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It’s back to school season, and many parents are shopping for new clothes for growing kids–and maybe doing a fall wardrobe refresh of their own.
But that annual closet clean-out can get pricey, and not just in terms of dollars and cents: making and throwing away clothing has environmental impacts, too.
So instead of buying everything new, some people are trying to purchase most clothing and home decor secondhand. We hear their tips and tricks for thrifting, swapping, upcycling and more.
Produced by Margaret Barthel
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. We all have a colleague or friend who dresses well and maybe with a unique flare. And when you ask them where they found a great outfit they say, oh, this? I picked this up in a thrift store. But secondhand shopping and swapping aren't just sheik. They can also be cost effective, socially conscious and environmentally friendly. And it's a longtime scene that some say is having a moment as a new trend. What does it take to outfit your home and your family secondhand in the D.C. region? Joining me in studio is Serena Appiah. Serena is a blogger and YouTuber who runs Thrift-diving. Serena Appiah, thank you for joining us.
SERENA APPIAHThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Kaveri Marathe. Kaveri is a cofounder of the D.C. Sustainable Fashion Collective. Kaveri, thank you for joining us.
KAVERI MARATHEThank you.
NNAMDIAnd Cathy Tullis is a day manager at the Columbia Pike Thrift Shop in Arlington. Cathy Tullis, thank you for joining us.
CATHY TULLISGlad to be here.
NNAMDISerena, I'll start with you. It's clear from your blog and YouTube channel that you really enjoy thrift-diving. But you got started finding clothes and furniture secondhand for a more practical reason. Why did you begin thrifting?
APPIAHSo, we actually had bought a house in 2010. And you know when they tell you to make sure that you can afford your home? Well, I added everything up, and sure, I can afford this. Well, I totally forgot we needed to decorate the home. (laugh) I literally forgot that part. And so when we moved in from a two-bedroom to a four-bedroom home, we needed to find things to decorate the house.
APPIAHAnd so I'd always loved thrift stores, but mostly for buying clothes, never really for buying furniture. So, I just started going to the thrift store, and I had a blog that I was blogging about being a mom, but never thought about blogging about the things I was finding at the thrift store. So, my husband would say, well, Serena, where are you going right now? You need to feed the baby. And I'm, like, I'm going thrift-diving. I'll be back soon, you know. I'll come back and feed the baby.
APPIAHAnd so I just started buying all this amazing, good quality furniture, finding clothes, of course, for myself and my children. All their clothes came from the thrift store, really, and they still do. But I just started buying these things and trying to turn this house into a home, and not spend a lot of money doing it, because we were spending money on doing repairs and trying to, you know, take this home from, you know, average to making it look good. So, how are we going to decorate without spending a lot of money? You know, so that's how I got started.
NNAMDIYou started a blog, you got a YouTube channel. What do you focus on on those two platforms?
APPIAHWell, when I first started, it really was all about thrift stores. And it has now sort of transformed into doing more DIY, like putting up crown molding, and how do we change toilets. How do we do those things that we are more apt to call a professional to do? But we still do room makeovers, and I do room makeover challenges with my readers. And, a lot of times, when we're doing these room makeovers, we're going to the thrift store, we're finding furniture and making it look good and not spending a lot of money. But like I like to tell people, we're flexing our creative muscle and doing something that makes us feel good at the end of the day. And we're saving a little bit of money.
NNAMDICathy Tullis, what about you? What led you to a thrift store for the first time?
TULLISWell, actually the thrift store that I volunteer at, Columbia Pike Thrift Shop, is owned by the church that I attend, Trinity Episcopal Church. And so, eight years ago, I started volunteering there. My husband had just passed away, and so it was a way for me to connect with others in the community. And so I have some great friends that volunteer at the shop with me and customers that I meet that come in every single week and do exactly that. They're thrift-diving. They're looking for those great deals that we put out, because every single day we get new donations, new consignments, but mostly clothes.
NNAMDIMany of these stores have been around for decades, and they're often associated as part of the social mission of area churches. Why do you think that is?
TULLISThat's a really good question. You know, I know that our church opened a thrift shop 55 years ago. And so, this past weekend, we just celebrated National Thrift Shop Day and had a huge sale associated with it. But it's a part of the community. And so we help the underprivileged or the people that maybe couldn't afford some of the items. We even donate to a lot of other charities and pass along things that don't sell in our shop. So, last year, we donated over 700 bags and boxes of unsellable items to other charities.
NNAMDIKaveri, thrifting and upcycling also have an important social purpose to you too. Why did you decide to buy almost everything secondhand?
MARATHESo, I started a business in 2017 called Textiles, which is a home pickup service and recycling service of unwanted clothing. And when I started that, I sort of learned about the enormous impact that the clothing industry has on the environment and on laborers. And when I sort of realized that, I had a wakeup call, which was, I can no longer be shopping new clothing. And it was a real shift for me. I had been, you know, kind of your standard fast-fashion shopper. I liked to go idly shopping, as I like to say.
MARATHEAnd so it was a kind of sea change for me, and I now only buy thrift. I think in the past three or four years since I launched the business, I have not bought more than maybe five items of new clothing.
NNAMDIWhat do we know about American's typical consumption of clothing? How often do you buy it? How often do you get rid of it? How long we typically keep it?
MARATHESure. So, Americans today buy something like 60 percent more clothing than they bought just 15 years ago. And they're keeping it for half as long. So, when you look at the full lifecycle of clothing, Americans throw away something between 70 and 80 pounds of clothing every year, on average. And the vast majority of that is going into the landfill and not being recycled.
NNAMDIYou came to your personal decision about secondhand shopping through an interest and sustainable entrepreneurship. Tell us about the evolution of your startup.
MARATHEAbsolutely. So, I ran a startup called Textiles. It was a home pickup service. And what I learned was that consumers -- the big challenge for people often when they're trying to get rid of clothing is the convenience. So, I started a home pickup service, and it was a paid service. And I ultimately decided to discontinue that as a result of it wasn't really financially a sustainable model.
MARATHEBut, through that process, I also met with the other ladies who are part of the D.C. Sustainable Fashion Collective, which is what I'm a cofounder of now. And we are really trying to educate consumers around what are the challenges around the fashion industry and what choices can they make to improve their footprint around their clothing choices.
NNAMDIOne of the reasons that secondhand shopping for clothes is a sustainable practice is the environmental impact that creating a new garment requires. Tell us about that.
MARATHESure. So, when you look at the full lifecycle of a garment, it starts with growing the cotton, and it ends with the landfill. When you begin with cotton, cotton is one of the most resource-intensive crops that we can grow. It's probably the largest crop -- after food crops -- that is grown inter-globally. And in the growth process of -- in the cotton process, cotton is actually responsible for about 18 percent of pesticide use, just that one crop alone. And 25 percent of insecticides apply to crops applied globally.
NNAMDIAnd then there's the other end of the garment's life. A lot of people just toss ratty clothes into the trash, but that's actually not the only option. Is it possible to recycle clothing?
MARATHEYes, it's absolutely possible. So, clothing that can't be reworn again -- so if it's in really bad condition, it's holey, it's stained -- it can be what's called down cycling. So, it gets shredded and then turned into things like insulation, carpet padding, stuffing cushions. And so it can have a useful second life.
NNAMDIOn to the phones, here is Maryann in Bethesda, Maryland. Maryann, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYANNThank you, Kojo. I just returned from the most wonderful weekend, three-day weekend in Michigan of an Indian and American wedding. And the beautiful Indian family had invited all of us, a large family from the Midwest, to wear Indian garb, not afraid of assimilation. And it turned out that I was able to go to Unique Thrift around our area for two months. I only went on Tuesdays, but I got 30 percent off.
MARYANNThe most I paid for a three-piece dress, pants and beautiful scarf outfit was $9. Some went for 299, and I got the sale price. Bangles, I went with 45 dresses, and my entire family was able to dress for the Hindu ceremony, the festival with the horse bringing in the groom. And the best part, everyone, the best part of their memory from the wedding, was all of a us coming together, dressing up, and it didn't cost more than $300 for 45 women to be outfitted as beautifully as the native Indian women in their garbs.
MARYANNAnd so to bring two cultures together all for that little bit of money, I had the fun of the hunt for two months. Every Tuesday, I'd go to my thrift shop over in Kensington. And it'll be a lifetime memory.
NNAMDI(overlapping) The wedding story just made Kaveri's day, (laugh) as a matter of fact. Serena, as you've gotten more and more into thrifting, has the sustainability aspect that Kaveri's talking about become important to you, and also your followers?
APPIAHYeah, it definitely has. And as she was talking, I really started to think about even going to thrift stores, sometimes we overdo it. I mean, not just go into regular stores and buying new, but even at thrift stores, we can be wasteful. In fact, I was telling the ladies before we came in that there have been times when I've gone to the thrift store and I've bought things and have either never worn them, or have never used them, you know, if it's a home product. And maybe two years later, I'm re-donating them.
APPIAHSo, you know, I mean, thinking about that, the time that was wasted, the gas wasted for me to go and to look for this, the amount of clutter in my house. So, I think we really have to take a step back when we go to the thrift store or even, you know, looking at yard sales or any of those places, and say, do we really need this? Like, do I already have a pair of black shoes? Do I need this? And sometimes, we have to, you know, kind of tell ourselves no, we don't need this and walk away, so that we're not creating that additional waste, even if it is from a thrift store.
NNAMDICathy, would you say that working at your thrift store has changed how often you go shopping for brand-new products?
TULLISOh, absolutely, because I know that every Saturday, when I volunteer, I have a whole host of products right in front of me. (laugh) In fact, many people donate items that still have tags on them, still have the prices on them. They're brand new in the boxes, or clothes that are brand names that have never been worn before. And so there is just a whole host of items available at our shop. And the best time is really around the 10th of the month. We have a 50 cent sale. So, anything that's been there for 60 days goes on sale for 50 cents.
NNAMDIHere's Karen in Catlett, Virginia. Karen, your turn.
KARENHi. I just wanted to point out that it's not just clothing and furnishings, but people, especially boomers, are downsizing, and they're dumping a lot of their stuff at thrift stores. And they dump valuable and antiques and the clothing that the lady just mentioned that's half the time never been worn. I have two or three friends that go in, and they know what they're looking for, and they buy these items for 5 or $10. And then they make a living selling them for a couple hundred dollars, because they're beautiful antiques.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that story with us, Karen. We're going to have to take a short break, but Lucinda called in to say that thrift stores are a great way to make your budget stretch farther, allow people to better understand the quality of clothing, and also give you a chance to support charities and other good causes. Got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We’re talking about thrift store shopping with Serena Appiah. She's a blogger and YouTuber who runs Thrift-diving. Kaveri Marathe is co-founder of the D.C. Sustainable Fashion Collective. And Cathy Tullis is a day manager at the Columbia Pike Thrift Shop in Arlington. Here now is Pam in Washington, D.C. Pam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAMThanks. Reporting in on my favorite thrift store, 2nd Avenue Value Shop in Southern Fairfax County on Richmond Highway. It's in an old Kmart, I think. It's enormous. Everything is clean. It's like shopping in a department store. And I literally have not shopped anywhere else since I discovered it about six months ago. And I'm just coming from it now with a pile of Tupperware that I need for work that would cost me 100 bucks in a retail store, and it cost me about $25.
PAMThe great thing about thrift stores is it puts back the fun of shopping. It used to be when you'd go to the store to look for clothes, you didn't know what you were going to come up with. But now, everything is, you know, just a click away and you get exactly what you're looking for. Thrift stores give you that opportunity for serendipity and to find really great stuff. It's often much better quality. And the bag that I'm carrying right now I got for $11 last week. It's an Italian leather satchel that I found online new for $365.
PAMSo, you can come up with some really great stuff. And it's obviously ecologically sound, since the stuff that you're getting has been diverted from the landfill and continues to have useful life.
NNAMDIPam, thank you very much for sharing that story with us. Serena, let's say I'm convinced that I should go shopping at a thrift store. Now what? Will you let us in on your tips and tricks for finding good quality stuff?
APPIAHSure. Well, I usually will look for furniture items, and that's something that's near and dear to my heart again because of our need when we moved into our house. So, the first thing that I look for is, is something heavy? And usually if it's heavy, it's going to be solid wood. I'm looking for something that's not going to fall apart as soon as I get it in my car. You know, so generally, when you're buying something that's heavy, it's solid. It's going to be real wood. It's going to last you for a lifetime. Or, you know, maybe you can refinish it, paint it and pass it down to your own children.
APPIAHAnother thing I'm looking for is some of the details. And some people are not sure what is good quality. And so if you open up a drawer and you see that it's got dovetails, you know, a lot of times you'll see where it kind of comes together like fingers interlocking, that's usually a good sign that something is a good piece of furniture, that it was made with quality. So, I will buy furniture in that way.
APPIAHSometimes, I will look at name brand, but you can get into a trap there, because if you're looking at something that's a name brand, for example, the woman that just called in, let's say you are standing there and you've got this amazing bag or, you know, chair in front of you. And you're like, wow, this is $325 online, and it's only 25. There is -- I think it's like a little trick that happens where you're like, I'm getting a great deal. I've got to buy this. And so you end up with this stack of things that you end up not using.
APPIAHSo, one of the things I look for is, I do look for good quality, but I also make sure that I am walking away with something that I really need or something that I really, really want, not just because it's a good deal. And the last thing I guess is sort of the point that I just made. It has to be something that I'm really, really in love with, something that I know that I'm going to be using within, like, the next week. It's not something -- it's not a someday project or a someday I'll wear this, because it can, you know -- so that's what I'm looking for. And sometimes I'm looking for new tags, too. That's great when you find, you know, the items where you're the first one to wear it. (laugh)
NNAMDIWell, Tom tweets: with a three and six-year-old I didn't want to pay a lot for a new couch for our family room. I got a decent small sectional for $10 on Next Door, perfect for a couch that's going to get trashed. But since he's talking about kids, a lot of families -- including yours, Serena -- will be sending kids back to school in the next few weeks. How much of your back-to-school shopping can you do in thrift stores?
APPIAHWell, I actually look for all of the children's button-down tops. So, they're the more informal things, like T-shirts. Those I generally don't buy at thrift stores because I find that those get worn much more quickly. But things like children's button-down shirts, whether they're long sleeves, short sleeves, I buy all of my children's button-down dressier, you know, shirts. Their pants, all their jeans, all of their shorts, those are all the things that I will buy for them at the thrift store. I will buy, of course, new socks, underwear, sneakers, those things, but all the other items, definitely from the thrift store. And having three boys means that I can pass those things down and use them for much longer than just one child.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Erin: we shop almost exclusively secondhand. Having three kids reveals the incredible amount of stuff and waste. They're hard on their clothes. Second-hand can reveal durability, saves money and is better for the environment. Cathy, do you see any back-to-school thrifting happening at your store these days?
TULLISOh, absolutely. So, I find that our kids racks are a little lighter right now because a lot of people have been in for back-to-school shopping. But also, people bring in notebooks and pens and pencils and packages that they've never opened, and bring them in and donate them or consign them. And those go off the shelf pretty quickly right now.
NNAMDIKaveri, so, that's kids. What about adults, especially if they need professional clothes? What's your advice to people who are looking to find some office looks secondhand?
MARATHESure. I mean, I think that we have such a great selection of thrift stores in the D.C. area. And if you're looking for something at the higher end, you can go -- we have several great stores like Secondi on Connecticut Avenue, tends to have some of the more high-end and designer looks. But, really, you can go to Goodwill. You can go to Fia's Fabulous Finds. We have so many great stores.
MARATHESo, my suggestion is to try to mix and match looks if you're trying to thrift. You don't necessarily have to be super matchy with a jacket and pants or skirt and shirt. So, try to look for things that maybe go together, but aren't necessarily matched up. Because when people donate professional clothes, a lot of times, maybe the jacket is one size and the pants are another size. So, you have to go and look for the sizes that fit you.
NNAMDIHow many new items of clothing have you bought since you decided to start shopping secondhand?
MARATHEYeah, so I have only bought -- I do buy new underwear, everyone will be pleased to know. (laugh) But, other than that, I've only bought probably under five things in the last, probably, three years.
NNAMDIHere is William in Potomac, Maryland. William, your turn.
WILLIAMHi. I was just calling because I work at a wonderful nonprofit in Silver Spring, Maryland called The Wider Circle. And we take in new and gently used furniture, and we're actually able to pick it up from people's houses, and we redistribute it to families of need for free. And that's actually one other wonderful way to just keep these kind of items out of landfills and to get them into other people's hands for a wonderful second life.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us, William. Here now is Ashley in Arlington, Virginia. Ashley, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ASHLEYHi. Thank you so much. In addition to thrifting, one thing, as a, like, older 20-year-old, and I'm looking for clothes for work, for just fun things, there are some really great swapping communities in the D.C. area. Swap D.C. is one that I follow on Instagram and Facebook. And they'll have events where people can just bring a handful of clothes or accessories or any items, and you're trading it with other people in the community. So, that's like another way of recycling our clothes, not necessarily having to buy new clothes.
ASHLEYAnd it's a great way to just, like, meet new people face to face and kind of have, like, a better idea of where clothes are going or where items are going and coming from. And that's something that I've been practicing for the past six months as I've learned about swapping.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Kaveri, you've said that you, quote, "quit shopping.” Shopping is a necessity, sure, but it's also a social thing." Was it hard to leave behind?
MARATHEIt was. I sort of had a little bit of withdrawal, initially, because I used to -- you know, if I had a lunch break or something, I'd pop into a store. When I went home to Florida and to visit my parents, me and my mom would go outlet shopping. That was one of the things we did. And so it was something I really had to re-shift. And it was kind of an emotional process of saying, okay, I have all this extra time. Maybe I'm going to do something more thoughtful or engage in a hobby or find a better use for that time.
NNAMDIHere's Katy emailing us to say: I am sitting in Germany with my visiting 92-year-old mom, listening to your show. She goes to the White Dove Thrift Shop every Monday in Scottsdale, Arizona for seniors day. She goes to be creative, to look at furniture that would give her a chance to rearrange something in her small condo and for the company. Talk a little bit about that, Cathy. How many people come for the company?
TULLISOh, we have very regular consigners. So, I'm the day manager on Saturday, and I could tell you stories of some of the consigners that come in regularly, every single Saturday. There's one lady, she's 80 years old, and she comes in dressed to the T. Everything from her shoes to her hat to her jewelry matches and is color-coordinated. Everything she has on, she's bought in a thrift store. And every volunteer knows her by name, and we recognize her as soon as she walks in because of the way she looks.
NNAMDIWhat is consignment, and how does your store handle it?
TULLISSure. So, to open a contract for consignment, it only costs $10 for the year. And you can bring in 12 items at a time. We'll agree on a price together on how much the items will sell for, and then the consigner gets 60 percent of what the item sells for, and the shop gets 40 percent.
NNAMDISerena, do you ever donate or consign things you've bought secondhand back to a thrift store? Tell us about that.
APPIAHOh, yes. Yes. I haven't done consignment, but there have been many a times when something catches my eye, and I buy it: a lot of furniture, a lot of shoes. And I have every intention of making this part of my wardrobe or making this part of my home, and I just never get around to it. And so we call those someday projects.
APPIAHAnd there have been times when something has sat in my garage for about two or three years, just taking up space, taking up clutter, and then I donate it back to the thrift store. And my husband, he's always on me. He's, like, I don't get it. Why did you just donate -- why did you even buy it to begin with? I'm like, well, I had good intentions. (laugh) But I look at it as, you know, my contribution still helped the community, and it's going to help the community again. Yes, it was a waste of money, when you look at it that way, but it still is going to help the community. And it helps me make a better decision next time on what to buy.
NNAMDIKaveri, you are a founding member of the D.C. Sustainable Fashion Collective, which is working to create a community of people interested in the ways that clothing impacts the environment. Why is this issue a galvanizing one here in this D.C. region right now?
MARATHEYeah, it's so interesting because you don't think of D.C. as being a center of fashion, like New York or L.A. But, really, we have so many people that are working in industries that touch the fashion industry, whether it is activists, whether it is people looking at water quality. You know, there are a number of different industries that we are trying to really connect across and bring them together to talk about how are they involved in this bigger movement. And what are the linkages that we can create to build a better, you know, fashion industry?
NNAMDIElliott in Fairfax, Virginia. Elliott, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELLIOTTYes. I do indie filmmaking and stunts and stuff on the side. I also love to make costumes for cosplay and other purposes. And my first stop with every project is always my local thrift shops, because, you know, my day job doesn't pay that great, to be honest. And this gives me the opportunity to pursue my passions and my hobbies without breaking my bank. That's my comment. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIMakes a lot of sense. I hadn't thought about people who make indie films and how they can depend on thrift shops. We only have about a minute left, but before we go, tell us your secrets. Where are your favorite places to thrift or swap in D.C.? First you, Serena.
APPIAHSo, I love going to Value Village and Unique Thrift. It's actually located in the Hillandale area shopping center of Silver Spring on the corner of New Hampshire and Powder Mill. It's like a huge warehouse, so plan for at least three or four hours.
NNAMDIHow about you, Kaveri?
MARATHEI definitely check out the Goodwill in Northeast, Reddz Trading and Ellaroo (sounds like) in Georgetown.
NNAMDIHow about you, Cathy?
TULLISWell, the answer for me is obvious. (laugh) It has to be Columbia Pike Thrift Shop in Arlington.
NNAMDICathy Tullis is a day manager at the Columbia Pike Thrift Shop in Arlington. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIKaveri Marathe is a cofounder of the D.C. Sustainable Fashion Collective. Kaveri, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Serena Appiah is a blogger and YouTuber who runs Thrift-diving. Serena, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIThis conversation about thrifting was produced by Margaret Barthel, and our look at the housing market in Northern Virginia was produced by Maura Currie. Coming up tomorrow, NBA star Steph Curry is partnering with Howard University to launch an NCAA Division golf program at Howard. You'll hear more about the collaboration and explore local efforts to increase access to the putting green. Plus, in the lead up to the new school year, D.C. Public Schools' Chancellor Lewis Ferebee will be in studio with me. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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