Collaborative Consumption and the Sharing Economy: the Grassroots Efforts of the Sustainable Fashion Community Center

Clothing is more than functional. Our clothes tell our story. They offer clues about our personality and reflect the image we see in ourselves. They can symbolize our values, share our secrets, give us confidence to go out into the world, send silent messages, and even communicate rebellion or solidarity with others. Our clothes are an integral part of our identity, our self-image, our psyche.

Yet at the same time, the current mainstream clothing textile industry is neither sustainable nor future-oriented. Fashion is part of a linear economy that uses resources to make goods to be sold solely for profit, then disposes of anything not needed, from manufacturing scraps, materials and dyes… to the end product. The rise of “fast fashion” by brands such as Shein, Primark, and others, create profit margins by reducing costs (cheaper fabrics and quality) and speeding up production time, which can mean cutting environmental corners and unjust labor practices. In addition, the majority of the fashion industry pushes clothing designed to be replaced seasonally with updated fashion trends. Ultimately, the raw materials, and end products, end up burned or in the garbage dump. Wasted resources polluting our planet and adding to the environmental crises.

According to research by the American Chemical Society, since the 2000s, fashion production has doubled and it will likely triple by 2050. (1)  The production of polyester, used for cheap and fast fashion, as well as athleisure wear, has increased nine-fold in the last 50 years(2). Because some clothing lines have become so cheap, consumers find it easy to discard items after being worn only a few times. One survey found that 20 percent of clothing in the US is never worn.(3)  A study by Grow NYC found the average New Yorker tosses 46 pounds of clothing and other textiles in the trash each year, at a cost to taxpayers and our environment.(4)

Overall, the Fashion Industry is responsible for 10 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and 20 percent of global wastewater, using more energy than the aviation and shipping sectors combined.(5)

Sounds grim, right? Luckily, things are slowly changing. Many reputable brands are starting to take sustainability seriously and are making efforts to improve production methods. And there are tons of local grassroots efforts popping up across the country that focus on new methods of managing production, sale and use of textile and clothing.

The Sustainable Fashion Community Center (SFCC) in East Harlem is one of a growing group of these grassroots organizations offering a solution. A clothing swap shop, member-led pop-up, educational center, and clothing recycling center, the SFCC is a hive of activity within the vibrant East Harlem neighborhood.

Shoppers can shop in one of three ways – they can pay a $15 fee for 10 items, they can swap clothing items 1 to 1, or they can purchase items at bargain prices during shop days. I happened to be volunteering on a shop day when everything in the store was $1.

Lots of donated clothes to sort

Teams of volunteers work 3-hour shifts of sorting, hanging, organizing, and general housekeeping activities. As a thank you, volunteers can “straight-swap” up to 10 pieces (meaning swap out items you bring for new-to-you items you take from the store). On any given day, handfuls of volunteers keep the store stocked and check in new items.

The SFCC is an example of collaborative consumption, a socio-economic model which focuses on sharing access to products with the goal of increasing usage of unwanted or underutilized products. The sharing economy is an alternative to the contemporary marketplace, focusing on reducing new product acquisition, increasing product reuse, and extending product lifecycle.

The SFCC also hosts pop-up clothing swaps , in person and virtual workshops, has an educational program, and has a clothing recycling program where items donated but not sellable are gathered, weighed, and picked up by NYC as part of their clothing recycling program.

Designer items and brand-new items are sold on PoshMark to raise funds to run the SFCC, and they collect used sneakers for recycling and use by other non-profits who send shoes to the needy in the US and other countries.

On the day I volunteered, there were many clients in and out of the space, enjoying perusing the racks and chatting with Founder, Andrea Reyes, who is a fountain of knowledge about sustainable fashion. Her passion is inspiring from the moment you enter the door.

Jackets for sale

The second-hand clothing culture is designed for intimate interaction with the clothes and the community and the SFCC is fully immersed in providing a special client experience. It promotes a unique emotional connection to textiles, where participants first experience an emotional release from cleaning out and decluttering their closets, knowing that by doing so they are helping bring others joy and are helping the environment.

The children’s racks

The store itself is welcoming and designed for touch, try on, and conversation. There is a strong blend of somatic and emotional experiences as shoppers are encouraged to touch the fabrics and try on items, play dress up, and try new styles outside of their comfort zone.

There’s also a practical piece – monetary benefits of swapping out high-quality clothes you no longer wear for new-to-you wardrobe items. And Andrea ensures the experience is a positive one, reminding shoppers they are preventing clothing from going to the landfill and that they are reducing consumption of virgin resources by participating in the swap.

Many of the clients were repeat clients. One shopper said they loved the positive moral feeling – that they were reducing environmental pollution and they loved finding vintage and unusual items to add to their closet.

Swapping, in a way, helps people understand the benefits of the art of letting go and decluttering, while also helping them reflect on our capitalistic society’s psychological want to continuously acquire more. It expands perspectives around certain aspects of capitalism.

I also spoke with first-time shoppers curious about the uniqueness of the experience. One younger shopper loved the idea of engaging in anti-consumption, counter-cultural, behavior where consumers become both the supplier and the consumer.

Andrea spoke of the circular economy grassroots efforts like the SFCC promote – where the earth is understood as a vulnerable system with limited natural resources, and thus the importance of using as few raw materials as possible. An endless cycle of reuse and recycling for the benefit of all – keeping the value of raw materials and produced goods as high as possible for as long as possible.

It is an inspiring message and exchanging clothing extends the life of the item over and over again.

A study by Wrap (UK) found that when you decide to extend the life of your clothing for just nine months, you cause a 25-30% reduction of your water and carbon footprint and have other positive environmental impacts.(6) The SFCC, and organizations like it, is transforming the contemporary fashion marketplace model and people’s relationships with the products, as well as reshaping what consumers demand from brands (sustainable, environmentally low-impact clothing).

I traded in several items in an effort to reduce the amount of clothing I’ve collected in my closet, and traded it all in for a blouse I fell in love with on sight!

Want to learn more about the Sustainable Fashion Community Center? Check out their website through the NYC Fair Trade Coalition at:

Looking to get involved in the collaborative consumption culture? You can buy new-to-you and upcycled clothing on websites such as Etsy and PoshMark, and by shopping at vintage clothing stores, swap shops and even local government-agency and/or non-profit-run used clothing stores (Goodwill, etc.).

Want to get involved hyper-locally? Why not set up a clothing swap or fashion exchange with a group of friends or at your local school (children’s clothes are PERFECT for swapping). Not sure how to host one? I’ve put together some simple instructions here:

If you shop new-to-you clothing, share some photos with me and share your story. I’d love to hear about it!

Sources for Citations:

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.