The NYC Fair Trade Coalition Wants You to Ditch Shopping and Start Swapping

Swap meets are helping the NYCFTC introduce New Yorkers to a more planet- and worker-friendly consumer ethos.

After a novelty holiday sweater wears out its welcome, where does it go?

Probably to the dump. Nearly 12 million tons of textiles arrive in American landfills every year, where they’ll take up to 200 years to decompose. Other cast-aside garments land at thrift stores, where some might find a new home. Much of this donated clothing, however, is eventually bundled into huge bales and shipped to African nations where it’s resold in street markets.

But only around 25% of imported clothing is actually wearable. Most of it gets used for rags and eventually tossed into a landfill, flooding these countries with garbage. Thanks to this influx of discarded clothing, textile jobs in Ghana have fallen by 80% since the 1980s, and Kenya has lost 50% of their textile companies.

But in a small shop in East Harlem, New Yorkers are finding a better way to dress themselves.

NYC Fair Trade Coalition Call to Earth Fashion Show, photography by Jenna Bascom.

Shoppers arrive at the Swap Shop with bags of unwanted clothing and then trade them for new-to-them items for just a dollar a piece. Whatever isn’t chosen is placed in the on-site thrift shop for another day.

“We’re in a neighborhood with a lot of low-income housing and we have a lot of grandmothers and abuelas who come in to swap and say, ‘This is such a great deal,’” says Andrea Reyes, chair of the NYC Fair Trade Coalition (NYCFTC) which runs the Swap Shop. For NYCFTC, using Eventbrite to sell tickets has been key to bringing in fresh faces to the organization.

“I’m trying not to gush too much about Eventbrite but, honestly, it’s our No. 1 marketing tool,” says Reyes, who says attendees often find the swaps by browsing Eventbrite for things to do in the city.


Opening the door to fair trade through inclusivity and community

Great deals are the coalition’s way of turning New Yorkers on to their larger goal: the fair trade ethos.

“We try to meet people where they’re at. Swapping is something that everybody can participate in,” says Reyes. “We want people coming in to clean out their closet and then stay for another event, a workshop, a party, or maybe to come and volunteer.”

The coalition’s primary focus is supporting businesses that produce better goods for the planet. Its membership roster is made up of companies across the city that engage in fair trade practices, which means they aim to produce goods locally, pay workers well, and have a low carbon footprint.

Members receive classes, mentorship from experts in topics like marketing or design, and opportunities to sell their goods. For people like Luz Barbosa, a NYCFTC membership has been an excellent tool for expanding her brand Stella Lucchi, a line of jewelry made out of vintage and upcycled materials.

“I wanted to be a vendor at Artists and Fleas but was unable to afford it on my own. As a member of NYCFTC and partnering with a group on costs, it made it possible to participate,” says . “They’ve motivated me to provide upcycling jewelry workshops. It’s truly helped my business grow.”

Luz recently participated in the NYCFTC “Call to Earth” fashion show, which featured clothing and jewelry designed by coalition members, sponsored by CNN’s Call to Earth campaign.

“​​I described it as ‘Earth Day in November’ because the world’s on fire and we can’t wait till April,” says Reyes.

Starting small, growing good

Reyes knows that starting a fair trade business like Stella Luchi can be daunting. Providing decent wages and using local goods while competing with less-ethical vendors is a considerable ask for emerging businesses with a tight budget. That’s where coalition leaders like Reyes can step in with guidance for NYCFTC members.

Her knowledge comes from firsthand experience. After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology, she got a job in the fashion industry, but quit after only a year. She traveled to Uganda for a summer of volunteer work and witnessed the negative impact of textile importation on more-traditional producers.

“I saw that all of our secondhand clothing goes to these countries and that we’ve killed their market,” says Reyes.

She returned to New York and launched a business ​​working with artisans in East Africa to sell products overseas. Reyes joined NYCFTC first as a small business owner, then became chair of the organization.

“While I was running my own business, I was kind of making the decisions by myself,” she says. “When I became chair, I really wanted the organization to be a support system.”

Tackling one part of the problem at a time is her primary suggestion. “I ask someone: ‘What’s your true north?,’” explains Reyes. “Maybe someone’s most worried about climate change or veganism or they have a group of artisans that they want to work with. Our goal is to just constantly get you to do better, to question your ethics and to add more features as you go.”


Shopping with a conscience

Switching to fair trade can also be a daunting task for shoppers. Reyes has a few recommendations for those hoping to buy more ethically during the holidays. Her first tip? Head to the local mall instead of pulling up a browser.

“I would advise people to shop locally, first and foremost. I don’t think we realize how much fuel it takes or how unsustainable it is to have a truck driver deliver each one of our items to our doorsteps,” she says. “We believe there should only be one Amazon in the world and we’re voting for the one in Brazil. So, try your hardest not to shop online. If you do, shop from independent businesses.”

Consumers can look for labels on packages, like ones for the Fair Trade Federation, World Fair Trade Organization, and Fair Trade USA. Reyes also advises giving the gift of knowledge, like tickets to an event or class.

“Make it an experience and not just a product,” says Reyes.

For those wanting to shop with a conscience or to swap out that holiday sweater a bit more ethically this year, the NYCFTC will host a holiday sweater swap and holiday gift fair on December 12. Want to give the gift of an event? Check out The NYC Fair Trade Coalition’s events or Eventbrite for more events and classes.


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