Let's Talk About Sustainability: What I Learned About Over-Buying Sustainable Clothing for Kids
Written for Taylor + Max by Stacy G.
As an eco-conscious mom, my family and I strive to live sustainably. Different households have different definitions of what that means. For us, this means we: recycle, bring cloth bags to Target, and opt for paper over plastic. Our kitchen scraps get composted. We frequent the library. We buy sustainable, organic cotton kids clothing brands, often secondhand. And I hit up local thrift stores and follow a dozen Buy Sell Trade (BST) groups on Facebook.
Thus at some point, being green and sustainable shifted from being a way of life to becoming a favorite pastime. I joined the ranks of thousands, if not millions, of moms buying and selling used, high-end kids clothing brands online.
In BST groups on Facebook, I have seen hundreds of purge style sales. Moms will regularly clear out their children's closet, selling 100 to 400 outgrown, under-worn, or never-worn garments within one sales post. "Washed never worn" or "sorry for the price, but we only wore once" are common apology-descriptions.
It's become a completely normal, unexceptional thing to me that every child in America should have a wardrobe of 300+ items. Perhaps even 400 to 500 if you include the garments in the next size up. Because it's so easy to overbuy. Everywhere. And at such good deals. And you're buying them secondhand, on re-sale boards and used clothing apps. So it's good for the environment...right?
When Buying Organic Clothing for Toddlers is Not Environmentally Friendly
Buying second-hand clothing, in and of itself, is so thrifty and earth-friendly. You're saving money and the landfills. Each purchase of a used, crinoline dress feels like a virtuous act. You’ll give it a good rescue home, before passing it along.
And that could be a great option to buy an odd piece here and there. But there’s a broader trend that’s emerged, with many parents buying hundreds (if not thousands) of used kids garments. Multiple outfit options for birthdays or family photos. And plenty of cute and stylish clothes for everyday wear too. It can all get re-sold later, for the same price (hopefully) so it “feels” free.
Many parents openly lament that their kids have so much clothing they would need to change outfits 3x daily, quite literally, in order to wear everything they own.
At least that was my experience. I found myself enmeshed, rather unsustainably, in the Buy Sell Trade world.
My Journey Down the Garden Path of Buying Used Kids Clothes
It started so innocently. This Quincy Mae dress in "very good used condition" is listed for $22, but it's adorable. And after my daughter wears it, I can re-sell it for the same price. In a Quincy Mae Buy Sell Trade group, or on Mercari or Kidizen.
But then I started combing the BST listings daily, finding more and more "deals". A Tocoto Vintage romper for only $38. A Rylee + Cru dress for only $30. Nearly every day, I would find a new deal I could re-sell later for the same price - or even flip. Pretty soon, my rationalization changed.
It wasn't a matter of what I could sell after my child wore (and outgrew) the garment. My rationalization had shifted to: I can re-sell the garment if my child doesn't wear it.
I even found myself buying many higher end garments brand new. Because, I reasoned, I'll buy them on sale or clearance. And re-sell them for the same price. And with quite a few brands, like Old Navy or Little and Co, I was even earning cash back rebates from my purchase, another level of shopping nirvana.
An Unsustainable Loop of Buying Used Clothes
It wasn't until a few months after our second (and youngest) child was born, I realized I was caught in an unsustainable loop. I was buying "good deal" clothes that I knew my kids might never "get to". And then having to re-sell them on Buy Sell Trade groups to recoup my money (and reclaim their closets).
And because I had to re-sell their clothes, I didn't want to actually let my kids wear them. A small BBQ stain was an irritation. A hole was a full-on tragedy. I would do the mental arithmetic, calculating how much to subtract from the shortie's re-sale value for a pinhead sized hole.
Hearing an NPR podcast one day, I felt the weight (of a 50-pound basket of laundry) lift. They talked about the over-consumption of eco-friendly brands and how over-buying is bad for the environment - even used eco-friendly brands. I spent the next week reading stories from moms who had capsulized their children's wardrobes. Downsizing their kids' closets from 100+ pieces to only 20 to 30 core pieces that could be interchanged.
A Shift in How I Think About Sustainable Kids Clothes
I shifted to the opposite end of the pendulum and dramatically downsized my kids' closets. No more than 14 tops or 14 bottoms. All garments have to "go" or coordinate with other pieces. No items then can only be worn once. Everything is multi-purpose.
Slowly, their drawers have crept fuller. But my down-sized mindset has held firm. I can still easily open and close their drawers. When a new item rotates in, it has a purpose. I know what it’s replacing or updating.
Of course, I know many many moms who genuinely take a lot of joy in buying (and selling) adorable kids' clothing. That’s great. If you have the time and money and closet space to devote to it, do what brings you joy.
For me, and I suspect I'm not alone, buying hundreds of pieces of kids clothing was not sustainable. It created loads of laundry. It took over my closets. And it meant I had to re-sell everything, to de-hoard and claw back my money.
And worst of all, I realized that having too many kids' clothes was robbing me of the joy of childhood memories. As a little girl, I had favorite garments I loved and clamored for. A raincoat I wanted to wear on fine, sunny days. Favorite fleecy tops I wanted to pluck from the washer and wear dirty.
I realized my daughter didn't have a favorite sweater or dress she wanted to wear everywhere. She was only wearing most things two or three times - not enough time to create any real attachment.
When I’m 99 years old, I want to stroke the sweater my little boy wanted to wear everywhere. That same sweater in the framed picture on my nightstand.
A New Way to Look at Sustainable Fashion
I have changed my perspective quite a bit about what sustainable clothing means. I don't think that buying secondhand is necessarily good for the environment if you're overbuying. And while it's an unpopular opinion, I think there's a case to be made that even SHEIN kids clothes can be sustainable.
I think that materials matter. I prefer GOTS organic cotton to pesticide treated cotton. And I value fair labor conditions. Garment production is an important part of the sustainability equation.
But I think there's also some responsibility on my end, as a consumer, to make our clothing, have a sustainable life.
- 15 wears. I won’t buy a garment unless it’s something that they can get at least 15 wears out of. If they can't or won't wear the garment at least 15 times, it’s not versatile enough. And if the garment can't withstand 15 wears and washings, then it's too poorly made. At 15 wears, we've amortized the cost of the garment's toll on the environment (production and transportation).
- Machine-wash safe.
- Does not wrinkle. I don’t iron.
- Interchangeable. The garment can be worn with any or all other garments in their clothing rotation. Everything goes.
- Multi-seasonal. With the exception of mittens and shorts, I don't buy season-specific clothing. A spaghetti strapped "sundress" can be worn into autumn and winter and styled differently.
- Lifestyle appropriate. My kids split their waking hours between daycare and our backyard. I would love for us to have occasion to wear resort wear or Sunday best garments, but we don't. An outing is a trip to the playground.
When it comes to these requirements, plenty of kids brands meet the mark. This includes organic, sustainable kids clothing brands and even more inexpensive (gulp) fast fashion brands that might use conventional cotton.
All Kinds of Sustainable, Ethical Brands
For me, this has broadened how I look at sustainable clothing brands. With organic baby clothes, it means looking for sustainable materials or recycled materials, GOTS certified organic cotton, and fair trade certified factories. But ethical baby clothes are about ethically wearing and caring for the garments, too.
Often, the manufacturing process is obscure. There are supply chain assumptions that get made. This is an expensive British brand, so it must be made without toxic dyes. Or, this is a fast fashion brand, thus the workers aren't earning a living wage and they use harmful chemicals. This isn't always the case. And even when a clothing company cares a great deal about making organic, ethical children's clothing, there can still be an unethical subcontractor somewhere in their vast supply chain.
When it comes to getting sustainable children's clothing, I focus on what I can control. Sustainable fabrics, for me, have more to do with fabrics that can be worn and re-worn at least fifteen times and survive the washing machine. It means gender neutral pieces that can be passed down. If the clothing is made out of recycled plastic bottles, or organic fabrics, that's an added cherry on top.
Our income level is such that we can't afford to buy only organic cotton T-shirts; that price point is not sustainable for us. But buying certified organic cotton clothes some of the time, and supplementing with cheaper brands is. Eco-friendly kids clothing is not an all or nothing approach. There's a place for all sorts of brands for kids, and the entire family, in our home.
How High End Kids Fashion Fits into the Sustainability Picture
Organic kids clothing brands are often higher end kids fashion brands. But organic, and designer or high-end, are not interchangeable.
Plenty of parents shy away from buying high-end garments like Misha & Puff sweaters or Soor Ploom cardigans because of the price. $189 for a 100% merino wool popcorn knit sweater just feels like a fortune. (And it kills me that it costs more than anything in my grownup wardrobe.)
Yet I've come to think about that $189 price tag in a more meta sense. One-hundred and eight-nine dollars is more than I'm used to thinking about paying for a sweater. .
If my child can wear an exquisite, ethically sourced sweater for 1.5 years and get in 80 wears, that's $2.36 per wear. A child can wear that as an added layer instead of a jacket or blazer. Instead of having 3 different light jackets and several cardigans and pullovers, one exquisite, powerhorse piece can do it all.
And when you're done wearing that $189 wool popcorn sweater, you can re-sell it for at least $100. And with only 1 item to list, not hundreds of garments to purge.
Valuing quality and versatility, over quantity, can be a hard sustainability process to adopt. We're a consumer culture.
But buying fewer pieces that can see a lot of wear is how I now approach buying sustainable, eco-friendly kids clothing. Kids and baby clothing that can handle a lot of heavy wear, and survive my husband's heavy-handed laundering. Fair trade organic fabrics tend to hit the mark, but we buy cheaper brands too. We make thoughtful, deliberate, and balanced choices.
In my daughter's line-up right now, for example, she has leggings, dresses, and long-sleeve tees from Carter's, Primary, and H&M. And also a heavier dress, hoodie, joggers, sweater, and cardigan from Fin & Vince, Jamie Kay, and Tocoto Vintage.
The best sustainable kids clothing you can buy is clothing that you and your kids will enjoy wearing again and again. You can't save money, by buying used name-brands or super cheap fast fashion, if your kids don't actually get to really wear them. Sustainable clothing is ethically made and ethically and sustainably worn. But of course, that's just one mom's opinion about what sustainable fashion means to her.
About the Author:
Stacy G is a Minnesota writer who blogs about motherhood and kids’ fashion. She’s interested in how children’s clothing, sustainability, and affordability all intersect. Opinions expressed in this post are hers alone. When not writing, Stacy can be found enjoying a good read, hiking, quilting, or chasing after children at a local park. Her biggest life goals are to comb her kids’ hair every day and occasionally finish a full sentence at the dinner table without being interrupted.