A Practical Guide to Conscious Thrifting

Once, when I was in my mid-twenties and thrifting with a friend, I pulled out my iPhone to capture our day of clothes shopping. I didn’t think twice about posting a Snapchat video of the scene at the Goodwill—until a staffer approached me and said, “Some of the customers said you took photos of them and they’re uncomfortable. Can you delete them?” Even though I wasn’t intentionally trying to take photos of store customers, I immediately realized how terrible the optics were in that moment. Here we were, two privileged young women in a space predominantly occupied by lower-income folx who were thrifting clothes out of necessity, whereas we were simply perusing for cheap vintage pieces in the name of fashion. The fact that I initially had zero qualms about documenting our “thrifting day” for social media was also a certain kind of millennial brain disease. I felt like scum. It was insensitive and careless, and it was a stark reminder of how I needed to be more self-aware moving forward. I apologized to the staffer, deleted the post, and vowed to myself that I’d never do that again.

To be certain: I believe that thrift stores are available to everyone, privileged shoppers included. Spending money at a thrift store allows funding for its aligned charity programs. It creates opportunities for those who are underserved and in need. Plus, we can all agree that buying second-hand is far better for the environment than buying new. But perhaps where I feel more complicated on this topic is the utter ease in how more affluent shoppers—i.e. those who grew up in the middle- to upper-middle class like myself—are able to access the same goods and occupy the same space as shoppers from vulnerable communities, and what responsibilities and etiquette we should actively think about in those environments. And, more broadly, how can we be more mindful and thoughtful participants within the thrifting culture? I am often reminded that thrifting is liberating when you have money; it’s limiting when you don’t. Even though my own thought process on this topic is ever-evolving, here are some things I consider when shopping for used clothing. I hope you find these useful, too.

No photos, please

This research comes as no surprise: A 2014 study in the Atlantic Marketing Journal cited that “saving money was the top motivation (58% of respondents)” for the majority of thrifters. The thrifting experience is unique because it services both the rich and poor and everyone in between, so one person’s hedonistic spree might be another person’s basic need for clothes. (I keep thinking about this tweet and, ahem, how thrifting applies.) All this to say, be mindful of your fellow shoppers, respect their privacy, and refrain from taking pics of folx (no matter how visible or unrecognizable they are) while inside the store.

Shop with a goal in mind

Buying with intention should always be top of mind, but especially with thrifting where it’s easy to get carried away with things priced so affordably. A friend told me she likes to keep her goals straight while she’s thrifting. If she’s in the market for dresses, she’ll make a beeline for dresses and won’t browse other sections. Before you leave your home, peruse your wardrobe, see what’s missing, and make a mental note of what you actually need. Don’t buy anything superfluous.

Stick to a budget, buy less stuff

There have been numerous occasions where I carelessly thrifted an item because it was “only $4,” or whatever. When you have a healthy spending budget, thrifting can yield a lot of clothes, much of which can still get hoarded and later “discarded.” My method for not over-shopping is this: Take out a reasonable amount of cash (whatever that may be for you), and enter the store with only that dollar amount. Having a strict budget will make you way more selective about what to buy.

Try things on

Find a mirror and see how the pieces look on your body, just like you would at any regular store — this is an easy, no-brainer way to stop yourself from purchasing things so flippantly. (And, as you may know, vintage sizing is wild, so it’s best to try things on.) I personally like wearing a unitard or bodysuit to thrift stores because I can quickly throw something on and off with ease. And, if something isn’t right for you, be good to the store staffers and try to place the garments back on their respective racks.

Get rid of unwanted clothes responsibly

If you enjoy thrifting for sustainable reasons, it’s appropriate to get rid of unwanted clothing in responsible ways, too. A 2018 Saturday Evening Post article reported that “the average American throws away about 81 pounds of clothing every year” — much of which end up in landfills. When you’re ready to part with a piece of clothing, discover what options are available to you so you’re not simply trashing it: take it to a resale shop, donate it or have a clothing swap with friends, or bring pieces with qualified fibers to a textiles recycling program.

Donating back? Do it mindfully

If you want to go full circle and give back old threads to your local thrift store, see what their donation guidelines are. An upsurge in people cleaning out their closets and donating their used items during the pandemic has bought on a slew of unforeseen problems. This ends up financially burdening the thrift stores that are then tasked to clean up other people’s (well-intentioned) messes. When you’re ready to donate, sort and organize items with care. Launder if you must. Don’t donate unusable or badly stained or damaged pieces.

Don’t shop in the mens’ section (if you don’t need to)

Gender-inclusive clothing should be the future, but we’re often forced to shop according to the binary. In the case of thrift stores, you may have noticed how the men’s section is always considerably smaller than the women’s. Tamarind Tidwell, general manager of a Boston-based thrift chain, was quoted in Today saying: “Men’s clothing is something that I think probably across the board we always are in need of. […] I would say women’s clothing outnumbers men’s probably 3-to-1.” (Side note: This sentiment applies to homeless shelters too; men’s clothing is scarce all around!) So if you’re able to find clothes that fit you from other sections, leave the men’s section for the folx who have fewer options.

Now, go forth, thrifters! Treat your fellow shoppers and clothing haul with utmost care. I wish you all the wonderful gems and vintage treasures that have yet to be discovered.

Header Image Via: Everett Collection

Jinnie Lee

Jinnie Lee

Jinnie Lee is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, mostly covering culture, entertainment, and style. She also co-runs, a site about storytelling and books.

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