'Conscious Consumerism' at No Frills, All Fun



But the free shopping experience has a deeper story. “The real purpose of this swap,” We Thieves owner Sandra E. Rossi explains, “is just to keep garments in circulation as long as possible before they actually get donated.”



There seem to be two ways to go about it. You could spend all morning combing through old clothes — as one woman we spoke to did – trying to decide if that sweater you once loved is still oversized in a cute way or if it just plain doesn’t fit, before driving a basketful of your closet clutter across the Charles River to Somerville’s Warehouse XI.

Or if you’re like us, you could pick three pieces that you haven’t worn this semester, chuck them in your backpack, and walk to Union Square after missing the 86 bus.

Regardless of your mode of transportation, the No Frills All Fun Clothing Swap waits with open doors.

Held on March 27 and hosted by We Thieves, a women-run vintage boutique located in Inman Square, the No Frills All Fun Clothing Swap was organized to offer the community a more sustainable shopping option. To participate in the swap, attendees were encouraged to bring three to 15 articles of clothing. After checking in outside, swappers were ushered into the space. Some hung their assorted dresses and jackets — formal intermingling with casual — on the racks that lined the walls, while others found room on the blanket-covered floor. A fitting room stood in the back as an open, half-walled off space with about as much privacy as a window. Patrons tried desperately to shimmy on their new finds over the clothes they came in. One woman nearby, too busy to answer our questions, worked with intense concentration at a sewing machine, repairing garments in effort to extend their wearable life. Across the warehouse, a band picked at their guitars.

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It was chaos, but there couldn’t have been a better way to spend the Sunday.

But the free shopping experience has a deeper story. “The real purpose of this swap,” We Thieves owner Sandra E. Rossi explains, “is just to keep garments in circulation as long as possible before they actually get donated.”

It may seem counterintuitive to fight against donation, often touted as an environmentally-friendly choice. But though the secondhand clothing industry claims donation is the lynchpin of the “circular” clothing industry, it is actually one step in the process of waste colonization. In reality, 84 percent of donated clothing is sent to landfills or incinerators, according to the EPA. And billions of these disposed garments are exported to the Global South each year, forcing local communities to manage literal tons of waste. These countries previously relied on vendors to resell those donated clothes — but now, they’re encountering a major roadblock.

“Since fast fashion has really taken off, they can’t resell the clothes,” Rossi says. “We’re basically placing our trash in other places.” As clothes aren’t built to last anymore, their once-circular path now ends in overflowing landfills.

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Rossi is trying to intervene before this process begins. We Thieves is all about “conscious consumerism,” according to its website. Beyond its vintage clothing collection, the store has produced a conscious consumer resource guide with an extensive list of ways to shop more responsibly — most importantly, it suggests consumers buy fewer clothes and keep the ones in their closets for longer.

No Frills All Fun is another extension of this mission, providing the experience of shopping with the sustainability of a swap. In partnership with On The Rise, an organization that provides support for women and transgender or nonbinary people experiencing homelessness in Cambridge, the event also encouraged donations and sent any unclaimed clothing to their Safe Haven.

Back at the warehouse, attendees ducked, stretched, and apologized as they navigated the packed walkways like pirates in search of treasure. At the center of it all, Rossi darted back and forth in a red shirt with black undersleeves, green pants, and a long-sleeved floral print tied at her waist.

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We even saw our own clothing pieces find new owners in real time. Jem brought a gray striped shirt, one of the first things she ever bought for herself during the summer when she got her first job, her license, and her first bit of freedom from her parents. A few minutes later, a woman with short, dark hair picked it up, examined it, and laid it across her arm. Just like that, it found a new home.

Perhaps someone else in that room had that exact same feeling as we picked out our own new closet additions — a velvet v-neck for Jem, a striped button-down for Francesca. “Conscious consumerism means only taking what you need,” read the sign in front of the clothing rack. Perhaps we didn’t need those new pieces, but we’re happy to take them home anyways.

— Magazine writer Francesca J. Barr can be reached at francesca.barr@thecrimson.com.

— Magazine writer Jem K. Williams can be reached at jem.williams@thecrimson.com.