How to Thrift Shop Like a Pro

There's an art to sorting through racks of secondhand clothes.

Two young women looking at clothes in a vintage clothes shop
Alistair Berg / Getty Images

Choosing to buy your clothes from secondhand shops is an easy, effective, and fun way to reduce your impact on the planet. You prolong the life of garments that would otherwise go to waste, while lowering demand for virgin and finite resources to create new ones. It's a win-win situation all around.

What many people do not realize is just how eco-unfriendly the fashion industry is. The International Panel on Climate Change has estimated that fashion is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, as well as excessive use of water and synthetic chemicals to produce and finish textiles. Supply chains are convoluted and murky, with questionable labor standards in many countries. All of this goes into creating new clothes, 60% of which gets tossed within a year of purchase. While these environmental and ethical issues are serious and many people are working to address them, individuals can avoid perpetuating problems by shopping secondhand.

Figuring out how to navigate the (sometimes confusing) world of thrift stores, however, can take time. It's different from new retailers, with trendy displays and mannequins to help guide your choices. In a thrift store, you're on your own, left to flip through racks of wildly diverse items that range from hideous to handsome. Here are some tips on where to go and how to sort through the overwhelming number of options, picking out the good from the bad. 

Dress Comfortably

Wear clothes and shoes that are easy to take off. This might sound like strange advice, but if you're in and out of changing rooms, it makes a big difference to be able to try items on with ease. You can also wear clothes that you can try things on over – like leggings and a tank top. In COVID-19 times, with many changing rooms closed, it's a good idea to know your body measurements by heart or have them stored on your phone for quick reference – and bring a tape measure.

Know What You're Looking For

Because there are so many options at a thrift store, keeping an ongoing list of items you need helps to narrow down the search. (It's still a good idea, though, to keep an eye out for those unexpected gems.) 

Know Your Personal Style

Emily Stochl, host of the Pre-Loved Podcast, recommends saving pictures of looks you like to a private collection on Instagram or Pinterest. Reference this when in doubt about what might look good. The flip side of this advice is to allow yourself more freedom and creativity. Because there's so much variety and prices are so low, it's a chance to try things you might not want to invest in otherwise. 

Look for Quality

You need to develop a critical eye when shopping secondhand. Scan items for stains (particularly underarm), spots, holes, loose threads, missing buttons, broken zippers. Make sure the seams are strong and check that the material isn't worn thin in places. Sniff the item to make sure it smell fresh and clean. Ask yourself, "Would I walk out of the store wearing this?"

Depending on your style, many thrifted items can actually look better than new. Think of soft graphic tees, cozy sweatshirts, and trendy ripped jeans that already look like you've put in the years of wear. 

Choose Natural Fibers Whenever Possible

Natural fibers, such as cotton, hemp, wool, and linen, tend to age better and pill less than synthetic and blended materials. They do not release microplastic particles when washed, and they will biodegrade at the end of their life. They're generally easier to repair, too. (Learn more about the benefits of natural fibers here.)

Seek Out Children's Clothes

If you have children, secondhand is a great way to dress them. Kids grow and go through clothing so quickly that it becomes prohibitively expensive to buy new items for them. Look for clothes, outerwear, sporting gear, boots, and shoes at the thrift store, and continue the cycle by donating whatever they outgrow that's still in good condition. 

Go Online

Online options for secondhand shopping have expanded rapidly in recent years. Retailer thredUP reported that Internet-based secondhand shopping is expected to grow 69% between 2019 and 2021, while the broader retail sector (including brick-and-mortar thrift stores) is predicted to shrink by 15%. Websites like thredUP and Poshmark make it as easy to shop online for secondhand as it is to buy new. Goodfair assembles bundles of used clothing based on your personal criteria.

Make secondhand your first choice when upgrading your wardrobe, and both your wallet and the planet will thank you.