Swap Society helps shoppers practice sustainability
Swap Society founder, Nicole Robertson, sits down with CityStyleMe to discuss sustainable fashion and its affordable online shopping alternative.
Talk to me about why you created Swap Society?
NICOLE (Swap Society):
Well, when I learned several years ago about how polluting the fashion industry is to the earth, I decided that I wanted alternatives because I really love fashion. I think fashion is really fun. I love mixing up my wardrobe all the time. Then, I started feeling really guilty about what my shopping habits were and so I looked for a way to swap clothes with women in my community. And that was really fun. I did that for many years, but then I felt that I really wanted to expand that offering and make it available to more people with the ease of online shopping.
So, I decided to create Swap Society and offer a way for women to swap beyond their friend circle. When you’re swapping with friends they may not have the same size or the same style. Or there might be a swap every once in awhile, but how can you swap all the time? So with Swap Society, you can swap 24/7. And unlike other swaps that are 1:1, give a shirt, take a shirt kind of a thing, we have a point system that makes it really fair. So you can get equal value for what you send in.
Is that what makes Swap Society different? The point system and getting more value for what you turn in?
Absolutely. So our algorithm generates a point value for every garment or piece of jewelry we receive and you spend those points on the site. So you’ll definitely get equal value for what you send in, which is really awesome because I think with a lot of more casual swaps people get nervous, “Will I get equal value?” “What if I bring in a designer dress and I walk home with an H&M dress?” “Will I feel as excited about that exchange?” And so, we wanted it to be really fair.
Where does Swap Society fit under the umbrella of sustainable fashion?
When you buy something secondhand you’re not utilizing resources to create a new garment. The fashion industry is the number four industrial polluter in the world and it counts for 8% of global carbon emissions, which is a lot. And it’s also very polluting to waterways and of course there a lot of women that work in the industry that are subjugated. It’s kind of a modern day form of slavery, especially for fast fashion. And so, when you’re buying secondhand or swapping something that’s secondhand, you’re using something that already exists. So your purchase isn’t causing more resources to be utilized. And so, if we can extend the amount that we wear garments, we can drastically reduce our own personal carbon footprint and that of the garment.
There are a lot of campaigns out there, like the “30 Wears” campaign, and personally, there are a lot of things that I’ll wear over and over and over again. But sometimes something like a cocktail dress, maybe you’ll wear it a few times to an event but then you’ll get bored with it, or your size changes and you want to mix up your wardrobe more often. So swapping and using secondhand gives you an alternative to those things.
When you set out to start Swap Society what did you feel was missing in the conversation of fashion?
I think that having more of a variety of ways to get secondhand fashion was missing. I had been swapping at a local little neighborhood swap and I preferred that to trying to sell my things. I was working a lot, I didn’t have time to list all of my clothes online to try to sell them and hope they sell.
And then on top of it, going to those secondhand shops where they buy your clothes, I’ve always felt that it’s a really unpleasant experience, they often don’t accept a lot of your things even if they’re really nice, or you think they’re really nice. And then when they give you money for certain things it’s so little. And I’ve always felt like, “Oh, I’ve invested so much in my wardrobe I don’t want to sell it for pennies on the dollar.”
So, I like swapping more, personally. But there weren’t a lot of ways to swap available. So it was important to me to create something that was a little bit different than what’s out there, but that’s fun and really easy to use that feels like shopping online.
A lot of people are still figuring out what sustainability is, what eco-friendly clothes are, so how would you define it?
That’s a really tricky question. I think though if we look at sustainable fashion in general or just sustainability in general, a lot of people use the word circular. Really thinking about how something was made and then how is it disposed of. And a lot of people also talk about closing the loop, so when you’re buying something, how long are you going to have it for? And what happens when you’re done with it? Can it be recycled or composted? Or is it bound for the landfill? So when I think about sustainability I think about that full cycle.
For example, zero waste is a big thing right now, but a lot of people talk about that how zero isn’t really attainable. Zero is kind of the mission and the goal, but being truly zero waste is really really difficult for most people just in our society. But if you think through alternatives and really think about your alternatives...I try to buy things that I think are going to last me a lifetime. I really think about that now. With clothes, it’s different because I know I can swap, so it takes away that pressure.
I was looking for...everybody always buys those lint rollers, for example, and we were using them too. I was on the hunt for a really eco-friendly lint solution, especially because before we photograph clothes we’re often wanting to brush them a little bit. I found a wooden lint brush with brass bristles and it wasn’t expensive. I think it was $11 and I thought, “Oh my goodness, I’ll never have to buy another lint roller thing or replacement sticky tapes and all of those things that go in the trash. So that’s how I approach sustainability.
With fashion, I think a lot of people are looking at changing the process of manufacturing garments, which is amazing. Looking at how clothes are dyed and how fibers are sourced and how are the people are treated and paid that are manufacturing the clothes, how are they disposed of. And I think all of those things are really important, but we can’t buy our way out of the environmental crisis that we have. That’s why personally and for Swap Society, our emphasis is really on working with what’s already there.
I know a lot of people say, well sustainable clothes are very expensive, high-priced, and that’s because of the way they have to make it, but Swap Society you don’t necessarily have to worry about that because you’re just sharing your clothes, swapping your clothes, right? It’s like an affordable option.
Exactly. It’s much more affordable actually. The way that our site works is everything is points plus a per item fee. Depending on your membership, it’s either $3.99 or $4.99 on items that you order from the site...so it’s super affordable. So for us, it’s the point system that keeps it fair and you spend your points. If you send in a fancy dress, you get 100 points for it, you can take out another dress for 100 points and it’s still just that same per item fee. So it’s really affordable. You can turn things that are in your closet into this new form of currency and get yourself a whole new wardrobe or just ditch a few things that you’re bored with and you feel like mixing it up or maybe your sizes changed. Women’s clothing size changes all the time. 85% of women have clothes in their closet that don’t fit, so that’s almost everybody…
What if someone sends in something that you guys may not want to accept for whatever reason, what happens with those clothes? Do you send them back?
If there are garments that we don’t accept, almost always it’s due to condition. What we’ll do is, we’ll either send it to Downtown Women’s Center, which is here in LA and they help homeless women in Los Angeles. For example, people will donate sometimes nicer things to them and they have a boutique and they sell that stuff. But what they don’t have a lot of sometimes are clothes that the women can actually wear. So if we get a t-shirt or sweatshirt that maybe has too much peeling on it or feel like, okay we’re not going to list this, but maybe a woman can wear that here in LA.
The other thing that we do for fancier things, where maybe it’s a beautiful silk blouse but it has underarm stains or a snag that’s too big, or something like that, there a couple of local fashion designers that we work with that upcycle the fabric. They’ll cut up the garment and use the fabric and turn it into something new. So we’re trying to do our best to extend the life even of those things that we don’t take.
Why do you think people should care about sustainable fashion, especially when fast fashion is so easily accessible, and they have sales and discounts, why should I care?
Fashion is polluting the world. So I always say, “Can fashion save the planet?” I do think that there are a lot of ways that we can all contribute to easing our load on the earth. But I do think that a lot of people maybe don’t think about fashion as being one of those things. They might think, oh electric car, solar panels. A lot of people are saying eat vegan, that can help as well, but fashion is a big polluter and it’s also an industry that largely subjugates a lot of women. So if you care about empowering women and also if you care about the planet, I think that swapping is a really good alternative, and sustainable fashion is a way to really stand behind your values. The way that we shop and spend our money does influence the world. So fast fashion is easy, it’s cheap but there’s a really high cost associated somewhere. Somebody is paying for it somewhere. Maybe you’re not paying for it, but there are consequences.