Protecting the environment with a single dress

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A tiny indoor cafe above a convenience store, with only “The Swap Project” written in large marker on a chalkboard to indicate its existence and that it hosts events that have little to do with coffee.

Instead, the main attractions are the clothes on a table in the middle of the room, jackets, coats and flashy tops hanging on clothing racks, and formal dresses draped over window bars, with an accessories table off to the side displaying costume jewelry and shoes.

Women wander the store, browsing the merchandise and taking out what they like. Every few minutes, women flit in and out, many of them carrying large bags full of clothes. A pretty, stylish young woman, a pair of bracelets dangling from her face, runs to meet a friend, who cheers with excitement.

In the back of the cafe, volunteers are sorting newly arrived clothes and helping customers with the cash register.

Most of its customers are urbanites in their late 20s and 30s with good intentions, a love of clothes and a knack for finding a bargain.

Women are walking around the cafe trying on different clothes that suit their taste. –fotoBERNAMA (2023) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

In effect, the event may seem like a junk sale, but Swap Project founder Jada Chung said that’s a misnomer, as the event focuses on swapping items in bulk, rather than buying them individually. Once swapped, new owners can come back and exchange the clothes for other items.

Sitting in the cafe’s lounge area, software programmer Mandy Howe looks on with interest.

“This feels like a new type of shopping experience,” she mused over tea. This was her second Swap Project event; she was accompanied by her mother, Eoin Len Lye, who has attended five events so far.

Like many others here, she cited environmental concerns as her main motivation for attending the event.

Fashion waste

Concerned about Malaysia’s throwaway culture and wanting to reduce fashion waste, a growing environmental disaster, Chong founded The Swap Project in 2018 as a way to keep clothes in circulation for longer.

“All these clothes would have ended up in landfills,” Chong told Bernama.

According to SWCorp and KlothCares, 31% of the total waste generated in Malaysia in 2021, or 432,901 tonnes, was textile waste. According to a United Nations report, the world produces an estimated 100 billion pieces of clothing each year, of which 92 million tonnes end up in landfills. At least 7% of landfills are discarded clothing and textiles. About 1% of clothing is recycled.

To make matters worse, most of the fabrics produced through today’s “fast fashion” – clothing designs that move quickly from catwalks to stores to stay on trend – are made from synthetic fibres, which means they are made from fossil fuels. This means that, like plastic, these clothes don’t decompose when discarded, but rather contribute to global warming.

This year was the hottest since 1940, with more heat waves on record than cold waves on record, and scientists say the world is reaching a tipping point as the planet warms.

–Nina Muslim/BERNAMA

The Swap Project wants to make a small dent in climate change by reducing the amount of fashion waste ending up in landfills. The project invites people to trade their good quality clothes, but that they don’t use for any reason, for other people’s clothes.

After paying an entry fee of RM50, which will help towards operational and venue costs, everyone can take home 15 items, including clothes, shoes and jewellery.

“What’s even more satisfying is actually being able to give away my clothes. I have so much clothing that I just can’t throw away and don’t think is old enough to recycle,” says business owner Victoria Lee, 37.

Standardizing swapping

The group has held 28 events since it began, and although the number has decreased during the pandemic year, it still runs about six or seven events a year.

The Swap Project is not the only clothing exchange initiative in Malaysia, as it also collaborates with a similar group in Malaysia, namely Fashion Revolution by influencer Melissa Tan.

To date, the group has successfully replaced between 6,000 and 7,000 pieces of clothing.

“Not many people know about[us]. Not enough,” she sighed, adding that the group is still working to get the word out. The 2020-2022 pandemic restrictions haven’t helped.

However, since the lockdown, the situation has improved and more people are attending meetings.

Customers Bernama spoke to all mentioned the importance of the environment and sustainability, as well as the joy of bargain hunting and finding fashion gems, and knowing that whatever item they acquire, it is likely to be one-of-a-kind.

Ms Lee, who attended the event with her friend Faustina Nguy, told Bernama that the clothes swap allowed her to save energy and redirect it towards shopping less while still fulfilling her fashion needs.

“This is something I’m trying to forget in my life. I used to be the type of person who would go to a sale and have to grab something from a pile of clothes no matter what,” she said, adding that whenever she went to a clothing swap event, she was able to find something that fit her style.

But not everyone is equally lucky.

Margaret Gunasegran, 37, and her friend Hesty Kuniawati, 30, try on clothes at a recent Swap Project event in Petaling Jaya. –fotoBERNAMA (2023) All Rights Reserved

Despite lofty aspirations, there are several issues that must be addressed or tackled for the swap project to be successful. First, there is limited choice. People who are not of average height, weight, or body type tend to be out of luck when trying to swap clothes in their preferred style.

For example, first-time visitor Margaret Gunasegran, 37, an accounting manager at a computer company who came with her colleague and friend, Hesti Kurniawati, found only two items that suited her.

On several occasions, volunteers approached Margaret and showed her blouses and dresses to try on, but she declined. Despite the disappointing results, Margaret told Bernama that she plans to come back again to try her luck.

“There are American and European sizes that aren’t available in the (Malaysian) market, so you can get the size you want (here),” she said, adding that the low entry fee meant whatever she got at the swap event was already a bargain.

“It gives me a sense of satisfaction because I’m not wasting money unnecessarily,” she said.

Another issue is gender restrictions: most of the customers are women, so most of the items are women’s clothing.

But here and there in the cafe, a few men sat huddled in corners, seemingly anxious about invading women’s-only space.

Most were partners or family members of the women there. None participated. Some were interested but said they didn’t want to go through the trouble of finding clothes.

Chung acknowledged the limitations and said the company is working to increase inventory, size and style options to give customers more choice when they come to swap clothes. He also said the company might hold men-only swap events.

“If more people get involved, there will definitely be more options,” she said.

Mishal Nair (left), 36, and his mother Komala Nair (68) showed off their fashion choices at a recent The Swap Project event. –fotoBERNAMA (2023) All Rights Reserved

Change your mindset

A major problem is public ignorance and misunderstanding about the clothing swap and its meaning, but changing that perception is largely beyond the group’s control.

Mother Komala Nair and daughter Mishal Nair love swapping clothes but acknowledge it is still a niche market in Malaysia.

Komala blames the older generation’s mentality that buying new items is a status symbol.

“[They]were like, ‘Why are you taking people’s clothes? We’re not poor. Actually we were poor, but the ego was there. But now through social media and through my kids, I tend to learn,” she said.

Mishal, who is also an official at the Securities Commission Malaysia and was attending her third Swap Project event, said some people might be nervous about swap transactions because they fear the unknowns.

The 36-year-old said she tried to spread the word about the event and encourage people to attend, but there weren’t many turnouts.

“Some people prefer to buy from places like Carousel. They think, ‘What if I don’t get what I want?’ If you buy, at least you know what you’re getting instead of bringing in nice clothes and having to trade,” she said.

Still, sustainable practices are growing in popularity and she believes they will become more common in the future as long as people continue to raise awareness and spread the message as much as possible.

“Clothing is filling up landfills and the younger generation feels exposed to this, which is why a large number of Malaysians are promoting (sustainable practices),” she said.

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