As a note: although reuse can be of any item, regardless of its function or design, my story and focus is and has always been on clothing. This is because of multiple reasons. Even at a young age, I was very exposed to clothing, unlike many other household items. Further, in our society, where we may only have one kettle or one TV at any given time, many of us have hundreds of articles of clothing, and the use gotten out of each item is often much less than its value as a resource comparatively. It was for these reasons that I discovered my passion for not only clothing reuse, but also for its promotion. I may have lived a short life so far, but this situation is tightly stitched (watch for that pun!) to who I am and likely will continue to be.
When I was a little girl, it was paradise every time I got a bag full of hand-me-downs from girls (or even boys) slightly older or taller than me, and I felt I had discovered a pot of gold – all the riches in my little world were hidden within that collection of t-shirts and stockings. Pulling out already-loved-shirt after already-softened-jeans, I would make my way through the treasure trove that was a huge garbage bag or cardboard box, choosing at my fancy and whim which articles I would add to my closet and which would move on to the next, equivalently lucky child. By the age of ten, I had set foot in a clothing store only a handful of times, and those expeditions were always extremely short and determined – my mother walking briskly to the sock and underwear aisle to grab a 12-pack of striped girls’ panties before marching me to the cash-register to pay and getting the heck out of that place of consumerism. To say the least, my mom hates shopping for clothing. This mostly stems from her childhood, when her parents lived as many young couples with families in the post-war era – penny by penny, reusing whatever they could and fixing or repurposing rather than buying new. My mom grew up getting hand-me-downs from her older sisters, who’d received them from their older cousins and so on. Contrary to what one might think due to my mother’s behaviour within my lifetime – her adamant refusal, whenever possible, to buy clothing new – she hated these passed-down jackets and dresses as a girl and sometimes vehemently refused to go to school, thinking she would be teased for her four-years-too-late style. Funny how history has a way of repeating itself…
For the first time, when I was eleven years old, my older cousin took me on a shopping spree. I was thrown right into one of the largest malls in North America with a couple hundred dollars cash and a nineteen year old fashionista – what did my mom expect? I bought a bunch of clothing, and I loved it, and I wore it all the time. But I also became embarrassed by all my other outfits – the ones that I hadn’t picked out in a brand name store. I still wore them, but I would tell people I’d forgotten where I bought them if they asked me. So much of our pre-teen years are spent trying to prove that we are ‘in with the crowd’, and I felt like I was living a double life – I was sure someone would rat me out at any moment and tell everyone that I was wearing a hand-me-down. Why I was so scared of this discovery is beyond me now, and I don’t think there was ever any logic in it. Being the generation that learned from a young age to recycle and not idle, you would think that reusing clothing would have been a more readily discussed topic as well. But it just wasn’t. And so I thought that I would be at the butt-end of a joke if it ever came out that I didn’t pay for my clothes (even though at that age, no one else did either really, it was mostly our parents’ money).
And then, one day when I was fifteen, I went on another shopping spree with a friend in Toronto – I’m from a small town – and she took me to her favourite store, one of many second-hand stores along Bloor Street. Suddenly, I realized that there were lots of young people out there in the world who loved scavenging for little jewels that were pre-loved. And I started openly telling my classmates and peers that I had bought my favourite pair of boots at the thrift store in town, or that my shirt was a hand-me-down from an older cousin that had been sitting in a closet since 2004 and was totally giving off vintage vibes. Much to my surprise, people reacted positively to my honesty about the origin of my clothing. Extremely positively. Suddenly I had buddies to join me on my thrift shopping adventures and people to organize clothing swaps with all throughout my high school years. And I adored my well-worn, pre-loved clothing even more.
It must have been this love that drew me to the well-cared-for closet – the UBC Free Store and its little group of volunteers – sporting second-hand clothing, school supplies, household items and much more. (Just because another random student has cooked in that pot doesn’t mean you can’t use it for the next five years!) And on top of all that, the Free Store concept was even better than anything I could have ever imagined. To me, it was the globalized and industrialized (but in a super positive way!) version of the garbage bags of hand-me-downs that I used to receive as a child. Now it wasn’t just something between friends, or in the family—it was something that was shared with strangers, anyone who could give and take as they desired, because in the end, everything would get balanced out. Something interesting happens when money is taken out of the equation: so goes guilt, greed and embarrassment. It’s not just about passing on clothing, it’s about sharing whatever you have to share. Essentially the Free Store concept is the modern version of the entire human society thousands of years ago, before money even existed. And in some ways, that works. Not for everything, but for reducing waste and reusing all sorts of items, it works. And it educates.
I’ve been at university for six months now, and I have yet to set my foot into a store selling new clothing. I don’t even think of that as an accomplishment. I just proudly wear my UBC Free Store clothing and tell everyone I meet about how amazing it is, how accessible it is and how free it is. The more we all openly discuss and support the idea of reuse, the more normal it becomes. You’d be surprised how acceptable reuse actually is in society, yet each one of us thinks that we will be labeled for wearing clothing, or using cookware or writing with half-empty pens that lacked tags when we picked them up. Trust me, be proud to show off those items. Be proud as you walk out of any second-hand store or Free Store with a new outfit to show off. Be proud to dumpster dive for ball gowns or food (I’ve done both!) and organize clothing swaps or sharing fairs. Maybe you can trade your bike-fixing skills for a free haircut! Visit the UBC Free Store and see what it has to offer! It might be a struggle to make reducing, reusing and recycling a worldwide, accepted way of life, but the way to start is to proudly demonstrate your subscription to this lifestyle. History has a way of repeating itself, so let’s make those repetitions as positive as possible, because maybe one day, every child’s joy will be a new bag of hand-me-downs and the knowledge that they are adding to a conscious and positive society.
-Kirianne Ashley, UBC Free Store