Scrolling through Instagram recently, I came across a secondhand clothing swap that @labelle_eco_life (Monique Labelle-Wheeler) had organized at the school where she teaches in Ottawa, Canada. I thought to myself, “Every school needs to do this!” I asked Monique if she’d like to write a guest blog post about the exchange, explaining how it worked so other schools can copy the idea. She generously wrote the following post.
Imagine if every school in the US and Canada organized a yearly (at least!) clothing swap. We’d divert millions of garments from landfill or incineration.
Guest post by Monique Labelle-Wheeler
As part of our eco-club activities at school, we created a one-day secondhand clothing store. As a teacher, I thought this initiative would send the message to my students that we need to stop fast fashion and just buy secondhand clothes instead. Fast fashion encourages people to buy cheap garments not out of necessity but on impulse and as a reaction to advertisements and fashion magazines. Buying secondhand is one of the best ways to reverse this trend.
Here’s a list of steps to help you, whether you are a teacher or a parent, to organize a secondhand store in your school.
1. Send teachers a document explaining the phenomenon of fast fashion. Ask each teacher to have a discussion with their students about the textile industry and how it’s contributing to our worldwide garbage problem.
2. Have older students prepare signs for the secondhand store.
3. Write a notice in the school blog to inform parents of the date and time of the of the secondhand store.
4. Ask students to bring at least two t-shirts to the exchange: One to exchange, one to donate. This will provide a large selection on the day of the store. If kids bring several t-shirts, make it clear that they get to pick one only. We thought, for the first year, that bringing t-shirts would make it easy for kids to try on clothes. Next year, we’ll also allow students to bring dresses and pants.
5. Before the day of the store, have the kids bring their donations each day over one week to a teacher’s office during the first 10 minutes after the bell rings. Spacing it out over a week means that there’s less of a lineup. Give them a token in exchange for their donation which they can use to “buy” another garment on the day of the exchange. We had a large tin of mixed buttons, so I handed each child a pink button. For a similar book exchange, my friend gives out wooden rounds that she sawed from an old branch.
6. On the day before the exchange, ensure you have boxes ready with sizes written on them. Have students help you place each donation in the right box. Call a dry cleaning shop and ask if you can borrow some hangers. Get lots of them!
7. On the day of the shop, find an area where you can hang the clothes. We have clothes racks along each hallway. We emptied one temporarily to hang the clothes. Ask the students of your eco-club to help you!
8. The shop was open during the last recess of the day and the last period. The exchange lasted one hour. It was plenty of time! Some kids came without their teachers. The youngest kids were accompanied by their teacher. Some colleagues who had a work period were generous enough lend a hand. The students in the eco-club helped the younger students. It was a great success!
9. Store the remaining clothes in an office before donating them. Some kids were absent on the day of the exchange and were very glad that I still had a selection of t-shirts for them!
Why a secondhand store?
I thought that by educating young people, it’s possible to remove the stigma about shopping secondhand and show them something we can all do to help save our planet. I told the kids that wearing secondhand clothes means that these garments won’t get sent to the dump.
According to a study done by OPIRG, or Ontario Public Interest Research Group, 85 percent of textiles in Canada are being thrown out without being recycled or reused. Bringing heaps of new clothes that we’ve outgrown to places like Value Village is counterproductive. Stores like these only sell 25 percent of what is brought to them. After 6 weeks, the remaining clothes are sold to third party businesses that in turn sell our used brand name clothes to developing countries.
[Update 05/28/19: A spokesperson from Value Village reached out to this blog with the following comment: “In addition to selling to resale markets in developing countries, Value Village also works with more than 100 recycling partners around the world to upcycle, downcycle and turn items that would otherwise be unusable into post-consumer textile fibers, keeping these goods out of landfills around the globe.”]
The US is one of the major exporters in the secondhand trade. Exporting North America’s textile waste actually destroys the local textile industries in developing countries because they can’t compete against people selling cheap brand name clothing.
What about buying new clothes from stores like H&M, Gap, Zara and other huge fast fashion giants? I personally wouldn’t do it. Sure, they have campaigns saying that they ask us to return our clothes to be recycled. This is greenwashing! Most of their products are blends so the fabric is not recyclable; once again, this clothing is sold to third parties who try to sell them to developing countries. These countries are receiving huge containers of our textile garbage. They receive so much that they assume the burden of disposing of them.
Unfortunately, according to a CBC documentary entitled “Here’s where your donated clothing really ends up”, these garments are often burned in the port cities where they arrive. My friend Barbara Mitchell, who has travelled to Uganda and Kenya to see the waste, has witnessed firsthand the mounds of textiles burning at the side of the road.
I saw textile waste, worthless garments that people were trying to sell. These developing countries have become dumping grounds for our textile waste. What’s upsetting is to know the stuff stops here since there’s nowhere else for those textiles to go.”
What can we do about this problem?
People have to stop being victims of the fast fashion messages that big companies like H&M, Zara, Gap and others are disseminating. We have to teach children that to be environmentally friendly, we should buy clothes secondhand. As adults, we can organize clothes swaps with our friends. When making donations, we can try to give our garments to families or shelters that can use them. When we see clothes in stores that are cheap, we should understand that they’re likely made by people in developing countries who are underpaid and work in unsafe conditions.
I walk the talk and wear only secondhand clothes, except for my shoes. I tell my students that my clothes are secondhand and now many students come to see me to show me what they’ve bought at the thrift store. The whole mentality of our society needs to change so that we can move towards a sustainable model in which people use just what they really need, rather than buying to excess.
Monique Labelle-Wheeler has been a teacher for 27 years. She works as a resource teacher for kids with learning difficulties at Le Prélude school in Ottawa, Canada. She helps run the eco-club at her school: with the students and other teachers she tends to the school’s living wall, maintains the community garden, watches over the eggs in the incubator and organizes a zero-waste lunch program as well as a knitting club. You can follow her on Instagram at @Labelle_eco_life which is all about helping people move towards a zero-waste and sustainable life.