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Living the swapping lifestyle

Swapping platforms and startups are helping millennials and post-millennials exchange clothes, furniture, books, and even appliances, to live green and save money

Prithvi Rao and Sai Sangeet Paliwal, who run Exchange Room, have hosted 11 swap events in Bengaluru
Prithvi Rao and Sai Sangeet Paliwal, who run Exchange Room, have hosted 11 swap events in Bengaluru

Former tech sales executive Sandhya Balasubramanian, who recently did a course in sustainability at Bhoomi College in Bengaluru, is always on the lookout for circular economies that allow her to live a low-impact lifestyle.

Since the textile industry is considered the second-most polluting industry in the world, clothes swapping provides a sustainable alternative to shopping. Apart from attending local events conducted by GreenStitched, a volunteer-led initiative that promotes awareness around sustainability in fashion, and Exchange Room, a curated wardrobe swap community, she’s also a member of This For That (TFT), an app for online swapping.

Through these platforms, Balasubramanian has been able to offload clothes and accessories that she no longer has use for. “Since I had worked in the corporate sector, I had lots of formal wear that I didn’t need anymore. When I put them up for exchange on TFT, there were so many young women out of college or starting their careers who wanted them. I am happy that those pieces found homes and additional life," Balasubramanian, 43, says.

Consumers, especially millennials and Gen Zers, are increasingly seeing the value of swapping, whether for reasons of sustainability or just to get rid of excess clothing and save on shopping bills. Prachi Tulshan, who teaches at British Council in Delhi, had taken a pledge not to buy new clothes between June and September as part of the global Slow Fashion movement.

“Since January, I haven’t bought more than two new items. Being on the TFT app has given me a chance to refresh my wardrobe without spending anything," says Tulshan, who has made 100 to 150 swaps online.

For shoppers like Harshitha Rudresh, a blogger and influencer, and Nikhita Jaywant, a homemaker, who were at a recent Exchange Room swap event in Bengaluru, swapping fulfils the need to shop minus the expenses.

Shoppers Nikhita Jaywant and Harshitha Rudresh
Shoppers Nikhita Jaywant and Harshitha Rudresh

Jaywant, a mother of two, who can’t fit into her pre-pregnancy clothes, has given away 20 pieces clothing and shoes. “These are clothes that I couldn’t give to charity. In exchange, I found clothes from high-street brands in my size. My shopping bills are down 80%," the 30-year-old says.

For Rudresh, who has acquired clothes and accessories because of her brand collaborations, Exchange Room has become the go-to platform to swap items. “Almost 80% of the clothes on this platform are new or unused with the tags still on them. You don’t feel as though you’re picking up secondhand items," says the 25-year-old.

Change is here

While swapping is a niche activity, the number of platforms enabling it are growing, and Bengaluru is believed to be one of the early adopters.

Last April, GreenStitched held its first clothes swapping event in Bengaluru in collaboration with Global Fashion Exchange, an international platform promoting sustainability in the fashion industry. Since then, it has held eight events in Bengaluru, and one in Mumbai. On the day of the swap, people turn up with the clothes they want to exchange. After a quality check, they are issued tokens for exchange, which they use to pick up what they like.

Dhawal Mane, who heads GreenStitched, says, “The idea is to find ways to keep more of the existing clothes in circulation. At our first event, 150 items got swapped, which was quite encouraging." They held one event every month until April this year, and now focus on high impact areas such as colleges. Attendance fluctuates but they have reached approximately 300 people and enabled swaps for 800 items.

Exchange Room, founded by design consultant Prithvi Rao, and Sai Sangeet Paliwal, founder of lifestyle brand, Soda, along with two silent partners, recently organized their 11th swap event in Bengaluru. Unlike GreenStitched, Exchange Room is a curated event which means people send in their clothes/accessories a couple of weeks before the event so that the organisers can run a thorough quality check.

Depending on the number of items selected for exchange, members are issued points that they can redeem at the swap. For each event, Exchange Room charges 400 as entry fee. This ensures the events are self-sustaining. They started in July 2014 with just 10 exchangers, and now have a community of 1,400 people on social media.

Swapping goes online

The TFT app, started in September 2018 by Delhi-based founders Nancy Bhasin and Vaybhav S., is one of the few online swapping platforms in the country. Bhasin, a former advertising and marketing professional who has worked closely with mass market fashion brands, says there is “huge aspiration to consume fashion but not enough means". After conducting swap parties in Delhi in 2016, Bhasin realized that people were willing to swap not just occasion wear but everyday clothing too. The 34-year-old says a barter system works better in the Indian context than buying secondhand.

On the app, people post pictures and descriptions of items they wish to swap and those interested can get in touch. Swaps can be item-to-item barter or through the exchange of credits. For example, if an item is valued at 1,000 credits and one doesn’t have anything to offer in exchange, one can buy 1,000 credits by paying 10% of the value ( 100, in this case) on the app.

While most of these swaps are restricted to fashion, two Bengaluru-based expats, Dongli Zhang and Jimmy Yeoh, launched the FreeUp app in August where users can trade clothes, books, appliances, toys, furniture. The idea was born out of Zhang’s challenge of having to give away clothes, books and furniture every time she shifted base. Similar to TFT, users post images and descriptions of the items they wish to give way. Each item on FreeUp is valued with points. So, people pay in points to pick up stuff on the app. Points are earned when you post items or invite friends to join the app. FreeUp partners with Delhivery and Dunzo pan-India for deliveries and the takers foot the delivery charges. They are yet to generate revenue through the app and Yeoh says, “We have some ideas about revenue possibilities but at this point, our focus is to develop a strong and engaged user base."

Changing attitudes

Bhasin sees swapping growing as a parallel economy in future. With 25,000 app downloads, TFT has members from across the country including smaller towns. “We have someone from Jammu exchanging items with a person based in Guntur," says Bhasin, adding that they are bootstrapped and haven’t done any advertising. “Globally, the secondhand retail market constitutes $42 billion and 50% of it is fashion. It’s a large market but the challenge is to find the right model to crack it in India," says Bhasin.

“Indians only buy into two things—value proposition and cultural context. For the business to scale, you need to combine the two," she adds.

Balasubramanian says the attitude to ownership is changing. “It doesn’t have to come out of a system for you to see it as new. It can come out of somebody else’s closet."

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