How I've Become A More Conscious Op Shopper

by: Maggie Zhou | 1 month ago | Features

Image: Maggie Zhou in some of her favourite op shop pieces.

Op shops are basically a second heaven for those of us who aim to shop sustainably and on a budget. A peek inside my overflowing wardrobe, and you’ll find a mismatched selection of thrifted goods. Faded denim jackets, beloved Millers shirts and men’s T-shirts are all part of my secondhand repertoire. But when I found myself deep in the holds of op shop hauls, I realised that my relationship with op shopping wasn’t so sustainable after all. 

I had to have a serious conversation with myself to reflect on my op shopping habits and came to the conclusion that I need to change the way I shop. Becoming more conscious of other people’s circumstances and how shopping interacts with intersectionality has opened me up to worldviews that I hadn’t previously considered.

As someone who usually fits into Australian sample sizes, I have been able to waltz around my entire life without having to constantly worry about whether shops will stock my size or if brands have catered to my body type. 

This is size privilege – also known as thin privilege. And it’s a systemic problem that isn’t just about standards of beauty and body image. By being thin, you statistically have greater access to resources and face less discrimination. On the other hand, those who fall outside of this label feel the flow-on effects in multiple aspects of their lives – from healthcare, to education and employment. 

Op shops can further fuel this disparity, with plus-size stock already very limited in numbers. I am fortunate enough to be able to shop in every single op shop section – everything from the women’s racks to the men’s and children’s sections. If something is oversized, well, then that’s fashionable. Or I have the luxury of getting items altered to fit my body. But how about those who rely on plus-size offerings? While ‘thrift flips’ are becoming more popularised, it is worth considering who is being left out here. Which is why I have tried to become more aware of my privilege here and shop within my size range when I can. 

I used to come home with my arms bearing the weight of mountains of secondhand clothes. In my flurried excitement at the store, I would nab a few too many items. Once home, I would disappointingly realise that I bought something very similar to something I already own, or that an item had an unforgiving stain across its front. 

It takes a lot of self-control, but I now go through a much stricter approval process. Checking the fabrication of pieces has become an important criterion in my op shop adventures. I am most drawn to natural fibres such as cotton, wool and linen and have on occasion, even stumbled upon alpaca wool and cashmere. I will try to veer away from garments with high percentages of polyester and other synthetic fibres, or fast fashion pieces whose life spans are shorter than well-made vintage finds. 

As the victim of a good deal, I will sometimes snap up something that is way out of my colour comfort zone, pick up something in a style and cut that I’d usually never wear, or buy something that is just begging for alterations and repairs. While it’s tempting to buy everything within your eyeline when it’s a bargain, though, it is still incredibly important to invest in and buy quality garments. Otherwise, your poor purchases may live at the back of your wardrobe until you inevitably give them away to yet another op shop.

Donating your old clothes to op shops isn’t a dust-your-hands-free kind of situation, either. In fact, it often only further encourages consumerism. Last year, charity shops had to stop receiving donations because of the volume of fast fashion pieces received. When only 15% of donated clothes are sold in Australia, it calls into question just how sustainable op shops really are. The remaining 85% of garments are either sent straight to landfill or are offshored to third world countries – overwhelming their markets and stifling the growth of their own local industries and economies.  

From a donator’s point of view, it may lull someone into a false sense of do-gooder’s contentment to think that this is a sustainable way of disposing of clothes. Which may mean that they will go off and continue to purchase hoards more fast fashion, only for it to end up discarded at op shops.

Ultimately, being a conscious consumer should apply to secondhand clothing as well. Just because something is cheap doesn’t mean you have to get it. Believe me when I tell you that I am the biggest culprit of this. Buying less and choosing well may require a lot of self-discipline and self-restraint, but you will ultimately be rewarded with a wardrobe full of much-loved pieces built to last for a lifetime.

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