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Is clothes swapping the future of fashion?

Is clothes swapping the future of fashion?

  • Fast-fashion & throwaway culture produces a staggering amount of textile waste each year
  • Clothes swapping promotes circularity and could transform our shopping habits
  • Post Covid-19, how might swapping evolve and adapt to become mainstream?

Fellow wearers of clothes, the fashion industry is knee-deep in serious and potentially irreversible trouble. From withholding garment worker’s pay to ignoring inherent racism within companies, the sector’s failure to treat each member of its complex supply chain with dignity and fairness is glaring. 

Throughout Covid-19, most fast fashion brands have continued to ignore the very humanitarian crisis they are responsible for. To see the scale of the problem, just search #PayUp, a campaign launched by Remake which exposes brands who’ve refused to pay for orders during the pandemic. 

Four years ago I was a wide-eyed fashion student, however I’m no longer enticed by the industry’s glamorous facade. Beyond supporting independent makers and shopping secondhand, it’s been challenging to reconcile my love of fashion. To date, the industry continues to generate a huge amount of textile waste and fills out the pockets of billionaires while exploiting workforces in developing countries.

The truth is, to truly consume fashion more sustainably we need to transform our relationship with our wardrobes. And this is where I’ve found hope in the power of clothes swapping to truly reinvent our fashion system. 

Clothes swapping could help make fashion circular
Each year we throw away $450 billion worth of textiles

Swapping for change

In a world dominated by capitalism, swapping offers a unique opportunity to change how we engage with fashion. It presents a straightforward solution to getting better wear out of clothes that already exist, where the value of fashion is generated from localism and collective action. It also brings communities together, encouraging us to engage with clothing in a new way through sharing and reuse.

Most of the time, clothes swapping costs less than buying new. For that reason, it’s fast becoming known as a ‘value-for-money’ fashion activity. It could even be free, especially if organised amongst friends and family. All you need is yourself, the clothes you wish to swap and other humans!

For first-time swappers, a swap offers a fresh and new way of accessing a shared and expandable wardrobe. For a seasoned swapper, used garments carry a story and symbolise someone else’s experience. The very nature of clothes swapping shapes fashion beyond commerce and relinquishes its traditional sole purpose as a profit-making tool.

Clothes swapping creates value

Today, fast fashion and its cheap prices has devalued the true cost of clothing. In contrast, clothes swapping is a circular system whereby we can recycle, re-share and re-love existing garments. Locally, there’s been a resurgence in the form of community swap events, retail swap shops and digital community wardrobes. Collectively, I call these trailblazers: Clothes Swapping Platform Providers (CSPPs).

CSPPs work tirelessly to provide purpose and meaning back into pre-loved clothing. Formalising these clothes swapping operations can provide tangible solutions for tackling large volumes of waste. These platforms build unique business models by tapping into principles of the sharing economy. Swapping operations are optimised by combining hybrid business models.

“The very nature of clothes swapping shapes fashion beyond commerce and relinquishes clothing’s traditional sole purpose as a profit-making tool.”

How to make it accessible

I believe we can scale clothes swapping in two ways. The first is through Systems Optimisation, aka designing the clothes swapping experience to make it more accessible. A prime example of this would have been The Great Fashion Revolution Clothes Swap, which was due to happen in April this year but was cancelled due to Covid-19.

Running a public swap would have been a first for Fashion Revolution. Tamsin Blanchard, the non-profit’s Special Projects Coordinator, believes it’s a ‘good way to galvanise the grassroots and break out of the fashion sustainability echo-chamber’. Unlike the bulk of today’s sustainable fashion narrative which obliges people to ‘buy into’ the movement, swapping enables fashion users to harness resources that already exist — namely pre-loved clothes and human relationships.

Despite their event not coming to fruition, Fashion Revolution has useful guides and kits for anyone interested in hosting swaps. You can download them here for free.

“Unlike the bulk of today’s sustainable fashion narrative which obliges people to ‘buy into’ the movement, swapping enables fashion users to harness resources that already exist — namely pre-loved clothes and human relationships.”

Innovating through tech

Additionally, to make swapping more accessible, businesses need to create value through Operational Optimisation. Simply put, it means finding creative solutions to improve and enhance the swap experience — so swappers keep on swapping. Most recently, many have been excited by the potential that technology has to do just that.

Earlier this year as part of the British Fashion Council’s Positive Fashion initiative, Patrick McDowell, a designer that prioritises sustainability, partnered with international platform Global Fashion Exchange and organised the first swap shop at London Fashion Week in February. The Swap Shop invited guests to bring up to 5 garments or accessories to swap. It also engaged sustainability thought leaders like Livia Firth, founder of Eco-Age and Orsola de Castro, the co-founder of Fashion Revolution. For the first time I can remember, clothes swapping received high profile industry approval and massive amounts of media attention.

Most recently, Global Fashion Exchange announced the launch of their newest venture, The Swapchain, to power clothes swapping across the world through Blockchain technology. Besides bridging pre-existing geographical and logistical barriers, the company will use technology to provide traceability and accountability amongst swappers, wherever they are in the world. Tamsin envisions that digitised swapping operations could facilitate a ‘larger-scale, industrial approach to swapping that might be useful for back-end B2B swaps’.

 

Is fashion disposable?

Swapping can’t solve fashion’s big disposability problem

Swapping’s low barrier to entry and its move away from the traditional monetary exchange of goods makes it a powerful substitute to our current capitalist system. It can provide a real circular alternative to the traditional take-make-waste linear model that reigns supreme in fashion. Clothes swapping could even be that missing puzzle piece to create a fashion industry that is future proof. Despite that, I believe it’s not the complete antidote to fast fashion’s popularity; we still need more methods in play to revolutionise our current system.

Clothing isn’t made to last, and this is a pressing socio-environmental issue. Fast-fashion brands proliferate cheap fashion with the sole purpose to persuade consumers to part with their money. I doubt many would want to swap secondhand Forever21, simply because the clothes fall apart within three washes! Above all, we can’t build a healthy, regenerative fashion ecosystem when we make clothes meant to be thrown away.

In a world of excess, swapping can’t be the only antidote to rewiring fashion. It then risks becoming an excuse for the industries disproportionate production and consumption. The only true solution is for the biggest fast-fashion brands to decrease the amount they produce — period.

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“Swapping’s low barrier to entry and its move away from the traditional monetary exchange of goods makes it a powerful substitute to our current capitalist system.”

Clothes swapping at The Fashion Pulpit Singapore
The Fashion Pulpit is Singapore’s go-to clothes swapping store

Looking at the bigger picture

For clothes swapping to truly be effective, it needs to be accompanied by other mediums of sustainable fashion consumption. Ultimately, we need a melange of alternatives to force true change in the fashion industry. To quote Celine Semaan of The Slow Factory, it is imperative that current and future fashion businesses “put the health of our ecosystems at the heart of [their] business systems. That means designing systems from a human, community-centred perspective rather than one that is profit-centred like we have now with capitalism.”

As parts of the world, Singapore included, slowly emerge from enforced isolation, I think about how arts, craft and design have been a respite for many. The time and effort injected into creating something of our own — taking pride in the process of making, mending and repurposing — is something the fast fashion industry cannot compete with.

“Swapping is still not a big part of the conversation around circularity yet,” says Raye Padit, founder of The Fashion Pulpit and formerly Swapaholic, who has spearheaded the clothes swapping movement in Singapore. “So far, it’s been largely treated as a recreational activity that has rarely been taken seriously as a business”. Raye calls for big fashion brands to rethink business models and be in solidarity with smaller, independent businesses and creatives. “Fashion businesses are all equal now, big or small — everyone’s invited to the table to discuss and answer social justice-related issues,” he says.

The Fashion Pulpit Swapping Secondhand Fashion Preloved
Clothes swappers at The Fashion Pulpit’s mobile swap events

The future of swapping post Covid-19

There’s no doubt that swapping has the potential to become a mainstream alternative for the way we consume fashion. The unavoidable question is, however: what does the future of swapping look like post-pandemic?

Post-lockdown, swapping comes with concerns about hygiene and sanitation; it will take time for it to regain its pre-pandemic popularity. Nevertheless, the pandemic has not yet undermined the value-creating nature of swapping. Tamsin Blanchard proposes that swapping can be an activity that works to reestablish social contact. “Whether it is with family, or trusted friendship groups, clothes swapping offers a different sense of fulfilment and satisfaction to swappers, as compared to stepping into a big shopping mall again.”

When asked about the future of swapping, Helen Storey, a professor in Fashion and Science at UAL, explained she thinks the overarching outcome of the pandemic is the increase in “valuing authentic relations which make us feel human”. Storey adds that the clothes we wear have the ability to do that, especially with meaningful stories behind them. She is confident that swapping is still an area our fashion system needs to move into to becoming more environmentally sustainable.

“Whether it is with family, or trusted friendship groups, clothes swapping offers a different sense of fulfilment and satisfaction to swappers, as compared to stepping into a big shopping mall again.” – Tamsin Blanchard

Less shopping, more swapping

I believe swapping’s strength as an alternative means of fashion consumption lies in its core characteristics; it’s collaborative, accessible, inclusive and fun. We could transform high streets and malls into swap shops, repair kiosks and clothing libraries stocking local designers. That would be the dream!

Until the fashion industry prioritises quality over quantity, clothes swapping has to be an essential part of the solution. Clothes swaps should also encompass mutual respect and understanding between swappers, and between themselves and the clothes. But as it stands, there are no rules to swapping. Stripping the concept bare, a living room clothes swap party is joyous and free. The bottom line is, no matter your current fashion habits, swapping truly can be for everyone.

Xingyun Shen is a graduate from LCF (London College of Fashion). She dreams of a different fashion system through amplifying stories and processes of clothing use and wear. This piece is based on her dissertation research investigating the operations of clothes swapping and how it can rethink fashion.

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