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Love Fashion but hate the environmental cost? Swapsies is the Irish Solution

Fast fashion is becoming slower thanks to Irish gal Clodagh Kelly.

CALL US VAIN, call us indulgent, or call us narcissistic, but how many of us look in our closet and think ‘Ugh, I can’t wear that on Saturday! I put up an Instagram of me wearing it twice already’?

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Despite the ever-increasing news reports about the environmental impact of our shopping habits, our craving for something new is hard to curb. So our commute is spent browsing ASOS looking for a black going-out top to join the 14 other ones we own. 

But what if you could satisfy your craving for new items and be a sustainable consumer of fashion? 

Enter stage right: Clodagh Kelly, the Irish gal with a solution to our 21st problem. 

swapsies

In 2012, Clodagh met her kindred spirit Janet at a volunteer community arts project and the sustainability stars aligned a couple of months later, with the pair crossing paths at a post-graduate course.

Janet expressed to Clodagh her desire to host a ‘swap shop’ – an event where people bring along clothing items for exchange. Serendipitously, Clodagh had experiences of hosting swap shops in college, so the two began planning. In 2013, they crammed 15 friends into the living room of Janet’s top floor apartment for the first ‘Swapsies’. 

Clodagh recalls that the event was such a success that the question on everyone’s lips was ‘When is the next one?’. The enthusiasm was no doubt aided by the Prosecco, which transformed the ‘Swap Shop’ into an occasion any girl who’s ever watched Sex and the City imagined her twenties would be like.

sex Source: HBO

Realising that they were on to something, Clodagh and Janet decided to make ‘Swapsies’ a seasonal (i.e. quarterly) event. Janet has since moved to New York, so it was Clodagh who took Swapsies public in 2017.

Swapsies’ goal is to make swapping, not shopping, the new normal.

Clodagh wants to slow down our fashion habits so that instead of shopping monthly or even weekly, attendees would be swapping in line with the seasons of the year. 

Due to ever decreasing costs, we purchase 400 per cent more clothing than we did 20 years ago. However, there is a hidden cost to the cheap fashion we consume: a cost to the environment and to workers in developing countries. Clodagh says that the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, where 1,130 fast fashion workers died and 2,500 were injured, was ‘eye-opening’:

It connected what we were doing [with Swapsies] with something tangible. 

Rana Plaza Tragedy 1st Year Commemoration - Dhaka Source: Asad Mohammad

The environmental cost is no less tangible but more hidden. Most of those items get worn only a few times before it is thrown away, with the average American throwing away 81 pounds worth of clothing. This is the equivalent weight of a black baby Rhino.

Rhino in Magdeburg Zoo Source: DPA/PA Images

Even if you donate, most of your clothing will end up in landfills and as the majority of textiles are not biodegradable they’ll sit there for 200 years.  

With the clothes that we do retain, research says that the average person only wears 20% of what is in their closet on a regular basis. 

Clodagh says our wardrobes are full of ‘What If’ items: the clothes you don’t give away because you think ‘What if I lose a stone?’ or ‘What if I’m invited to a wedding on the Italian coast?’

I mean a girl can dream!

Swapsies enables your clothes to have a better life than lingering at the back of your closet or degrading slowly in a landfill, and in return you get someone else’s items.

There’s never been an initiative that more epitomises the expression ‘one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure’

I went to my first Swapsies event in October with five items that were still in fantastic quality but having lost my baby weight, they were a size too big for me.

swapsies Source: Swapsies

I had debated for months about whether I should get my clothes taken in but as they were from Zara and TopShop, the cost of alterations would be the same as buying something new.

The event was held on a Saturday in a beautiful shared workspace in Harold’s Cross, and as soon as I entered the building I was blown away by the event’s professionalism. 

46480065_343212592909286_8324412068719493120_n Source: Claire Woods

I was warmly greeted at the door and my first task was to hang up my jacket and bag in what was called ‘The Safe Space’ – i.e. no one would be taking home your clothes from this corner. Then I was led over to the ‘Tagging’ area, where I had to tag my clothes with their size and my name so that after they were swapped, someone could come find me and discuss the history of the item. 

tagging Source: Swapsies

Our clothes were brought into another room for steaming and sorting into rails. As we waited for everyone to arrive and the Swapping area to be organised, we were invited to a craft area where we were shown how to make tote bags out of old t-shirts that we had been told to bring along. 

Everyone was so friendly and the conversation flowed as easily as the Prosecco.

Dotted around the room was also lots of information about the true cost of clothing.

resuse Source: Claire Woods

46436794_1621654071314328_1426235656908046336_nSource: Claire Woods

Clodagh gave a speech about the idea and ethics behind Swapsies, as well as the ‘rules’ of the swapping. In the Swap Room, all of our items had been divided into sections (coats, dresses, skirts, etc), and were hanging on rails. We were allowed to browse the racks for one minute but not allowed to touch!

We were advised to stand beside the item that we really wanted. After a minute, we were told to get into position beside our coveted items, and then on the count of three, it was a free-for-all grab! 

swap Source: Claire Woods

I’ve never had a ‘shopping’ experience like it. The atmosphere was tense as we prowled the aisles and eyed up the pieces we were coveting. Giggles broke out sporadically. On the countdown I stood beside a gorgeous patterned playsuit and luckily no one else had their hands reaching out for it when the countdown ended! 

Our craft tote bags served the purpose of being our Swapping Bag so we could stock up on the items we wanted to try on.

There were changing areas and plenty of mirrors as we tried on all the items, and I went home with 5 items that day. I was so impressed with the standard of clothing and have already worn all of the pieces multiple times except one. An unexpected aspect of the event that I loved was getting to know the other women at the event through their clothes. We didn’t just swap clothes but swapped our histories and stories through explaining the meaning of our items.

Also at the event was Debbie Tormey, a co-founder of Attention Attire that upcycles camping gear into made-to-measure outerwear.

Debbie is the creative genius behind the handmade items, and at Swapsies events she is on hand to fix snags or to alter items as oftentimes an issue with pre-loved items is sizing.  

Swapsies held an event last month for Halloween costumes, but the date for next season’s Swapsies hasn’t been set yet. However you can sign up to on Swapsies to get a notification, and you can also like them on Facebook or Instagram

April is the sixth anniversary of Rana Plaza, and Clodagh’s aim is to secure funding for Swapsies as a social enterprise before that date. Her plan is to bring Swapsies on tour around Ireland. She hopes to raise the collective consciousness of fast fashion, by joining together those cognisant of reducing their carbon footprint and those with a passion for fashion in a Prosecco (or orange juice) fuelled swapping experience.  

Clodagh says it’s natural to feel overwhelmed and helpless by the sheer scale of the problem, but that we shouldn’t feel resigned into inaction. Through changing our habits or having conversations, we can inspire others around us to change so that we create a circular economy with fashion instead of a linear economy with the line ending in landfills.

Swapsies is definitely one habit I’ll be taking on-board.    

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