I never buy my kids new clothes—here’s how I pull it off

“I love that dress on you!” said my younger daughter, as her friend modelled a preloved frock at a kids’ clothing exchange we hosted in a park. “It brings out the blue in your eyes.”

I smiled, thoroughly enjoying the fact that she sounded like a mini-me—and that dozens of fashion items that otherwise would have been cast aside were going directly into the hands of kids who would love them.

Hosting kids’ clothing exchanges is one of the many ways I avoid buying my kids new clothes while having fun and teaching them about the social and environmental costs of the fashion industry.

Here’s a complete list of all the new items I’ve purchased for my kids, currently ages 8 and 11, in their lifetimes:

  • Mandatory band and sports uniforms
  • Socks and underwear (although I get them secondhand, too)
  • A few irresistible items from local, ethical designers
  • One winter coat when I couldn’t find a used one on time. (I splurged on a Patagonia because of their ethical practices.)

It’s actually pretty easy to avoid buying kids new clothes if you know the tricks of the trade. And doing so will reduce your fashion footprint, save you money and teach your little one some lifelong lessons.

The case for cancelling new clothes

Fashion can be fun, but it can also hurt people, animals and the planet. And when kids find out how, they may no longer want the latest looks from the mall anyway.

Most of our clothes are made in developing countries where people often work long hours for low pay in terrible conditions. Many of them don’t even earn enough to pay for basic human needs like food, shelter and, ironically, clothing. The majority of these workers are young women, and some of them have to bring their kids to work because they can’t afford childcare. Even worse, some kids are forced to work. They are often given jobs that take advantage of their small hands, like sewing on sequins. Would your kid want that flippy sequin shirt if they knew it was made by a kid their age?

Your kid also likely wouldn’t want a fashion item made with products from an animal that suffered. One day, my kids walked in while I was watching a video by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that showed fluffy white rabbits screaming in pain while they had their fur ripped out for angora wool. My youngest had a nightmare about a failed attempt to rescue the rabbits. Unfortunately, most fur and leather come from developing countries that don’t have or follow animal welfare laws.

The fashion industry also plays a significant role in climate change and environmental degradation. It contributes up to 10 percent of global carbon emissions, pollutes waterways and chops down trees from ancient and endangered forests to make fabric. The facts may shock your family. For instance, it can take 1,500 litres of water to make one pair of jeans. That’s enough drinking water for one person for 1,000 days!

Always buying your kid new clothes can also cost you financially and emotionally. In the United States in 2020, parents spent an average of US$1,068 per kid on 52 pieces of clothing and six pairs of shoes, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association. The numbers are likely similar in Canada.

If your child has ever lost, damaged or quickly outgrown an expensive new piece of clothing or pair of shoes, you know how frustrating it can be. Forgoing new items can save you cash and stress, which we can all benefit from these days as we face runaway inflation and distressing world events.

When that one new winter coat I bought didn’t come home from school one day, I panicked and made the kids join me on an epic evening hunt for it, complete with headlamps and tears. (We eventually found it on the roof of the school. How it got there remains a mystery.) If the coat had cost $20 rather than $220, I would have been a lot more chill.

Top tips to help you curate your kid’s ethical closet

1. Source secondhand

The most obvious way to avoid buying new clothes is to get them secondhand, and there are many ways to do this.

In addition to shopping at your local thrift or consignment stores, you can also buy preloved kids’ clothes through online consignment shops like Poshmark and threadUP or through buy-and-sell sites like Facebook Marketplace.

You may even be able to find a local Facebook group where people trade or give away kids’ clothes. I’m a member of several such groups and trade all the time. In fact, someone recently picked up a pair of Native shoes my youngest outgrew and left me some pasta and sauce. Dinner = done!

Speaking of swapping, planning or participating in clothing exchanges is a great way to get new gear. Many community groups host swaps or you can plan one yourself in your home, backyard or neighbourhood park. Invite all your kid’s friends and meet your playdate obligations in one fell swoop.

Finally, you can secure a steady stream of secondhand duds by finding some hand-me-down buds. My kids regularly get clothes from the same school friends and then pass them down to the same neighbourhood kids when they’re done with them.

2. Borrow or rent

Going to a big family celebration now that they’re allowed again? Or planning a family photo shoot? Rather than spending money on a fancy outfit your kid may only wear once, you could try borrowing from a friend or renting from an online or bricks-and-mortar rental boutique.

While the pandemic put a damper on the flourishing online clothing rental industry, you can expect it to pick up again as people start catching up on postponed celebrations. Canadian company the Fitzroy offers a few children’s items and there are several U.S. companies renting kids’ clothes exclusively, foreshadowing what’s like to migrate north.

Another Canadian company, Tradle, offers a sustainable baby clothing subscription. Simply sign up, get bundles of organic baby clothes from Canadian brands delivered to your door, dress your baby in them, take tons of cute photos and return the clothes when your little one outgrows them.

3. Repurpose and repair

After my eldest had a growth spurt, she turned her jeans into shorts by cutting them off at the knees. She then used the scrap jean for craft projects like making doll clothes. She also sews her leggings when they get holes in the knees (a common occurrence), and is starting to make her own clothes with the sewing machine we splurged on for her birthday. It can be tempting to throw out damaged clothes, but it’s usually quick and easy to repair them. And if the job is too complex, you can take the item to a tailor.

And you should never throw out clothes. You can now recycle them at a growing number of businesses, including fast-fashion retailers, thrift shops and bottle recycling depots. Some municipalities, like Markham, Ont., also offer textile recycling.

4. Reduce

One rainy day, my kids and I counted how many items of clothing we each had (not including socks and underwear). We each had more than 100 items. This inspired us to try the Project 333 minimalist clothing challenge, which involves dressing in 33 items or fewer for three months and putting everything else in boxes. At the end of the challenge, we realized we only needed 33 items. We had our favourite items and it was a lot easier to decide what to wear in the morning. We gave away or sold most of the items in our boxes. By embracing minimalism, you’ll have less of a desire to buy new fashion items.

And when you do shop, hopefully secondhand, you can look for high-quality items that will last a long time. The 30 Wears Challenge encourages people to only buy clothes that they’ll wear 30 times. This means you have to like them enough to wear them 30 times and they have to withstand several washes without falling apart.

Sure, sometimes my kids complain about never going to the mall to shop for new clothes. But they also love the thrill of the find, and we find many brand-new items in thrift stores. Plus, they have their own money from their paper route and can spend it how they please. My eldest bought herself a school hoodie this year, but they’ve otherwise never bought any new fashion items. I tell them they’re ahead of the curve: research shows that the secondhand clothing market will grow significantly in the coming years, driven by eco-conscious young people. Honing their thrifting skills now will serve them—and other people, animals and the planet—well into the future.

Raina Delisle is the author of Fashion Forward: Striving for Sustainable Style, a new nonfiction book for kids age nine to 11.

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