Shopping photos by the talented Natasha Garoosi

Americans toss 25 billion pounds of clothing every single year. We’ve become accustomed to fast-fashion, poorly made synthetic clothing that falls apart, and impulse buying from sales racks. It’s time to shift gears and start thinking about your wardrobe differently.

When I started my zero waste journey almost 5 years ago, I knew my shopping habits had to change as a result of that, and as someone who loves clothes and fashion, I figured out a way to not contribute to the waste stream when it comes to what I wear.

How do I do it? I donate, sell or give away my clothing I don’t want anymore and I shop secondhand.

Heading to a thrift store can feel overwhelming for many people but I’ve got years of successful secondhand shopping experience (and a killer wardrobe to prove it), so I’ll share with you the tips that work for me.

Identify gaps in your wardrobe

The first step is seeing what you could use in your wardrobe. Walking into a thrift store without a plan is similar to trying to pass an exam in Astrophysics without ever having taken the class. Walking in blindly will only overwhelm you and potentially cause you to buy items that you don’t need.

In this post I go over how to assess and edit your closet.

Make a list

What are you looking for? What are your typical buying traps? Mine is striped shirts. In my head they are amazing, in reality I always end up re-selling them or thinking I don’t look cute in them. Make a physical paper list, or list on your phone of items you need and items to avoid so you don’t forget.

Establish your budget

How much are you willing to spend the day you go shopping? If it’s an item you really need in your wardrobe, what’s the max amount you’d drop on it? Are you selling items and only going to buy clothes out of what you sell?

Staying within a budget will help you avoid hasty purchases.

Be prepared for the thrift shopping experience

Secondhand shopping can take some time and energy, so be prepared with all of the zero waste accoutrement.

Here’s what I’d recommend being prepared with:  

  • Water in a reusable bottle
  • Snacks
  • Deodorant – trying on makes you smelly
  • Wear layers and clothing that is really easy to take on and off. Baggy jeans, loose sweaters, slip on shoes. Wear a bra/underwear (if you wear those things) that is basic enough so that you can try on different styles.
  • Reusable bags for any purchases
  • Optional: grab a friend that won’t be afraid to tell you when you have a uni-boob or worse, a major camel toe.

Prioritize the store

Walking in and seeing racks on racks on racks of clothing can feel overwhelming. First go to the sections of priority that is on your list. Look through ALL the options in that section, and go beyond just your normal size racks. It’s not like shopping in a store where styles are neatly laid out – you gotta dig to find the gold.

If the store is laid out by colors, stick with the colors you know and love.

But ultimately you will score the best items if you give yourself enough time to pick through everything.

Remember, sizes don’t mean everything

Some xs might fit like a teen 10 and some larges might fit like a small so always look outside of your size. Brand to brand, sizing can be completely different, especially if it’s vintage. So scour through all the sizes.

Plus, you ultimately get to decide how you want your clothing to fit – whether you like things loose and baggy or skintight.

Tips for trying on

  • Take photos of yourself in the items to catch different angles.
  • Walk around for a minute or two in clothing items and shoes to see how they move with your body – this is especially important for shoes.
  • If something doesn’t fit don’t just buy it because it’s cheap or a brand you like.
  • Don’t feel rushed, try things on a few times and try different items on with each piece.

Determining what’s worth buying

You may end up with lots of great options but need to stick to your budget, or don’t want to overbuy. Here are a few tips on helping you decide what to actually purchase.

  • If you’re on the fence about something, only buy what you love or put it on hold, leave the store, and if you want it badly a few hours or a day later, go back and get it.
  • Check the material and care instructions, only buy what is easy to maintain.
  • Does this piece work with 2 other pieces in your closet? Can you build a few outfits or envision a few situations in which you would wear this piece. If no, put down the jeggings.

Here’s an amazing pair of jeans I found secondhand that goes with tons of tops in my closet:

Also here’s a great black top I picked up secondhand as well, that also goes with my secondhand jeans above:

  • Buy things that fit now, not later. “Goal” pieces end up being clothing that you never wear, buy something you will love right now.
  • If you look your “worst” while trying clothes on (anyone else shop in their gym clothes with unwashed hair and no makeup on?) and feel great in something, it’s a keeper.

Don’t be afraid to walk around the store multiple times

Do a few laps around the store, take a second look at something you might have missed. Thrift stores are full of hidden treasures you don’t want to accidentally overlook.

Also don’t feel like you have to scan the whole store before trying on. If your arm is feeling weighed down but you’re only through half of the denim, try on what you have, eliminate what doesn’t work, have them hold the potential purchases behind the counter and return to the rack to continue where you left off.

Remember, secondhand shopping takes time, dedication and patience. But no matter what, don’t be afraid to walk out empty handed. Just because you’re prepared, doesn’t mean you have to leave with something. One thing that you’ll wear a million times or nothing, is better than five things that you wasted money on and will never wear again.

If you don’t have secondhand shops near you, some awesome online options are Poshmark and Ebay but be sure to ask your seller to ship in paper envelopes without plastic (USPS has 100% post consumer envelopes!)




  1. Hi, Lauren! I’m just starting to know and follow this zero waste lifestyle. I’m making baby steps by first don’t getting plastics bags at the supermarket but getting my own fabric bag. Anyways, when it comes to the clothes, there’s something that makes me feel uncomfortable, and that is the feeling of using clothes that someone used before and when I go to Goodwill I have this feeling the clothes are dirty and the whole thing just gross me out. So I was hoping if there’s some advice or knowledge you can give me about this. I’ll appreciate it.

    1. I have been strictly a second hand shopper for years and can say with confidence that MOST clothes at thrift stores (my go-to is Goodwill) have been washed before being donated! When trying on apparel I can often smell laundry detergent on them. This is not true for every item but the vast majority. If you can tell that an item is dirty or smells funky then skip it! additionally, you can always wash your purchases when you get home and I promise that after wearing them once or twice you will completely forget that it had been previously owned. 🙂

  2. I personally love capsule wardrobes and second-hand shopping, this post was gold!

    I will be in NYC in January (and will hit up your store first thing). Do you have any personal favourite second-hand stores in the city that I should check put? Preferably withing the low-medium price range.


  3. Hey Lauren,
    I want to suggest a post on what’s on you wardrobe , key pieces of clothing and all … should be interesting 🙂

  4. Great informative article! One of the most important things about clothing is knowing what its made of and how different methods of cleaning and detergents or other cleaning agents will affect the clothing. Athletic clothing is often a combination of materials, so its best to check the label.
    When in doubt, seek help from a cleaning professional! Thanks for all your great advice!

  5. Hey Lauren, I was actually wondering about this. I second hand shop all the time myself, and I’m slowly trying to reduce my consumption of non-recyclable waste. If you buy an item of clothing, what do you do with the tag?

  6. Love this post! And to add onto the idea of walking around for a couple moments in an item is that I always make sure the fabric is comfortable and soft, not scratchy and weird! Some items I love the look of on the rack are actually super uncomfortable!

  7. Hi, Lauren! I loved your TedTalk and watch your YouTube videos all the time. Decided to start going zero waste this year, and it doesn’t seem that bad so far! (Yeah I know, it’s only the first week lol)

    But I have a question. What about underwear? I need to shop for some, but if there were even anything cute at goodwill, the thought of using someone else’s underwear is gross! Are there any lingerie brands you recommend who make cute lingerie that’s easy to compost or something?


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