Swap Goals and Money

This will be contentious, buckle up! On our long-term mission with Mara to explore all other swaps in Barcelona, we went to one last Sunday. This one. And, before long, I had gotten myself into an argument about the political rationale of swaps with the organizers. Yeah, considerate and polite, I know… So due to that unplanned outburst, I’ve been thinking about what triggered it… and I’ve arrived to the goals of different swaps – as that was clearly the difference between theirs and mine – and the role money can play in them.

This one on Sunday, organized by Hot Chili Chicas Go on PutFoot, was an instrumental charity swap. One paid 10€ at the entrance for a drink, swap + two charitable causes: The Put Foot Foundation that provides school shoes and supplies for children in Southern Africa and AADAS, an association in Barcelona which helps victims of sexual violence in Catalunya. Clothing swaps are only part of their fundraising efforts, they are doing also pub quizzes, movie screenings, fitness classes, auctions, etc. My first disclaimer here is that after quite few years hanging around bigger and smaller NGOs and overseas development aid activists, I am also pretty unsure about such micro overseas charity efforts. But that’s another conversation…

Going back to the swap as such, in that swap-for-charity scheme of things a clothing swap is the very attractive lure that gets people donating. As you can imagine, this does not fit neatly in my perception of the current textile abundance. Of course, the more circularity of garments, the better, but I see no reason for such hype around a swap…

In my social media bubble, swaps are popping up so often, I can hardly keep track… but the attendees at this one seemed to have really hungry eyes, following the new arrivals with hawk-like concentration. Adrenaline was in the air, and I took it as a sign of first-timers’ excitement. Maybe I just don’t have enough time to observe humans at my own swaps… I had been told about people having their favorite ‘providers’ and trailing them while they unload their discards but had never really seen that in action.

Finally having some time to just observe… and a glass of cava indeed helps!

A swap-related magic belief that I really struggle with is the one about the inherent value and infinite recyclability of all garments. While the material and labor input is undeniable even for the worst quality garments, thinking that all leftover garments ‘just haven’t found the right girl’ is ludicrous. In a world full of worn out and skewed-seamed 3€ Primark t-shirts, unfortunately, swap leftovers (and stuff that have to go directly to the orange container instead of a swap) is the first sign of sanity. So many of the garments surrounding us has a very low first-hand use potential, not to mention any potential to become a prized second-hand find.

For me swaps are clearing houses, separating the grain from the ashes, because doing it collectively it is much quicker and precise process. Yes, in some cases one woman’s garbage is other’s treasure… but I also hope that my swaps also serve to learn to recognize quality instead of jumping to anything free and sparkly. Indeed, after what I have seen at swaps throughout last three years, there are two big groups of fashion fails that poison the swaps: (a) the worn out, ripped, stained low quality basics, and (b) the extravagant, uncomfortable, and badly engineered garments that have been worn very little if any. And the mission of a top swapper is to recognize that stuff for what it is and steer clear of them.

Yes, it is unfortunate but I console myself thinking about the reasonable garments that get saved out of that primordial soup. A wide-enough ‘offer’ is the key to make sure that there is a good-enough soup to waddle through. A 100% circulation rate has never been part even of my utopian swap fantasies. Yeah, I know, you can’t *always* predict what will break, pile or lose shape, but often you can… I can only hope that people honing such selection skills would also apply them to their purchases and leave the producers and distributors stuck with their deficient wares.

Mara being a faster-than-light swap clearing house in person.

For me a clothing swap is a complete creation that doesn’t need a further charitable cause. The goal is to swap garments and hence put them into new, loving hands instead of eating dust at the deep end of a wardrobe or at the landfill. There is also a secondary educational goal to indirectly teach people – through repeated visions of heaps of free clothing and repeated satisfaction of having quenched their thirst for novelty without having paid for it – that buying (new) garments is so passé. My secret plan is that a repeated, very visual first-hand experience of the incredible garment abundance we live in should make an imprint that there is no need to buy new, that there is no real need for them. Almost all our acquisitions are pure whims, hence – as with all drugs – it is preferable to follow that impulse in a controlled environment and actively reducing the harm caused. And the best way to create that educational experience is a free and deeply ‘communist’ swap.

Yes, some money is needed to organize the swap I’d like to attend. Although we have a very friendly deal with Ateneu Roig – no rent for the premises in return for users getting their drinks from their bar – there are the little stupid expenses: tape, garbage bags, and snacks, snacks, snacks… And my own time, and that of the volunteers, is not included there.

For the number-curious, here are the Ateneu Roig and Un Armario Verde income from the last five Ateneu Roig swaps, pretty volatile and not really impressive, as you can see. After the last swap in September 2019, my net gain after the direct expenses came to a stunning 12.57€. Again, without even trying to include my time, the IT costs of the blog, electricity for cooking and laundry, etc. I’m celebrating the fact that I am breaking even with the direct costs, as the nervous damage is priceless.

And to remind that my purity is not absolute, we actually did a ‘paid’ swap in June, at Imprfcto bar in Parallel. Following the same strategy described above, we included a drink in the price – 5€ – and provided all the usual snacks. And it paid off alright: 77€ for the bar and 102.71€ to share between me and Mara. Again though, after deducting the expenses, I had 9.09€. In this case it also meant the additional 15€ for the taxi I had to take back home. That’s why I prefer my swaps in Gràcia and at the same place because much of the stuff stays at Ateneu Roig…

However, it did feel weird, especially when some of the Ateneu Roig regulars came in, apparently oblivious to the 5€ thing. In some cases neither me nor Mara had the guts to ask for the fee… Well, I had taught people that swaps are free, what did I expect? Now I’ve been training the uncustomers to consider my swaps a ‘taquilla inversa’ events, with varying results.

And money feels nice. I like money. Even better than social media likes, money is a very real form of recognition of a good job: money has changed hands, hence something of value has taken place. So I’m not against receiving payments. I had set up a Ko-fi account for a year or so and tried to promote it – i.e. ‘if you didn’t have cash to tip the swap, send your digital money this way’ – but nobody ever gave me those 3€. People love free shit… and my heart loves providing that utopian experience

Also, until the end of 2018 I was well paid via my PhD scholarship, and treated spending on events and IT maintenance like spending on books and fun courses: and investment I chose to make. Now that my unemployment benefits are over, I do fret about money. Often. But I also know that trying to charge at Ateneu Roig swaps would be off brand and logistically difficult (think of that huge garage door). Harvard Business Review will tell you any day that ‘Whatever funding mechanism is used to cover the costs of excellence, it is best thought out as thoroughly as possible prior to the launch of a new service, rather than amended in light of experience afterward. When a service that’s been perceived as free suddenly has fees associated with it, customers tend to react with disproportionate displeasure.’

So I actually agree with the Sunday swap ladies who tried to convince me that y time had to be remunerated… just that I have users with three years of free swap experience to accommodate. And going back to the beginning, my priority is that glorious free swap experience, planting that seed of dissent, doubt …and rebellion against the fashion system. And costs will have to be covered in alternative ways.


So, while I’ll be trying to control my self-righteous temper at social occasions, Ateneu Roig swaps will be (as always) free in any foreseeable future and other possible future venues might have other rules. No charitable goals beyond fomenting circular garment economies and conscious consumption will be promoted. If you would like to economically support my self-employed life, send donations via PayPal at jauatkales [a] gmail.com, leave generous tips during the December swap, or engage me as your KonMari consultant and wardrobe coach

How do you feel about money in sustainable/upcycling/anticapitalist events? It feels great to say ‘oh, enjoy, it is all for free’ but landladies don’t tend to follow he same logic. Do you feel comfortable paying for a swap? Does it help if it has a further charitable goal instead of giving the organizers some pocket-money?

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