The Dilemma Of New Vs. Used

by Katy on December 2, 2008 · 20 comments



Thrift Store

As a member of The Compact, (buy nothing new) I rely on thrift shops for everything from clothing to gifts. 

I love that by only buying used, I’m not contributing to the consequences of the buy, buy, buy culture. I also love that used things come without unnecessary wasteful packaging.

I believe that every purchase made is a vote for the kind of world I want to live in.

Cheap electronics from China?

A vote for environmental irresponsibility and questionable worker’s rights.

A warm winter coat from Goodwill?

A vote for financial responsibility, and a culture that reuses its resources.

I don’t want you to get the impression that I’m buying worn out stuff. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I only buy things when they look just about new. 

And sometimes, the things that I buy from thrift shops are new, complete with their original packaging.

So is this a new or used purchase?

That’s a hard one.

In term of packaging, buying a second hand item encased in shrink wrap is just as bad as buying new. On the other hand, by choosing to buy used, I’m not sending a message to the manufacturer to create a brand new item from virgin materials to replace what I just bought.

It’s a bit of a grey area. 

When I buy a new item in a second hand store, I’m straddling both sides of the issue.

I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to this question. So my compromise has been to occasionally buy the new items to put aside for gift giving, but to not buy them for myself. (I feel perfectly fine giving second hand gifts to my family and friends. But for kid birthday parties I like to have a stash of “new” gifts for my sons to shop from.)

What do you think? Is buying a new item from a thrift shop buying new or used?

Please share your insights in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy December 2, 2008 at 4:23 am

Hmmm. That’s a tough one. If it was something someone bought (or received), didn’t use, and then donated to the Goodwill…is that different than Target donating their “new items” that weren’t selling? I’m not sure where to draw the line for new/used in those circumstances. It’s obviously better that those items end up at the Goodwill for others to purchase, rather than in the trash somewhere…but as part of the Compact…where do you draw the line? Hmmm…now you’ve got me thinkin’….


Magdalena December 2, 2008 at 5:02 am

New items donated to a charity thrift shop at least haven’t travelled from China again! And they haven’t been written off as discarded merchandise and landfilled. So there two benefits. Many charity thrifts employ people who might otherwise not have jobs, or are learning job skills, so that can be another benefit. The funds generated get used in community outreach. Two more benefits. Is it a new item if someone donated it to the thrift without using it, i.e. MANY Christmas gift items? It’s not technically “new” – it’s pre-owned but unused. But as a caveat, remember that some charity thrift shops truck stuff from store to store, sometimes at great distances, to have a mix of merchandise. They may bulk sale unsold and unsaleable clothing to third world countries, where used American t-shirts and jeans are sold for pennies and are displacing the goods of indigenous textile makers. And some used goods stores are not charities, even if they have some huge banner saying they support a non-profit.


Kaylen December 2, 2008 at 7:38 am

As someone who donates new things to thrift shops (wildly inappropriate gifts from my grandma, who won’t return them), I’d say it counts as buying a used item because it’s already served some purpose to someone. In my case, it’s served a social function between me and my grandma even though I’ve never worn or used the item.


Jackie December 2, 2008 at 8:33 am

I don’t see this as a gray area at all.

Once something has been purchased, it is “used” whether or not it has actually been used by the first owner.


Lindsie December 2, 2008 at 11:02 am

Hi Katy! I stumbled upon your blog from who knows where recently and from you found The Compact. I have since joined and plan on starting my quest January 1st, 2009. I would buy something “new” from a thrift store. I believe it to be used and it isn’t encouraging a retail chain to mass produce more goods.

I do hope to be able to find “used” gifts. I have always shopped year round for Christmas. My dilemma is birthdays and other holidays throughout the year. How do you handle it when a birthday comes along and you just haven’t found that perfect “used” gift? As I said I will be starting The Compact in January and I have 3 birthdays that fall in that month alone! You said that you had “new” gifts that you let your sons shop from…are they really new? I was thinking of maybe buying new craft kits for the kids…but would that still be within the compact?

I have so much to learn!


Becca December 2, 2008 at 1:57 pm

Good question, Katie. We rarely buy something “new” in a thrift store unless it is super high quality. For example, we still wouldn’t buy Wal-Mart brand jeans at a thrift store because they’re still poorly made.

We like buying used/older because we know we’re usually getting exceptional quality at a rock-bottom price (and something totally unique, to boot!)


Andy December 2, 2008 at 3:33 pm

Buying a new item from a thrift store is likely worse than buying it elsewhere. Here me out…

In order to buy something, you use money, which was acquired from a job. In order to work, you likely commute by car, and most jobs output trash and require other resource use for goods, electricity, water, etc. So the more money that went into buying that product is actually worse. Buying a $50 item from Walmart would then be better than someone spending $50 at Walmart and then someone else spending $25 to “re-buy” that same product.

I’m not even sure that buying used items is necessarily the best choice either, which is why I haven’t decided to join The Compact. I believe that just buying as little as needed is best. The only things I have bought in the past several years were clothes, food, and bike parts. If I only bought used, I would have a very hard time getting clothes and gear suitable for cycling year round which would mean I would need a car. Of course I could buy a used car, but this is a situation where I think a few new bike things is much better than a used car.



efilyzarcym December 2, 2008 at 5:57 pm

Well, as Andy pointed out, the decision to buy “new” or “used” is highly dependant upon personal circumstances.
However, as to your question: “Is buying a new item from a thrift shop buying new or used?”
I actually don’t have a hard time with that answer – – but, I also am not bound by some sort of promist to “the Compact” (and haven’t read about it, either). In any case, it seems to me that sales from the items purchased at the thrift shops is not being sent to the Manufacturer (or anyone else that typically gets a cut of “new” items).
In the thrift shop where we live, there are items that have been donated from stores in the area which are brand new – – I would still consider them “used” because the original store gets no profit and/or reimburcement.
Purchasing the items from the thrift store also doesn’t produce automatic re-orders from the retail stores.
Finally, it is a recycled product; therefore, even if it would be considered “new” – – it is still within the realm of “Reduce, Re-Use and Recycle.”


Peggy December 2, 2008 at 6:59 pm

I love these questions that you sometimes pose, and well as your posts. I am here to report that I rarely find new-in-the-package items at my network of thrift stores. I sometimes see a pair of shoes or article of clothing that clearly has been barely used, if at all, but I still consider that used for ethical purposes. The mere fact that we aren;t buying into the herd mentality of shop, shop, shop and spend all your money on “stuff” makes me feel better about the whole consumer excess society we live in. Thanks for all you do. Peggy in Virginia.


Hippy Habibi December 2, 2008 at 8:49 pm

I agree with most of the previous comments…an item purchased from a thrift store is considered “used,” even if it is still in the original packaging. Buy purchasing that item, you are not sending a message to the manufacturer to make more…and you are saving it from the landfill.

Thanks for writing about your experiences with “The Compact”! I’d like to try it out with my family…


Gerard kiernan December 3, 2008 at 4:26 am

I join this discussion with some misgivings, as I think it may veer toward the fanatical! I get nervous about any group/culture that starts thinking about ‘purity of heart’, since my heart has never been and never will be pure.

That being said, Marion Nestle’s book What to Eat about food and the food industry has got me thinking. How about trying not to buy anything that has been ‘marketed’? I tried that in the supermarket last weekend, and I found that I was buying unprocessed, whole foods that I proceeded to cook and bake.

Along those lines, I am thinking that if something needs a TV ad, odds are you don’t need it!


Magdalena December 3, 2008 at 5:12 am

Good comments! Andy, I agree about athletic gear. When we are in training, we need new shoes, although as powerlifters, we don’t need fancy gym duds. My husband works out in steel-toed boots. Dropping 700 lbs. on your feet could be a big, expensive problem. (I’ve never seen him drop a weight, but stuff happens.) But for gym gear, old loose jeans and sweatpants and t-shirts are fine for us.
Gerard, people can get fanatical about anything. We used to be quite “pure” in our non-spending and re-using habits, but we now live in a shared house community, and the others aren’t at the same place, so I have to ease up on the everything-from-scratch attitude. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to go so far in reducing use that your family walks around in bad shoes and threadbare clothes, or if you insist on sewing their outfits and you’re not very good at it. You have to find your own comfort level in this.


Wendy December 3, 2008 at 5:20 am

“Along those lines, I am thinking that if something needs a TV ad, odds are you don’t need it!”

Along the lines of Gerald’s post, I have been using this strategy by default. When our family cut back on consumption of consumer goods, we realized that most advertised products appeal to “wants” rather than actual “needs.” Gerald, correct me if I am wrong, I think your broader point is that one should contemplatively make changes because they represent a better life for you as an individual, rather than changing because it is “what everyone else is doing.” Hence, the saying, “stand for something, or fall for anything” which is precisely the goal of advertising…that is, hoping enough viewers will be swayed against their better judgment to commingle wants & needs..


Christa December 3, 2008 at 9:30 am

I love the idea of buying used.
I recently purchased a fisher price toy airplane complete with all the little people that went with it. It looks brand new. I got it for half the price and only in a corrugated box that it had to be shipped in and a little plastic baggy to hold the little people which can both be reused and the box can be recycled. This will be a Christmas present this year and my little boy will love it because he won’t have to wait for it to be taken out of all the packaging. Plus the money went directly into the other persons hands and not to a big business.
I am looking to buy more new “used” Christmas presents for my kids.


Marj in Wyoming December 3, 2008 at 1:44 pm

We are not lucky enough to find new in the package goods here either Peggy, although I would snap them up in a heartbeat. I have no problem with this issue. The item WAS already bought from a store……by not tossing it in the trash, my heart tells my this is saving the landfills and my wallet. I enjoy your site so much and these questions really get your mind working. Thanks.


Linda December 3, 2008 at 4:28 pm

Buying a new item from a second hand store is still buying second hand, not new. Even though you have to deal with the packaging issue, it’s not being registered with the manufacturer as 2 purchases of this item, only 1. And think of it this way, you will most likely deal with the packaging in a much more environmentaly friendly way than the original purchaser!


BohoBelle December 3, 2008 at 9:18 pm

I’ve joined the compact, but I still buy mostly new clothes. Why? Because they are no second hand cloth shops in the town I live in. The other items are mostly kitchen pieces from the 70s. You’d never find a wrapped gift or anything newer than the mid nineties.

So its interesting that our compact movement talks about the ‘wrongs’ of buying new but then are happy to shop up the seconds that flow from such a huge materialist (US) society. Obviously it’s much better than letting it flow to landfill. And it’s better than buying new. But you do need to see that you are able to happily and successfully fulfil the compact due to kind of society you live in.

If everyone was a non-consumer, then there wouldn’t be any of the coveted ‘nearly new’ items anymore.


Carol December 3, 2008 at 11:49 pm

For me, the real question is whether the item was necessary in the first place. I buy from thrift shops too and totally feel good about not purchasing new items. But buying at thrift shops is still buying; it can still feed the consumerist impulse and it can still be done for the same problematic reasons as when people buy new. Also, I’ve noticed that for some people who buy new, it alleviates some of their guilt about buying stuff they don’t need to just donate it to someone else – it can help to justify an unhealthy habit. Shopping used is great; mindful shopping is better.


thepennypincher December 6, 2008 at 3:15 pm

I scrimp to save money, not to achieve the aims of a compact. However, there is another point that has not been examined. The brand new item bought from a thrift store can be used until it either breaks and cannot be repaired or until it is no longer needed and donated back to the thrift store. It is not the fact of buying only used that is important, but rather the ethos to buy less and to truly use what is bought as long as it possibly can be used. To buy at a thrift store used items and the occasional new item if you are luck to find it is considerably better than the other options both for saving money and minimizing waste. The worst strategy is to buy new and then send to the landfill what you no longer want or need.


Shannon December 17, 2008 at 8:09 am

I’m not sure how to answer this, other than to say that I believe it wasteful to purchase clothes that you do not wear. I have no problem taking advantage of the fact that no one wears/uses and item, making it a ‘new’ purchase (really) rather than a used purchase.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: