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Thrift stores have got that in green

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A customer sells her old clothes at a Buffalo Exchange in Las Vegas. (Courtesy of Buffalo Exchange)

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A "Reduce Reuse Recycle" neon sign hangs in a Buffalo Exchange store window in Las Vegas. (Courtesy of Buffalo Exchange)

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Clothes and shoes for sale at a Buffalo Exchange in San Francisco. (Courtesy of Buffalo Exchange)

Adam Augustyn lives the green way of life. The 30-year-old freelance graphic designer from Brooklyn, N.Y., recycles plastic bottles and tin cans. He doesn’t like to waste water in his apartment and rides his bicycle as much as he can. Augustyn also sells his old clothes to secondhand stores so that the garments don’t end up in a garbage dump.

“I’ve been going to thrift stores since high school,” Augustyn says, adding that he would never throw away an old shirt, to protect the environment. He worries about the harm of excessive cultivation of cotton, the chemical treatment of wool and the nonbiodegradable nature of synthetic fabrics. Augustyn prefers to reintroduce his old clothes into the retail system. “This way you can always give them back,” he says.

With the ailing economy hitting consumers’ pockets, resale and thrift shops have been thriving. Many Americans turn to consignment stores hoping to get some cash out of their old shoes. But also, more and more consumers like Augustyn are changing their shopping patterns because it helps save the planet.

“Everybody has reasons for shopping resale,” says Adele Meyer, who is the executive director of the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops, based in suburban Detroit. “Some do it because it’s cheap, some because it’s unique, others because it’s green.”

The stigma associated with used clothes is long gone, Meyer says. Now career women can be found shopping for last year’s Marc Jacobs bags next to young hipsters looking for vintage hats.

Her organization registered a 30 percent increase in sales last year. Furthermore, more than 82 percent of the group’s members experienced an increase in new customers, and almost 47 percent of the stores reported an increase in suppliers. “There are more young people attracted to it,” she says. “They want something unique, and this is how you get it.”

Denise McShane couldn’t agree more. She is the owner of McShane’s Exchange, a designer consignment store in the upscale Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park. She resells in-style high fashion for a third of the original price and sometimes offers an additional 10 percent off. Sales grew 23 percent in 2008 and then rose an additional 7 percent during the first three months of 2009. “We are seeing a lot of new faces,” she says.

McShane reports that teenage customers have increased significantly over the past few years. They like the Versace and Gucci outfits that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford, and they feel good about doing their bit for environment. “They want the cutting-edge fashion,” she says. “Plus, it’s hip for them to be into recycling.”

Americans produced an estimated 11.9 million tons of textiles in 2007, corresponding to almost 5 percent of the total U.S. municipal solid-waste generation. The recycling industry prevents 2.5 billion pounds of thrown-away clothes from ending up in a waste yard annually, according to the Council for Textile Recycling. That represents 10 pounds for every U.S. citizen.

If more people shopped at resale stores such as Beacon’s Closet, a popular secondhand store in the hipster Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, that figure would no doubt decrease. Last week, scores of young trendy people streamed in with bags full of old clothes to sell. Inside, many fashion-conscious customers browsed for cheap deals between rows of mannequins and racks of secondhand dresses.

“That’s another perk about shopping vintage as opposed to buying something new all the time,” said Loren Shearer, 22, stepping out of the store with a designer blue party dress for $15. The young musician never throws away her old clothes; she either resells them or gives them to charity. To her, thrift shops are trendy, cheap and ecologically responsible. “Not only is it cost-effective, but it helps the environment,” she said, putting on a pair of black plastic diva sunglasses.

Sharing that philosophy, Kerstin Block opened her first resale store in Tucson, Ariz., in 1974. The Buffalo Exchange arrived at a time when the tree-hugging message was still young. Block clearly struck a popular chord, and her shop evolved into a national chain with 34 stores and two franchises in 13 states.

Riding the latest green wave, the company’s revenues have increased by almost $16 million since 2005. The Las Vegas store bears a flashy “Reduce Reuse Recycle” neon sign on its window. In addition to reselling clothes, Buffalo Exchange also encourages shoppers to accept a token instead of bags for purchases, donating 5 cents to a charity of the customer’s choice.

“We have always been a recycling business, although we’re more interested in fashion,” Block says, noting that her company does not preach to customers. “When you talk about being green, people really know that we are.”

Maybe they do, but not everybody seems to care. On a recent Thursday afternoon, Kristen Lohnas walked out of the Buffalo Exchange shop in Brooklyn with the deal of a lifetime: a pair of last year’s Dolce and Gabbana high-heel shoes for $45.

“You can always find something that’s in style for really super-cheap here,” she said, while adjusting her platinum-blond-and-pink hair in the wind. Although the 25-year-old freelance model acknowledges the chain’s green effort, Lohnas candidly admitted that she had other motives for patronizing the shop.

“I am just cheap,” she said, carrying her new shoes in a black, label-less backpack, as she accepted a charity token in place of a plastic bag.

E-mail: dp2421@columbia.edu