I never buy my kids new clothes – here’s how I get by

“I love that dress on you!” my youngest daughter said, as her friend modeled a favorite dress at a children’s clothing swap we held at a park. “It brings out the blue in your eyes.”

I smiled, appreciating that she looked like a mini-me and that dozens of fashion items that otherwise would have been shelved were going straight into the hands of kids who would love them.

Organizing children’s clothing swaps is one of the many ways I avoid buying new clothes for my children while having fun and teaching them 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, over their lifetime:

  • Compulsory strip and sports uniforms
  • Socks and underwear (although I also have them used)
  • Some irresistible pieces from local and ethical designers
  • A winter coat when I couldn’t find a second-hand one in time. (I splurged on a Patagonia because of their ethical practices.)

It’s actually quite easy to avoid buying new clothes for the kids if you know the ropes. And it will reduce your fashion imprintsave money and teach your little one lessons for life.

The case of the cancellation of new clothes

Fashion can be fun, but it can also harm people, animals and the planet. And when the kids find out how, they might not 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 meet 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 children to work because they cannot afford child care. Worse still, some children are forced to work. They are often given jobs that take advantage of their small hands, such as sewing sequins. Would your child want this sequin shirt if they knew it was made by a child their age?

Your child also probably 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 People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) video that showed fluffy white rabbits screaming in pain as they had their fur ripped off for angora wool. My youngest had a nightmare about a failed attempt to save the rabbits. Unfortunately, most furs and leather come from developing countries that don’t have or don’t follow animal welfare laws.

The fashion industry also plays an important role in climate change and environmental degradation. It contributes up to 10% of global carbon emissions, pollutes waterways and cuts down trees in old growth and endangered forests make fabric. The facts may shock your family. For example, it may take 1,500 liters of water to make jeans. That’s enough drinking water for one person for 1,000 days!

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

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

When that new winter coat I bought didn’t come home from school one day, I freaked out and asked the kids to join me for an epic evening of looking 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 instead of $220, I would have been much colder.

Top tips to help you organize your child’s ethical closet

1. Second hand source

The most obvious way to avoid buying new clothes is to buy them used, and there are plenty of ways to do this.

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

You might even be able to find a local Facebook group where people swap or donate children’s clothes. I am a member of many of these groups and trade all the time. In fact, someone recently bought a pair of native shoes that my youngest had outgrown and left me with pasta and sauce. Dinner = finished!

Talking about swapping, planning, or participating in clothing swaps is a great way to get new gear. Many community groups organize exchanges or you can plan one yourself in your home, garden or neighborhood park. Invite all of your child’s friends and fulfill your dating obligations in one fell swoop.

Finally, you can secure a steady stream of missed opportunities by finding heritage buds. My kids regularly get clothes from the same school friends and then pass them on to the same kids in the neighborhood when they’re done with them.

2. Borrow or rent

Going to a big family party now that they’re allowed again? Or plan a family photo session? Rather than spending money on a fancy outfit that your child can only wear once, you can try borrowing from a friend or renting from an online or physical rental store.

While the pandemic has put a damper on the thriving online clothing rental industry, you can expect it to pick up again as people start to catch up on postponed celebrations. Canadian company the fitzroy offers a few children’s items and several American companies exclusively rent children’s clothing, foreshadowing what it’s like to migrate north.

Another Canadian company, Trade, offers a sustainable subscription of baby clothes. Simply sign up, have bundles of organic baby clothes from Canadian brands delivered to your door, dress them for your baby, take tons of cute photos, and flip the clothes when your little one outgrows.

3. Reuse 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 jeans for craft projects like making doll clothes. She also sews her leggings when they have holes in the knees (a common occurrence) and starts making her own clothes with the sewing machine we splurged on for her birthday. It can be tempting to throw away damaged clothes, but it’s usually quick and easy to fix them. And if the work is too intricate, you can take the item to a tailor.

And you should never throw away the clothes. You can now recycle them at a growing number of businesses, including fast fashion retailers, thrift stores and bottle recycling depots. Some municipalities, such as Markham, Ont., also offer textile recycling.

4. Reduce

One rainy day, my children and I counted how many clothes we each had (not counting socks and underwear). We each had over 100 articles. It made us want to try Project 333 minimalist clothing challenge, which involves dressing in 33 items or less for three months and putting everything else in boxes. At the end of the challenge, we realized that we only needed 33 items. We had our favorite items and it was much easier to decide what to wear in the morning. We have given away or sold most of the items in our boxes. By adopting minimalism, you will have less desire to buy new fashion items.

And when shopping, hopefully used, 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 will wear 30 times. That means you have to love them enough to wear them 30 times, and they have to withstand multiple washes without falling apart.

Sure, sometimes my kids complain that they never go to the mall to buy new clothes. But they also love the thrill of the find, and we find plenty of new items in thrift stores. Plus, they have their own money from their paper itinerary and can spend it however they see fit. My eldest bought herself a hoodie for school this year, but otherwise never bought new fashion items. I tell them they’re ahead of the curve: Studies show that the second-hand clothing market will experience strong growth in the years to come, driven by eco-conscious young people. Honing their savings skills now will benefit them, other people, animals and the planet in the future.

Raina Delisle is the author of Fashion Forward: in search of an enduring stylea new non-fiction book for children aged 9 to 11.

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Elizabeth J. Harless