Reducing Waste – One Outfit at a Time

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Reducing Waste – One Outfit at a Time

Guest post by: Jamie D’Souza, Content Manager at Happy Eco News

I used to play this silly game when I was younger, where I would go through everything I was wearing that day and identify which stores I had gotten each item from – the more stores the better. Today I play a similar game, where I identify which of the items of clothing that I’m wearing are secondhand. You know it’s a good day when the entire outfit has been previously loved!

I have to admit, I wasn’t always a fan of secondhand clothing, especially as a teenager. When you’re in high school, you’re surrounded by all the brand names and new styles that literally everyone has and because you so desperately want to fit in, you can’t exactly admit that you’re wearing secondhand clothing (don’t judge me, I’m sure we’ve all been there).

Lucky for me I quickly grew out of that phase and I am now more than happy to flaunt my secondhand finds. I have to thank my mom for normalizing this for me. Our endless hours spent at a second-hand store nearby our house, finding furniture, flowerpots, and paintings on the side of the road, and going to garage sales really changed my perspective about what we are buying. Why should we spend a ton of money at a retailer when there are perfectly good items that people have used once or twice before and don’t want anymore? The expression “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” is so true and I live by this every day. You should see my apartment, at least 85% of my furniture and décor is secondhand and I am not ashamed to admit it!

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Some flowerpot finds. I don’t think I own any pots that aren’t secondhand!

One moment that really influenced my secondhand journey was when I went to Ottawa, Ontario to pursue my master’s degree. Although I went there to do a project on climate change and tourism, it was the summer of 2019 when I worked as the coordinator at The Office of Campus Sustainability’s Free Store that really changed my entire life and outlook on sustainability, specifically textile waste. I know I talked about the Free Store in my first blog, but it’s such an important topic and passion for me that I feel the need to talk about it again, so bear with me, it might actually change your life too!

The Free Store is a store at the University of Ottawa where students, faculty, and community members can donate their previously loved clothing, books, school supplies, house supplies, etc. And in turn, other students, faculty members, or alumni can pick up these items – all for free. The entire store is run on donations. You might be thinking how that’s even possible, but let me tell you, their donation bin was full almost every day! Many of their donations also came from their “Dump and Run” event which happens at the end of each semester. Once students have moved out of their dorms, volunteers collect their left-over items– things that students going back home don’t want/can’t take back with them. The items collected go to the Free Store, are donated to charities, and are kept for their huge back-to-school event in September. Being part of the Dump and Run event was an eye-opening experience for me because I couldn’t believe not only how much stuff students purchase and then leave behind.

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Piles of linens and clothing collected from Dump and Run. These piles ended up touching the ceiling after a week of collections

These collections and the Free Store exist not only to give back to the community and to help those in need but also to reduce waste from going into the landfill. Did you know that North America sends 10 million TONNES of clothing waste into the landfill every year?! I don’t know about you, but it boggles my mind that this is an issue. Moreover, it worries me that it’s not a well-known issue either. We hear a lot about food waste, plastic waste, recycling, but it’s seldom that textile (clothing) waste is at the forefront of our conversations. Case in point, before the Office of Campus Sustainability started their Dump and Run events over 10 years ago, all the student’s leftover items were thrown into the garbage. Through the Free Store, they are able to divert 15-20 tonnes of waste each year which totals $1.5M worth of stuff!

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Infographic of waste diverted by the Free Store since 2009. Photo credit: Office of Campus Sustainability

Why are we throwing away so much stuff, especially clothing, and where is it all coming from? You may have heard of the trend “Fast Fashion” which is defined as low-priced clothing that is featured on the runway and quickly makes its way into retail stores, with new collections being introduced continuously. As trends change rapidly, it means items are worn a few times and then donated or thrown out. Clothing production has doubled worldwide and consumers are purchasing 60% more textile products – as an example, Canadians purchase 72 textile items from retail stores, annually. I never knew a lot about textile waste or fast fashion before I started working at the Free Store, it wasn’t until I saw the mountain (literally almost touching the ceiling) of clothing, that I started being more aware of what fast fashion really was. Soon after I started seeing evidence of this everywhere. For example, I had to walk through the McKenzie King Mall to get to school, and almost every week stores were having an “end of season” sale. The storefront displays were also changing all the time to account for new trends. I can’t even tell you how many times at the Free Store we’d find donated items from stores like Forever 21, H&M, Zara, with tags still on them, most ticketed at a sale price.

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Basically the same fanny pack – except one was free and the other one is outrageously priced because of the logo

One of the things I think we’ve learned during the pandemic is that we have too much stuff. In Montreal, we have what we call a “curbside culture”, whereby many bigger items (furniture for example) and other household goods get put on the side of the road before garbage pickup and it’s a free for all – for whoever wants it. On my many walks through my neighborhood during the beginning of the pandemic, I noticed an increase in the amount of stuff on the curb and was even starting to see people leave bags of clothing – which I’d never really seen before. Secondhand shops and donation bins were exploding with items from the pandemic cleaning, and some places even had to refuse donations because it was getting too much for them to sort through.

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A donation bin that has exploded with donations.

What can we do about our overconsumption problem? In a perfect world we would just stop buying clothing altogether, wear everything in our closets (more than once) until they become tattered and unfixable, and only then would we buy something new. Unfortunately, that’s not a reality, at least not in the near future. But here are a couple of ways we can reduce clothing waste:

  • Wear what you already own. I’ve noticed that clothing trends are coming back even quicker than ever, and a lot of the styles nowadays are likely to be something you’ve worn in the past. Dig through your closet, you may be pleasantly surprised with what you find.
  • Think before you buy. I’m all for a good sale, but most of the time we’re buying items that we don’t even need and might not even wear. Buy pieces that you know you’ll wear regularly and something that will bring you endless joy. Bonus if you buy items that are better quality and will last many years.
  • Buy secondhand: I think I’ve made my case about the benefits of buying previously loved items.
  • Support and buy local: I didn’t really get into the nitty-gritty of the environmental impact of producing and transporting clothing (if you’re wondering, it takes about 1800 gallons of water to make a pair of cotton jeans). And on top of that, working conditions abroad are not the greatest in terms of human rights.
  • Avoid buying from companies with a bad environmental reputation: This is a tough one because there is so much greenwashing from companies nowadays, but if you do your research, you’re likely to find clothing companies that are doing good for our planet!
  • Please don’t throw your old clothes in the garbage: I don’t even know how people can do this with a clear conscience. Donate what you don’t wear anymore, have a garage sale, do a clothing swap with your friends! There are endless options to ensure that clothing doesn’t end up in the landfill.
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Even my dog Zoe (who fittingly is also secondhand) gets her Halloween costumes from secondhand stores and materials – I made this flamingo costume from things I found at the Free Store.

One of my 2021 goals is to open up a Free Store in Montreal because I want to educate people about textile and clothing waste and the impact it has on the environment and encourage them to give items a second life! I really want to make textile waste a known issue and that we start finding solutions to reduce waste and protect our planet. This project is definitely a work in progress (my biggest issue right now is finding space, so if you’re reading this and you live in Montreal and know somewhere that is willing to donate space, please contact me!) but I strongly believe it’s a cause worth fighting for!

Next time you need a dress for a party, a new set of plates, a book, or even some flowerpots, take a look at your local secondhand store, I promise you you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you find!

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Some of my best finds at secondhand stores are exercise clothing and even Zumba instructor shirts which are perfect for my virtual classes!

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  1. Jaime

    I lived in Telluride, Colorado, in the 70s and 80s. At that time, it was a small town of hippies and ski bums. On the main street beside a ski shop was the Free Box, a place to donate second hand items and clothing.

    I went back to Telluride a few years ago and much had changed with development. Main Street’s empty lots have filled in with buildings, but I looked anyway, just in case. Yep, there it was, the Free Box still standing!


    1. Hey Will, this is awesome and gives me a lot of hope.
      I want to do something like that in my neighborhood – we already have boxes with free books but I want to try to implement a clothing box as well!

      Thank for this!

    1. Thanks Pierre! It’s a work in progress, unfortunately Concordia has been very slow with their response about opening up a store and I guess the timing isn’t great either with in person classes starting again

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