fibers and exploitative labor practices allow them to produce clothing at alarming rates.
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The processes and equipment involved in mass clothing production use vast amounts of water and other natural resources. According to National Geographic, it takes approximately 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt; that’s enough drinking water to sustain one person for about 2-1/2 years. The dyes and chemicals used often end up in the water systems surrounding the factories, damaging the health of the textile workers and those living in the area. Producing synthetic fibers, such as polyester, also wreaks havoc on the environment. While the process doesn’t guzzle as much water as the natural fiber industry, synthetic fiber production emits more greenhouse gases. In 2015 alone, polyester production generated 1.5 trillion pounds of greenhouse gases. This fast fashion cycle is grossly unsustainable.
The Benefits of Buying Used Clothing
Buying used clothing helps to mitigate the wastefulness of clothing production, and opens us up to a fashionable lifestyle outside of trends. Fashion trends are cyclical; something that’s in style one year might be completely irrelevant the next, and the industry manufactures trends to keep customers buying. If you adopt the industry’s mindset, your closet might constantly feel old or out-of-date, when the clothing is still perfectly wearable and functional.
Shopping for used clothing forces you to think outside of the box. You can stay hip and trendy without feeding the fashion monster, and you may even discover a new favorite style that you wouldn’t have otherwise. A positive side to the cyclical nature of trends is that what goes around eventually comes back around, so current trends, silhouettes, colors, and styles show up again through vintage clothes. These pieces are often made from higher-quality fabrics, produced in the U.S., and have withstood the test of time. Vintage clothing is currently going through a renaissance period, especially on Instagram. In fact, wearing used and vintage clothing is becoming more fashionable as zero-waste and eco-conscious lifestyles gain popularity. And some of the best places to shop for used or vintage clothing are buy-sell-trade stores.
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Buy-sell-trade clothing stores take in used clothing directly from customers in exchange for cash or store credit. Arizona Trading Company (A.T.C.) — the buy-sell-trade clothing store I manage — buys clothing in excellent condition from people of all ages and genders with all different styles. A.T.C. pioneered the concept of the buy-sell-trade model in the Midwest. Thrift stores have existed for decades, but buy-sell-trade clothing stores have been growing in popularity since the early ‘90s throughout the country through similar stores, such as Plato’s Closet and Buffalo Exchange.
In Lawrence, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, we at A.T.C. have created a vibrant and fashion-forward environment that takes eco-conscious shopping to another level. The Lawrence store opened in December 1991, and has since become one of the most dynamic and bustling businesses in the area.
Buy-sell-trade stores don’t operate like a typical retail store; there aren’t multiples of each piece. If you decide to hold out on something in the store, there’s no guarantee it’ll be there when you come back. Every piece sold in the store is hand-selected by employees who’ve gone through training as buyers. They look at every piece of clothing, checking for holes, stains, missing buttons, broken zippers, alterations, fiber content, and style. A.T.C. only takes what’s best for the store and what our clientele shop for. For instance, we specialize in casual wear, street wear, and accessories, such as hats, purses, jewelry, and shoes. As a buyer for A.T.C., I always try to keep the store stocked with quality pieces that are made to last. My previous thrifting experience has given me a personal appreciation for items made from natural fibers, such as cotton, silk, and wool.(Learn more about wool here.)
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The typical price range for buy-sell-trade clothing falls between $2 and $20, with the average item costing about $6. With prices so low, $20 can buy you an entire outfit, rather than a single new shirt. At A.T.C., there’s even an entire section dedicated to items that are $1. For those hunting for a specific label, buy-sell-trade stores can carry pieces from the top designers; just the other day, we brought in a designer backpack. We’re also able to adapt to the needs of our customers. For example, we recently added a plus-sized dress section, and expanded our available sizes in the entire women’s section. Unlike large retailers, local thrift and buy-sell-trade stores can respond to their customers’ needs, rather than dictate them.
The buy-sell-trade market is expanding from brick and mortar stores to online platforms as well. Some are independent businesses based on social media applications, such as Instagram or Depop, while others — ThredUp, for example — operate entirely online and send used clothing through the mail based on the customers’ indicated sizes and style preferences. These internet-based resale options are a great way to source inspiration, but still, to me, nothing beats the thrill of the in-person hunt.
Mix & Match
Fashion should be fun and comfortable, and the best outfit is one that can transition easily from work to play. The key to an effortless and stylish outfit in colder weather is mixing textures and patterns while incorporating basic neutral pieces. This means utilizing the power of layers.
Clogs are stylish year-round, but in the winter, a cute pair of socks makes them more comfortable and enhances their look. My go-to is a black pair of clogs; they’re comfy, classic, and go with everything.
Photo by Madeline Backus
Wearing a wool beret gives any outfit a vintage, feminine touch. Berets are to winter fashion what sandals are to summer fashion. They never go out of style, they look good with everything, and, most importantly, they’re practical.
A striped, long-sleeved button-down shirt can be one of the most versatile pieces in your closet. Pairing one with a nice pair of slacks, or layering it with a neutral colored sweater and a pair of patterned pants, gives you a fresh and dynamic look.
Darker complementary colors look chic in the winter. I find that blues, greens, and reds always pair well with black, brown, and cream. Stark whites are best saved for summer, but a good cream sweater can be a winter staple piece.
People from all walks of life shop and sell at A.T.C., which is what makes it such a treasure trove. In just one day, retirees and college students alike come in to unload pieces of their wardrobe on the buying counter. We’ve seen it all, from a Hawaiian shirt collection fashioned with coconut buttons, to vintage band and concert T-shirts, to all the trendy blouses, skirts, and shoes in between. This wide age range makes our selection not only interesting, but also accessible to everyone.
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As a buyer, I keep an open mind about all clothing. Even if it’s not something I personally find appealing or desirable, I know that my opinion differs from others, and my tastes alone can’t define what’s in the store. As a manager, I also maintain a welcoming environment, so everyone feels comfortable shopping and selling with us. Keeping the used clothing business inclusive is how we’ll ensure resale clothes are a viable option outside of traditional retail.
Clothing is a basic need, but the fashion industry now forces its consumers to make the choice between affordability and the health of the environment. Buying used clothing is one of the best ways we can combat the wasteful fashion industry, and making the choice to buy used is not only eco-conscious, but also fashion-forward. There’s an abundance of wearable clothing out there ready to reenter the fashion scene.
Madeline Backus manages Arizona Trading Company in Lawrence, Kansas. When she’s not surrounded by clothing, she’s either out on her bike or spending quality time with her cats.