Op-ed: To further a culture of sustainability on campus, POP! needs GW’s support

Maya Levine is a senior majoring in environmental studies and theater and a co-founder of POP!, the student-run pop-up thrift store at GW.

From the cycling jersey that once belonged to a D.C. biker to the maxi skirt entering its second life, sustainable fashion and clothing circularity are taking campus style by storm. POP!, the student-run pop-up thrift store at GW, is shaking up the secondhand clothing scene, highlighting the demand for green initiatives on campus and saving fun, trendy and fashionable clothing from winding up in the trash. We’re seizing students’ excitement for affordable, environmentally friendly fashion to sell clothing that helps them feel well-dressed in class and extracurriculars, and we’re upholding the University’s commitment to sustainability in the process. But to make sure POP! is as sustainable as the clothes it sells, we need GW to provide us with space and staff.

Since last September, POP!’s monthly pop-ups at the Textile Museum have been hugely successful with lines at the start of every event, and we’ve also participated in campus programs like President’s Weekend Palooza. But we can’t serve students who face clothing inequity between those events. The University knows this problem exists – the Diversity Climate Review recently asked students if they struggled to afford clothing, which can reveal deeper systemic issues like poverty and poor health conditions.

Students shouldn’t have to buy their clothes from fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara, tossing out their wardrobe to buy the latest pieces. These brands ignore the rights of their workers and manufacture large amounts of low-quality garments, making the fashion industry the second highest user of global water resources and emitter of 10 percent of global carbon emissions.

Unlike fast fashion, students who donate clothing to charities via the blue bins in residence halls actually contribute to the circularity of clothing – a single shirt might move from one person to another as it’s reused, repaired or repurposed. That circular movement extends its life cycle and diverts it from the waste stream, but throwing clothes into a bin mimics the waste-making process, fuels an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality and removes ownership from the item. We can do better – a sustainable fashion policy should encourage students to determine if an item is beyond repair or if it has another chance with some extra care.

We created POP! after speaking to students about sustainable fashion on campus last summer. They wanted an accessible and affordable source of clothing that aligned with their environmental consciousness. After executing six pop-ups in our first school year, we calculated our sustainability impact using data on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions and water that one pound of clothing donations saves. Last year, POP! diverted approximately 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere, saved eight million gallons of water and stopped 2,000 pounds of clothing from ending up in landfills.

Other sustainable fashion retailers in the DMV are overpriced – in Georgetown, Reformation’s least expensive pair of jeans is $38 on sale, while an average pair of jeans at POP! costs $13. If students want to access thrift stores that come close to matching POP!’s prices, the nearest option is at least a 30-minute Metro ride to a Goodwill in Virginia. College students with tight budgets and schedules can’t afford or access these stores, but they can get affordable, trendy and curated secondhand clothes right here on campus with POP!.

While the Textile Museum and the Innovation Center in Tompkins Hall provide space and storage to POP!, we need a space of our own. A permanent storage room would serve as an independent location that frees up resources and space for other students looking to use the museum or center. We would have the flexibility to organize the space based on our needs, whether that’s quick access to inventory pricing supplies or preparing to transport our materials on the day of a pop-up. With a home base for POP!, we could sustainably serve the community for years to come.

A student employee position would allow us to directly collaborate with GW, advocate for ourselves and maximize our sustainability impact. There’s precedent for a student employee position for POP! – GroW Community Garden has employed students to manage the program for more than 10 years. With the community’s confidence and our track record of success, including a $25,000 prize at the 2022 New Venture Competition for our business model, we’re ready to strengthen the secondhand clothing scene at GW.

We envision a world in which students buy their next outfit on campus, give it to another student at a clothing swap or repair it at a mending workshop. Seeing our clothes take second, third or even fourth lives within our own community will help us foster a meaningful relationship with otherwise-ephemeral objects. We can keep our clothing longer, care for it when it needs mending and think of it as an investment instead of a trend. Cultivating a culture of sharing clothing can rally us around a common cause of sustainability.

GW touts its role in shaping future changemakers who will leave their legacy on the world. If the University works with POP!, it can weave a legacy of community and clothing equity into the fabric of campus. With GW’s support, POP! can leave a lasting imprint on campus culture while reducing its footprint.

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