How would you like to cut this year’s back-to-school budget in half?

Backpacks, pens and pencils, notebooks — it all adds up. But in terms of both cost and environmental impact, the biggest line item is clothing. So that’s the most productive place to make getting your kids back to class a leaner and greener experience.

Want to save? Buy used

Yes: used. With new clothes, no matter how organic the fabric or local the production (and most school clothing is neither), nothing beats the eco-efficiency of secondhand. Every time you repurpose a piece of clothing, you’re saving hundreds of gallons of water; all the pesticide that would have been used to produce its natural fibers or the petroleum from which synthetics are made; and the energy and resources to bring the finished garment to market.

Used clothing is actually a huge industry in most of the developed world. But almost all secondhand clothes end up overseas. In many peoples’ minds, there’s a stigma to used cloth. Maybe that’s because at one time, the places you’d be most likely to find used clothing were run by charitable organizations.

Perhaps our resistance to used clothing goes deeper — to the consumerist notion that if we’re not buying the newest and most expensive things for our children, we’re failing as parents.

In either case, there are plenty of great ways to find deals on great-looking, perfectly serviceable secondhand clothing. Let’s go shopping!

10 sources for used kids’ clothing

Family and friends: The old standby. Who do you know who with kids a little older than yours? A quick note on a church or office bulletin board can get the ball rolling on a group exchange. Don’t be shy about making a few calls: People are usually happy to empty their closets of unneeded items.

Consignment stores: Commissioned resellers always seem to have the freshest fashion and most immaculate goods. You’ll pay a bit more for the convenience, but consignment stores — with their marked and sorted goods — can be real time savers. Most offer some sort of return policy, too.

Church and multifamily rummage sales: The advantage of these larger events is convenience. More stuff in one place means you’ll be doing less driving around. Some of the church sales can be large scale, semi-annual events. It pays to connect with groups staging these. Volunteers sometimes get first pick or a discount, so what you get out of the deal can be in direct proportion to what you put in. Once you’ve located a quality event, ask if they have a mailing list so you can be informed of future sales.

Craigslist: The 24/7 online rummage sale. You’re probably in luck if your area has a local Craigslist, and it’s easy to find what you’re looking for. Preparing this article, we did random searches for “clothing” in two or three smaller cities. Our first hit was a 105-piece boy’s assortment in what appeared to be excellent shape for $100. There was easily a thousand dollars worth of clothing in the set. Read through Craigslist’s online guide to buyer safety and use common sense before arranging any in-person transactions.

eBay: Online auctions are great places to pick up specific items you might need to fill in your child’s wardrobe. You’ll be hard pressed to think of something not covered by eBay’s listings. Merchandise is generally of high quality — much of it is new — and you’re protected, to an extent, by eBay’s built-in reputation and dispute resolution systems.

Flea markets: You never really know from week to week what will be on the tables at your local flea market, and that’s part of the fun. You’re as likely to find new clothing as used, along with things like book bags, bikes and serviceable lunch boxes. Prices are usually higher than rummage sales and secondhand stores, but you can cover a lot of ground in an hour. Tell the sellers what you’re looking for — chances are, they have a hook-up.

Freecycle: A genuine online community, Freecycle can deliver the best deals in town because everything is free. The downside is that most people on the list are making space at home, and you may have to agree to take more than you really need. Fair enough. Visit the main site to locate a Freecycle group near you. As with Craigslist, use caution when arranging pickups with strangers. Freecycle etiquette dictates that if you agree to pick up an item, you should do so promptly. And be sure to give back when it’s your turn to lighten your load.

Salvage stores: Like flea markets, you never know from week to week what you’ll find at a salvage store. These outlets purchase salable merchandise from insurance companies at pennies on the dollar. You’ll have to be on the lookout for damaged goods (most salvage stock comes from businesses destroyed by flood or fire), but a good cleaning is a small price to pay for otherwise new, name-brand merchandise. Increasingly, salvage stores or coming into possession of bankruptcy liquidations — so there are lots of unexpected deals to be found.

Saturday morning rummage sales: For a lot of people, weekend rummaging is a hobby and a way of life. It’s possible you’ll find the very best deals on someone’s driveway on a Saturday morning — but you’ll need to make a plan if you expect to compete with the the rummage sale veterans. Start here and pick up some tips from the pros.

Secondhand and thrift stores: You already know the names: places like Goodwill and the Salvation Army. You probably have at least one locally run, independent secondhand store in your community, as well. Nonprofits and charities have used thrift stores to finance their operations for decades, so buying from one is a way of supporting their work. You can find good deals in these large-scale secondhand stores — but come prepared to dig through a lot of junk, too.

Copyright Lighter Footstep 2009

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