Let’s go shwopping! (Not a typo)

Speaking Sustainably

Let’s go shwopping! (Not a typo)

I don’t like to shop. But I know I’d like to shwop.

Shwopping is the latest idea from British retail pioneer Marks & Spencer. They’re well known in the sustainability world for their Plan A (so named because there isn’t a Plan B to deal with climate change). Now they’ve introduced a new way to think about and interact with retail – customers swap an old item of clothing before they buy a new one.

Here’s what inspired the company: More than one billion bits of clothing are tossed into landfill each year in the UK alone. Closets and drawers are spilling over with graphic tees and cute jeans, yet there are still plenty of people who don’t have decent clothes to wear. And then there’s this:

  • One in five Britons have admitted to throwing away an item of clothing after one wear. At an average cost of £22.73 per discarded item, this equates to over £91 million ending up in landfills every year after only being worn once.
  • 74 percent of people have thrown unwanted clothes into the trash bin over the past twelve months.
  • One in four Britons has admitted to having trashed six or more items over the past year.

As the M&S marketing director told a trade magazine, the CEO issued a challenge: change the shopping behavior of their 21 million customers to benefit the common good. His ultimate goal? To recycle as many clothes as M&S sells every year. That’s 350 million items – no small task. In fact, some sustainability advocates might argue that those two goals are at opposite ends of the spectrum – how do you promote consumption and still be socially responsible?

M&S responded with a simple idea: swap before you shop. Essentially, do something good for someone else before rewarding yourself with the purchase of a new pair of skinny jeans. Donated items go straight to Oxfam, the international charitable coalition, who resells them, donates them, or recycles them for fabric. All customers have to do is drop their old items in the “shwop box” at each store, feel good about themselves, and head for the shoe section for a little reward for being so magnanimous.

M&S, in their trademark style, is making a big splash with the idea, covering the outside of their multi-story flagship store with 10,000 donated items, creating a colorful statement. They’ve enlisted the inimitable Joanna Lumley of AbFab fame as their spokesperson, dahling, and created some great YouTube videos, as well.

So far, the company reports that more than half a million items have been collected.

But critics are circling – is this a retail revolution or a thinly veiled trick to get people to buy more stuff? Is this a stunt or a long-term commitment to reusing and redistributing clothing?

It sounds like a win-win – and a lesson in retail as a force for good – to me.

Photo of green t-shirt hanging on clothesline provided by Mike Flippo via Shutterstock.