Why We Swap and How

I have a feeling that we are drowning in clothing, (almost) all of us. And all statistics about textile production and retail back me up. The 52 mini-seasons instead of 4, the cheapest prices ever, materials that don’t last, planned obsolescence… (Do a Google search!) Makes my head spin, and not in a cute way. No, this is Exorcist-type of head spinning.

While I’ve been receiving a steady flow of hand-me-downs from friends and family for years, only last year a community Clothes’ Swap become a reality. So far we have hosted two such events in our beloved Ateneu Roig and have the next two already in works.

Two excited Swap organizers, yours truly and my comrade in arms Liisa. Photo by Grete.

Following the Marxist principle “from each according to her ability, to each according to her needs“, the process is as follows:

1. We set up our “not-shop” on a Saturday morning, display clothing we have brought, unpack snacks and turn up the music.

2. Friends, acquaintances and random passers-by bring in their still OK but not-working-for-them items and display them together with the rest according to category (i.e. t-shirts with t-shirts). The assumption is that these items have no owner anymore, so you don’t look for them when you leave.

3. People have a drink, chat, get to know each other and browse through the things… try on whatever speaks to them and stash away what they like.

We chose not to enforce any brought-1-took-1 policies because, at the end of the day, the goal is to find a new home for as many items as possible (read: to reduce demand for new things, our environmental footprint and the amount of textile waste). Also, everybody, including ourselves, is busy having a good time, and we are playing shop here not police… And it would make little sense due to the fact that most people bring more than they take away.

At the end of every Swap we have been left with a big pile of things nobody wanted to adopt. Both times we went through the pile packing a “seed” suitcase with items who in our humble opinion could get lucky next time (i.e. good material, mint condition, reasonable design) and stuffing bags and bags of things to donate. This is fun, we get to appreciate first hand all the variety of garments we accumulate. Urban anthropology full force! After the first Swap the donations pile went to a container of a local textile waste organization, but the second time we did even better: it went to a neighborhood initiative that hosts a “free-shop”. I hope that we’ll be able to repeat this, because I recently learned that – contrary to what I had understood beforehand – said textile waste organization ships stuff abroad. Not cool. Every garment that gets reused or recycled here is a baby step towards a more sustainable textile economy. Inundating already depressed economies with our garbage is just not-in-my-backyard escapism.

Lessons learnt so far as an organizer:

  1. We here live in a breathtaking abundance of clothing. There is way too much stuff in our wardrobes and people are happy about the possibility to drop off some of it.
  2. Textile recycling initiatives in Barcelona are sub-optimal. All we have are two NGOs, each with its own network of containers and shipping garments abroad is part of their strategy.
  3. While there are some amazing gems in perfect condition, a lot of things that have come our way are worn out and unusable or made of extra thin materials that have two washes left before it disintegrates. This speaks of our inability to assess quality when buying, inability to recognize when stuff is past mint condition, and inability to get rid of it in a sustainable way.
  4. We overvalue the stuff we already own and are bound by sunk cost bias. That’s why I am very skeptical of “just sell it online” advice. Unless you have your grand-grandmas prewar vintage in mint condition, keep in mind that nobody needs that poorly made fast fashion jersey. We all have wardrobes full of that stuff, thank you very much. This has been the most sobering lesson of clothes’ Swaps so far: garments that looked fine at home seem very different when you detach yourself from them, especially when you realize that nobody wants to take it home. And that’s OK. If Tyler Durden claimed that we are not beautiful and unique snowflakes, unless you have been pursuing an alternative fashion strategy for a long time, odd are that the contents of your wardrobe aren’t either.

And as an “un-customer”:

Since autumn 2016 everything I deem outgoing-but-wearable gets an opportunity at a Swap. As I said above, it’s a double lesson: (a) lots of joy when somebody adopts a garment I brought, or (b) a sobering experience when nobody wants my stuff. Both feel healthy.

It has been an even more curious experience when browsing through stuff and looking if anything sparks enough joy to bring it home. I spend the preparation of the Swaps and the whole event making sure people have all they need (conversation, drinks, changing room, bathroom…), I enjoy that a lot and I’m too psyched to browse.

After the first Swap all the leftovers ended up in my flat and I went through them at home. Interestingly enough, there were plenty of things I’d wear if my luggage got lost but none that I would take if one of my current possessions would have to be swapped out for that. None. I took it as a very positive statement about the robustness of my existing wardrobe.

During the big sorting after the second Swap two serious garments came home with me: the M&S lace dress and a velvet skater skirt handmade by a friend of Liisa. I did not make myself donate an already owned item (I do not have a 1-in-1-out policy, see, there are restrictions that I don’t subscribe to!), but I could have. You can read all about the intense wearing those two things got after the Swap here and here.

The funniest thing is that both of these pieces were Liisa’s before, so I could’ve got them without any Swap. Yet the energy in both events we’ve had has been so amazing, especially every time we’ve said to a first-timer “it’s free, take it, enjoy it!” We live in an abundance of clothing, it feels so good to do something that allows them to circulate and find the humans that fit them best.

Help yourself!

Organize your own clothes’ Swap! Making a low-key one at home among friends is rather easy, a community event with more degrees of separation is a bit more challenging but still feasible and oh! so enjoyable. Here you can access a checklist that has helped us to have a very smooth experiences with our Swaps. Have fun swapping!

Also, if you are in Barcelona, a “like” for our Facebook page will make sure that you will know when our next Swap will take place.

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