While virtual shopping might seem relatively new, the first form of e-commerce technology was invented the same year as Woodstock. Ten years later, in 1979, an English inventor named Michael Aldrich introduced electronic shopping via telephone line connecting a modified television set and a transaction-processing computer. From there, companies like the Boston Computer Exchange, Amazon, eBay, PayPal, and Etsy continued to introduce new ways for goods to be sold over the internet.

Fast forward to present-day; we as consumers are presented with more platforms, products, and possibilities of online shopping than ever before - and we’re using it. E-commerce in the U.S. has grown by 14.8% since this time last year and almost 50% between March and April of this year alone. With a worldwide pandemic threatening the stability of brick-and-mortar stores, the e-commerce trend shows no sign of slowing. But with the greater convenience of 24/7 shopping from home comes greater responsibility.

Etsy shopping website

Online shopping can create a wider divide between production and purchase, increasing the risk of unethical sourcing and a larger carbon footprint for the sake of faster shipping and cheaper prices, or “fast fashion.” Fast fashion retailers have grown by 9.7% between 2000 and 2015, leaving a massive humanitarian and ecological crisis in their wake. Unfair wages and systemic, gender-based abuse is a widespread occurrence in fast fashion factories. According to Global Labor Justice, 40 million garment workers in Asia (the majority of whom are women) have been left with housing and food insecurities since being laid off at the beginning of the pandemic. Synthetic materials and production waste have also significantly compromised our ocean and food supply and packed our landfills.

Given the widespread reach of fast fashion, how can consumers shop ethically from the safety of their own homes? Avoid the supersized retailers, and buy secondhand. The exponential growth of e-commerce since it was first introduced in the late ‘60s has also made way for C2C, or consumer to consumer, shopping. C2C e-commerce involves buying thrifted apparel and accessories from online vendors, often individuals or small businesses that source their inventory from estate sales, auctions, and/or local thrift shops.

Online thrifting eliminates massive corporations from the supplier-to-consumer equation. It leaves room for small businesses to thrive, employees, to be compensated fairly, and the carbon footprint of the entire transaction to shrink. But just like thrifting in brick-and-mortar stores, special attention needs to be paid to measurements, changes in sizing from brand-to-brand, fabric qualities, and payment methods. We’ve compiled a comprehensive guide to online secondhand shopping so you can fill your closet with one-of-a-kind -- and most importantly, ethically sourced -- pieces.

Know Your Measurements

Detailed image of where to do body measurements
Melanie Davis

Without the ability to try on a piece you’re eyeing, knowing your measurements is essential when thrifting online. A good place to start is your bust, underbust, waist, and hip measurements - depending on the pieces you plan to buy, you might need a couple more (e.g., arm length, torso length, etc.)

Use a tape measure to find the measurements indicated on the diagram. If you plan to shop in the U.S., inches will be fine. If you’re shopping internationally, make sure to convert your measurements to the metric system.

  • Find your hip measurement by wrapping your tape measure across the widest part of your hips and buttocks.
  • Find your natural waist by bending side to side. Where your torso bends is where your tape measure should wrap around.
  • Find your bust by wrapping your tape measure across the fullest part of your chest. Your underbust is measured around your ribcage under your breasts.

If you don’t have a tape measure available, you can still find your measurements using yarn or rope and any number of common household items with standardized measurements: computer paper, a dollar bill, or a sheet pan.

Pay Attention To Fabrics

Stack of textured fabrics
Photo by Madison Inouye from Pexels

Not all online vendors will identify a piece’s fabric in their listing, but it’s important to know. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can’t find it in their initial posting. The sizing and appearance of an item can change dramatically based on the stretch, opacity, and weight of the fabric.

  • Pieces that offer little-to-no stretch typically need to be sized up to ensure a comfortable fit. Alternatively, synthetic fabrics with more give can be sized down with less risk of an ill fit.
  • Unless you’re specifically planning ahead a season, double-check your fabric’s weight to make sure it will be warm or cool enough for you to wear as soon as you’d like.

We recommend this online fibers guide by Threads magazine for any and all fabric questions, including the textile’s contents, ease of sewing (especially important if you plan on alterations of any kind), and typical uses of that fabric.

Get To Know Common Garment Terminology

Thread, scissors and measuring tape

Familiarizing yourself with necklines, waistlines, hem lengths, and other common terminology can help you get the most accurate depiction of a piece before you see it in-person. It also helps narrow search results if you’re looking for a specific style, collar, or cut.

Here is a complete guide of women’s fashion terms and styles, complete with illustrations, from the Oregon State University Extension Service.

When browsing for pants, pay close attention to the rise: the distance from the middle of the crotch seam (directly between your legs) and the top of the waistband. If you’re like me and enjoy high-waisted pants and nothing but, it’s particularly important to double-check rise before buying.

  • Regular, normal, or mid-rise: typically 8-9” long; regular rise pants are meant to be worn at your natural waist.
  • High rise: typically 10” or longer; high rise (or high-waisted) pants are meant to be worn approx. 3” above the navel.
  • Low rise, hip-huggers, or low-riders: anywhere from 4-8” long; low-rise pants are meant to be worn approx. 3” below the navel.

Know Where To Look!

Woman on computer

It may seem obvious, but distinguishing between major fashion retailers and secondhand shops is a critical aspect of ethical shopping. Popular resale platforms include:

  • Instagram
  • Etsy
  • Depop
  • eBay
  • Poshmark
  • ThredUP
  • Refashioner
  • Facebook Marketplace

Set Yourself Up For Success

Woman's hands on keyboard with credit card
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

The downside to thrifting is the lack of duplicates or size variations. It isn’t uncommon to find an absolutely perfect, made-for-you piece that just isn’t quite your size or has already been sold. On the flip side, that’s also what makes finding a perfectly sized, readily available piece such a thrill.

  • Turn on post notifications, join e-mailing lists, and regularly check your favorite shops to increase your chances of snagging a piece as soon as it’s up for sale.
  • Have virtual payment accounts set up before you start shopping for a quicker checkout experience. PayPal and Venmo are two popular money transfer sites used by online vendors, but you can also use CashApp, Facebook Messenger, or Square’s Cash app. Paying with cash isn’t an option when online thrifting, and having at least one method of virtual payment makes it easier for both parties.

Don’t forget the human aspect while online thrifting!

Shaking hands with business owner
Photo by fauxels from Pexels

Shopping small is a different, person-to-person transactional experience.

Supporting small businesses can sometimes mean slightly changing your expectations regarding shipping cost, price, and packaging. While this might mean slightly longer shipping times or higher prices to account for a livable wage, it also means your packages are sent with love and the extra touch that a mass-produced, expedited garment factory just can’t replicate.

  • Be prepared to pay promptly. Given the first-come, first-serve nature of thrifting and the cost of shipping, vendors need payment sent within a reasonable time frame (24-48 hours, usually) before they can guarantee a piece is yours. Claiming a piece and then leaving your vendor hanging indefinitely puts you at risk of losing the item to a second-in-line shopper who’s ready to pay right away.
  • Be prepared to wait longer than two days (Amazon Prime really has ruined our concept of reasonable shipping times) for your packages to arrive. Your vendor might be caring for their kids or loved ones, working two to three extra jobs to make ends meet, or otherwise struggling to maintain a one-person operation. Extend a little bit of grace, plan to wait 1-2 weeks for your shipment, and you’ll be rewarded with amazing new additions to your wardrobe (and an extra bit of good karma).
  • Be prepared for reasonably priced items - which sometimes looks more expensive. Fast fashion can stay so cheap because the workers assembling the garments are criminally underpaid. Online vendors set their prices according to a livable wage and/or an item’s collectability. If you’re balling on a budget, try asking the shop-owner if they offer bundle discounts. Or try shopping around! There are hundreds of thousands of stores to choose from that will fit your style and budget.

Online shopping is a convenient alternative to finding new clothes, accessories, and other goodies in the face of a worldwide pandemic. Online thrifting is a moral, ethical alternative to the waves of fast fashion permeating the virtual market. A win, win!

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