The second-hand challenge:

🕔Apr 07, 2009

As far as experiments go, it wasn’t exactly the Wright brothers or the Manhattan Project.

I often received blank stares when announcing my retail research. I’d see people take a mental inventory of the clothes on their backs: yup, all secondhand. Others thought I was nuts. “So, whose pants are you wearing today?” was a favourite greeting from one friend.

In our disposable culture, where consumerism is considered a form of therapy, and fast fashion often equates to last year’s trends being promptly ditched for inexpensive duds subsidized by off-shore labour, I was limiting myself to apparel that had been cast off, evicted or otherwise banished from someone else’s closet.

For one month, I would dress only in secondhand clothing.

Let’s get one thing straight: I am hardly a fashionista. Like most in the North, getting dressed up means wearing my newest fleece. That said, we do communicate identity through dress. We tell the world generally what we’re up to and what we’re all about.

Philosophically, I was very much at ease with the prospect of wearing secondhand clothing for a month. But could I say what I needed to say?

We are what we wear
On the first morning, I’m announcing myself as a HAPPY HIKER (according to the T-shirt I once picked up at a clothing swap) as I rummage through my closet, tossing aside everything acquired warehouse-to-wardrobe direct. The pile that remains is small.

Pulling a hand-me-down dress coat over secondhand jeans with a six-inch rip from the waistband, I head for the New to You.

Over the past 15 years, this Smithers Ladies Auxiliary thrift store has raised roughly $635,000 for much-needed hospital equipment, bursaries for local high school students, and an annual donation to Smithers Community Services. The operation is entirely volunteer-run, employing up to 40 local women who do everything from unwinding wool from unsold sweaters to ironing, mending, sorting and pricing.

“The way the economy is, who can afford to buy choice blue jeans when you can get them here for three dollars?” says volunteer Loretta Flint, adding that sales have increased over the past year. And what doesn’t sell still gets used: last fall, the shop started a program that ships excess clothing to the Salvation Army in Prince George, which then distributes it to developing countries.

I begin searching the New to You, my shoulders sagging as the first rack greets me with a brown velour pantsuit. I’m not new to thrift-store shopping: I’ve perused their racks, felt the rush of those rare moments when something fits effortlessly over my five-foot ten-inch frame. But unlike thrift-store enthusiasts who’ve honed their secondhand fashion skills over a lifetime, I was quitting retail shopping cold turkey. Never in my life had I relied solely on the thrift store to clothe myself.

I was also allowing myself a few exceptions:

1) For hygienic reasons, anything not exposed to the naked eye was exempt.

2) Ski wear was exempt: I wasn’t about to pack away my Gore-tex to be found frostbitten and hypothermic in a neon one-piece snowsuit.

3) I wasn’t going to make it far without my trusty old belt.

At the Smithers Salvation Army, nothing goes on the floor with rips or stains. It’s one week into my experiment, and this has made my day, because a great pair of cords has just been handed over with a 100 percent discount (off its regular $4 price tag) due to a small hole in the left pant leg. They’re a size too big, but they’ve suddenly become my favourite pants.

“It’s kind of the same concept as a yard sale—you never know what you’re going to find,” Salvation Army community ministries supervisor Rick Apperson says. “We have some people who the prices do help—if you have a large family with the economy today—and some people who just like thrift-store shopping.”

In a week, Apperson says, the local Sally Ann receives 30 to 40 bags of donated clothing. With a healthy customer base, clothing cycles through quickly and the proceeds go to the adjoining food bank, soup kitchen and drop-in centre. He estimates that 80 to 90 percent of funds raised stay within the community.

Barely worn
Despite my exciting new cords, as the second week draws to a close I begin to feel a longing for pants that fit. It’s not that I need something new, exactly, but I desire the full diversity of my wardrobe; I’m tired of the same four sweaters. If my experiment is a clothing cleanse, I’m craving sugar.

We define ourselves by what we wear, yet we routinely allow our identities to be dictated by a mannequin in the Gap window. Buying secondhand is an opportunity to escape the ordinary, to do something different. In this world of disposable fashion, a thrift store is a place where you construct your own style. It’s a place to be adventurous.

According to Value Village’s website, the average American throws away more than 30 kilograms of clothing annually, translating to nine billion kgs of used clothing going to landfills every year. The US-based used clothing company says its recycling program prevented 120 million kgs of used merchandise from ending up in landfills last year, through its retail stores and by shipping to developing nations.

“We do get nice stuff you would pay a lot of money for—people donate them barely worn. One person’s trash is another’s treasure,” says Faye Reeves, store manager for the Value Village in Prince George. “You just need to keep coming and you might find the treasure you’re looking for.”

Value Village has only one store in northern BC, its Prince George location. Although it’s run as a business, every store partners with a local charity, and the Prince George location supports AiMHi, a local organization supporting those with developmental disabilities. For every pound of clothing donated to the PG Value Village, a donation is made to the local not-for-profit.

What doesn’t sell at the store’s 2,500-square-foot location gets baled and sent to developing countries. “Sometimes there’s still Value Village tags attached to them,” Faye says about the T-shirts that arrive in African countries. “If you’re purchasing secondhand clothing, then it stays out of the landfill.”

As my experiment draws to a close, I’m surprised to realize I’m not planning my first post-experiment outfit with the enthusiasm I once reserved for my first day back to school. My closet now seems like an overgrown jungle of underworn attire.

Then one morning, after 29 days, it unexpectedly ends: I wake up with the urge to wear the sweater my sisters gave me for Christmas. I sit for a moment, contemplating the fleecy interior, its ample sleeve length, the Made in China label tickling my neck. I feel—well—nothing. Faced with an intimidatingly large wardrobe, I pick out my newest pair of secondhand jeans and carry on with my day.

I wasn’t going to take down the fashion empire with my tiny protest. My experiment was unlikely to solve the problems of world suffering or overflowing landfills. I certainly wasn’t about to dethrone the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and Donna Karan. But I know now that, somewhere between the velour pantsuits and reindeer sweaters, there is some semblance of style, even a certain peace and happiness, to be found at the local thrift stores.