Swap happy: At local clothing exchanges, women find deals and lessen waste

A Workshop of Our Own, Society of Excellent Women and The Stylette offers a clothing swap with proceeds going towards WOO’s efforts to buy the warehouse building.  (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)

At a recent clothing swap, Catherine Bennett of Waverly came away with a pair of Vera Wang jeans and two skirts. Meghann Harris of Charles Village decided to take home a skirt and boots on her quest to find "anything weird," and Kele Webner of Gwynn Oak — who was more about the "bringing" and mingling with guests than the taking — found two dresses. One for work, and one for fun, she said.

Such thrifty events as the one held in Baltimore are happening across the country, on major websites like Swap Style and Swapmamas, which allow people to bargain and trade their own items online, and during seasonal public swaps as a way to foster fellowship and lessen waste. The concept centers on secondhand shopping, where one person's trash is another's treasure. People bring in their unwanted or outgrown clothing, accessories or goods, and shopping ensues, often with no monetary contribution or clothing requirement.


"It's a great way to reuse pieces that have a lot of life left in them, rather than throwing them in the trash after you've worn them once or twice," Webner said.

While spring cleaning and rummaging through her closet, Erin Nutsugah thought of hosting the clothing swap at A Workshop of Our Own, or WOO, to raise money for the local woodworking space.


"I love clothes. I love shopping, but I don't love spending my money," Nutsugah said.

Drawing inspiration from her and her friends' impromptu exchanges of neglected or unwanted clothing, Nutsugah teamed up with Society of Excellent Women and women's lifestyle blog The Stylette. They set a date, time and place on social media and invited women from around the city to sort, swap and convene over "already loved" clothing. Five dollars covered entry, which would allow shoppers to bring and take as much as they wanted from the tables layered with clothing, shoes and accessories.

Nutsugah estimates that more than 400 items were brought to the swap. The remaining items that did not find a home — around eight large bags full — were donated to My Sister's Place Women's Center in Baltimore, she said.

"It's fun to hang out with other people and other girls," said Nutsugah, and "it's a fun way to get spring fashion for free."


Environmental impact

According to the Environmental Protection Agency's 2014 Advancing Sustainable Materials Management report, more than 258 million tons of waste are produced each year, and textiles — not including leather — account for around 16.2 million tons.

While a small percentage of clothing is recycled or converted into energy in an incinerator, about 10.5 million tons of textiles sit in landfills — a 78.4 percent increase since 1960.

Many blame this on the rapid rate of consumerism or "fast fashion" — clothing that doesn't last long.

Based on a 2009 report by the EPA, the Council for Textile Recycling estimated that every American generated an average of 70 pounds of textile waste per year.

Despite textile waste going beyond clothing, it is indicative of how much is being made and disposed of each year, said Jason Kibbey, CEO of Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an organization and network that works with the textile industry to produce and create more sustainable options.

"Consumers are cycling through so many items of clothing that they're just generating waste and creating a lot of upstream problems as well," Kibbey said, noting that many clothes take a long time to decompose. But there has been a growing awareness of the challenges posed by clothing in our landfills, he said.

"Swaps are really great because one of the best things to do to make an environmental impact with an article of clothing is to lengthen its impact," he said.

Amy Wolinski of Monkton, who attended WOO's swap on a recent Saturday, emphasized that thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army are more eco-friendly and cost-effective options compared to purchasing new clothes.

But clothing swaps — a person-to-person exchange — are often the best deal, she said.

"Instead of paying for them, we're swapping them with each other. We make our planet better by saving resources, and we're not as wasteful when we swap, donate, reuse and recycle," she said.

Varying rules

Anna Grothe of Hampden, the founder of The Clothing Swap, a Facebook page and a seasonal clothing swap in Baltimore, said she had been to several clothing swaps with friends before founding her own.

Inspired by the now-closed The Book Thing, once the home to donated books available to the community for free, Grothe began organizing larger public clothing exchanges about four years ago in Patterson Park in warmer seasons and in local community centers, like the 29th Street Community Center in Charles Village, in cold and rainy weather. (The most recent clothing swap, scheduled for June 17 in Patterson Park, was canceled due to a rain forecast, but will be rescheduled for later this year, Grothe said).

A flash of bright silver beckons visitors to the warehouse at 9010 Maier Road in North Laurel.

The Clothing Swap, which has more than 650 followers on its Facebook page, typically attracts around 100 to 150 people to each event, and even more items — some of which are left behind and taken to nonprofit organizations like Goodwill or local charities, according to Grothe. A little more than 1,600 items were swapped at their last event, with an additional 15 bags being donated, she said.

Grothe said the rules for swaps are often simple but depend on the organizer.

For The Clothing Swap, Grothe and volunteers set up tables, where they ask participants to sort their items — clean clothing only — by category. While most clothing is accepted, Grothe said its "within reason" since the event can only hold and swap so many clothes. The event is also free, with an option to donate money, which assists in purchasing cleaning materials, like trash bags, or donating to venues where the event is held.

"It's not mandatory that you bring anything or that you have to take anything. … They take whatever they want, however much they want, with the understanding that they aren't going to sell them or use them for any other purpose" but to wear them, said Grothe, noting that some people, especially those who are homeless, are sometimes taken aback by the concept.

"Some will say 'I'm going to tell all my friends,' or 'I have some friends living on the street. Is it OK that I tell them?' … Those are the moments that just bring me joy," Grothe said.

Other gratifying moments come in the form of the compliments of strangers, who give encouraging words to other swappers as they try on items over their clothes.

"It's accomplishing three main things," Grothe said. "One is just to celebrate the joy of clothing, fashion and fun things like that, and two, it's bringing people in Baltimore together. I think any type of event or organization that helps people interact with each other that might not always get together is great. The third main focus is preventing waste. Why buy new clothes when there's so many out there that you can get for free?"

Bennett, who attended WOO's recent clothing swap, agreed.


"It circulates the economy, and we don't have to go keep buying brand-new things at the store. We can share with one another," Bennett said. "It just builds community. It's great to get to know your neighbors, and also women supporting women is another huge, big deal."


Nutsugah said accessibility for all types of women will be a focus in WOO's clothing swaps moving forward.

"We're hoping to make it welcoming to people of all body types, and that it can be a fun social event, regardless of how you feel about your body or your clothes or whether you even want to shop or not," she said.

But according to Grothe, whose best swap find thus far is "a pair of billowy green summer pants" she's never seen anywhere else, it'd be a shame to not at least take a look.

Baltimore Sun photographer Kim Hairston contributed to this article.

Clothing swap tips

1. Be clear about which items you want people to bring. Anna Grothe, founder of Baltimore's The Clothing Swap, said some swaps limit items to accessories or household goods, while larger swaps request all types of clothing and accessories.

2. Be clear about who the swap is for beforehand. "Some people like women-only swaps to make people comfortable," Grothe said, while others like to arrange swaps by size.

3. Pick a time and a place and have a good time. Once all the rules are set, the swap is really in the hands of the attendees, Grothe said.

If you're planning a public clothing swap, be sure to visit The Clothing Swap Facebook page, where you can post information about your swap and advertise for free. https://www.facebook.com/TheClothingSwap


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