The Parents Guide to Shopping Secondhand

Thanks to a wave of resale websites, it's easier than ever to shop for used goods and sell your hand-me-downs. Your wallet—and our planet—will be happier for it.

group of kids with arm up ready for school
Photo: Paul Thorburn

So often, it feels as if the most earth-friendly choice is also the most expensive (looking at you, organic berries). But when it comes to shopping for clothing and home goods, the greener way is the cheaper way. A surge of "recommerce" sites makes resale shopping—aka buying secondhand stuff—a realistic option for parents who want the best for less money.

Garment manufacturing is unfortunately one of the most resource-intensive industries, according to the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. It generates 20 percent of the world's wastewater annually, including the release of half a million tons of synthetic microfibers into the ocean. Thrifting cuts down on that pollution, and it creates demand for used goods that might otherwise go to landfills.

Participating in the resale market is actually good for your family's well-being, says Michael I. Norton, Ph.D., Harvard Business School professor and co-author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending. You are charitable when your money goes to another family. "It's an exchange relationship; we're building community," he says. As for safety, Ari Brown, M.D., a Parents advisor, says laundering used clothes in hot water keeps germs at bay. Wipe any hard-surface goods with disinfectant. Let's get you started!

Know What You Need

Before shopping online, Camila Montanhani, a mom in Westchester County, New York, and a professional photographer, conducts a seasonal edit of her family's wardrobe. She sorts clothing into keep, donate, or repair piles. Then she creates a detailed list of what each family member needs, which helps her stay on budget and purchase only essentials.

Be Discerning

As you browse online, review images and descriptions carefully. If an item's condition is unclear (is that zipper working?), don't hesitate to ask the seller questions. Verify recalls (even pajamas can qualify) by checking the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Count On Quality

Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home, suggests adopting a quality-over-quantity approach. Purchasing well-made goods made of natural materials generally translates to items that endure or that can be easily repaired. For clothing, Johnson suggests cotton, cashmere, silk, wool, and leather over synthetic materials whenever possible.

Snag High-End Brands On Deep Discount

Seek out labels you love and trust, but include brands you may have previously considered too expensive in your searches too. "I've bought my daughter Bonpoint blouses—they retail for over $100—for much less at a local consignment shop," says Elizabeth Morris, a mom of two in Chicago, who spends an average of $5 to $10 per item. "And I got an REI snowsuit for my son to wear when he's bigger. It's hard to justify buying something expensive for a child even if you know it's high quality. Buying secondhand is a way to have high-end things at mass-market prices."

Think Ahead

Snow pants are a perfect example: By looking year-round, Morris consistently scores deals. "I don't think I've ever had to spend more than $10 on a like-new pair of L.L.Bean snow pants," she says.

seated mom holding phone with icons
Paul Thornburn

Push Your Wish List Into The Future

Play a long game, particularly when you're on the hunt for something specific. Montanhani is proof that persistence pays off. For a long time, she searched weekly for a winter coat for her daughter before finally scoring a Patagonia puffer coat from a friend.

Seek Out Ironclad Guarantees

Stretch your dollar further by purchasing well-crafted goods from brands that offer lifetime warranties on products, says Johnson. Check out Totes, JanSport, Lands' End, and The North Face.

Sell It Right Back

Larkin Gayl, who shares tips for sustainable living at UnfetteredHome on Instagram and in her "Zero-Waste Moms" Facebook group, shops for used clothing on eBay, Poshmark, and Craigslist, and when her family is done with those garments, she turns around and resells them on the same platforms. "Doing things this way scratches my consumer itch to have cute, new things without robbing the planet of more resources," says the mom from Sebastopol, California. "Plus, it's so much cheaper than buying new."

Find The Barely Worn Stuff

Formal wear and clothes for a short life stage, such as wedding dresses, maternity clothes, and baby clothes, are great to purchase secondhand since they're worn for only a small bit of time, says Gayl. Similarly, limited-use items like rain jackets, snow boots, and costumes often get outgrown before they are worn out.

Get Steals When You’re Pregnant

Emily Marcogliese, a mom of one in Oakland, California, works for the resale site thredUP and grew especially passionate about the service during her pregnancy, when buying gently worn items afforded her a much bigger wardrobe than if she had purchased clothing from traditional maternity shops. "And as my size has evolved post-pregnancy, buying secondhand has kept me feeling less guilty about shopping than if I were trying to restock my closet with all new clothes."

Search Near—And Far

Neighborhood sites such as Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and Nextdoor make it easy to search your neighborhood for deals. But when Brianna Heiligenthal, the mom behind Instagram's BurtsBrisPlease, was unable to find a trio of antique sleigh beds for her boys near her home in Hopkins, Minnesota, she cast a wider net. Two turned up in North Carolina and a third in Florida. She had them delivered via Roadie, an app that pays road trippers to pick up and deliver goods along their routes. A win for everyone involved!

Is There Anything You Shouldn’t Buy Secondhand?

Short answer: car seats, cribs, and mattresses. It's crucial to know a car seat's full history, so avoid buying one from a stranger. It's up to you whether to accept one from a trusted source, like your sister: Just know that a single minor accident can render a car seat unsafe. Also, the technology improves almost every year, so the newest car seats really are the best. Likewise, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission advises parents not to use a crib that's more than 10 years old or one that's been modified or broken by its previous owners. Finally, mattresses are too hard to clean. When accepting used baby gear, check to verify that the make and model haven't been recalled. And yes, the beloved Fisher-Price Rock 'n Play Sleeper has been irrevocably recalled and you should not buy it, no matter what other parents say.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's June 2020 issue as "The Secondhand Revolution." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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