n a small indoor cafe above a convenience store, only a chalkboard marker with ‘The Swap Project’ emblazoned on it points to its existence and the event it is hosting, which has little to do with coffee.
Instead, clothes set on tables smack dab in the middle of the room, jackets, coats and fancy tops hanging on the clothes racks, and formal-looking dresses on the window bars are the main attraction. Off to the side is the accessories table showcasing costume jewellery and shoes.
Women mill around, perusing their options and pulling out any piece they liked. A sputtering stream of women enters and exits every few minutes, many carrying a big bag full of clothes. A pretty and fashionable young woman runs to her friend with a big smile, dangling two bracelets. They squeal excitedly.
Towards the back of the cafe, a bunch of volunteers sort newly-arrived clothes and help customers check out.
Most of the customers are urbanites in their late 20s and 30s, armed with good intentions, a love of clothes and a nose for bargains.
Women mill around the cafe, trying on various clothes that suited their tastes. --fotoBERNAMA (2023) COPYRIGHT RESERVED
For all intents and purposes, the event may look like a jumble sale. But The Swap Project founder Jayda Chong said the moniker doesn’t exactly fit as the focus is more on exchanging a bunch of items versus buying them individually. Once swapped, new owners have an option to come back and exchange the clothes for another item.
Sitting in the lounge area of the cafe, software programmer Mandy How looks on interestedly.
“This place, it’s like a new kind of shopping experience,” she mused, nursing her tea. This was her second time at The Swap Project event. She came with her mother Eoi Leng Lai, who has attended five events.
Like many other people here, she cited the environment as the primary driver for participating in the event.
Concerned about Malaysia’s throwaway culture and intent on reducing fashion waste, a burgeoning environmental disaster, Chong founded The Swap Project in 2018 as a way to keep clothes circulating longer.
“All of these clothes would have ended up in a landfill,” Chong told Bernama.
According to SWCorp and KlothCares, 31 per cent or 432,901 metric tonnes of total waste generated in Malaysia in 2021 were fabric waste. The United Nations reported that the world produces an estimated 100 billion garments each year, of which 92 million tonnes end up in landfills. At least seven per cent of landfills comprise discarded clothing and textile. About one per cent of clothing is recycled.
To make matters worse, most of the fabrics nowadays, produced via ‘fast fashion’ – clothing designs that move quickly from the catwalk to stores to take advantage of trends - are made from synthetic fibres, that is, from fossil fuels. It means that just like plastic, once these clothes are thrown out, they will not decay and will instead contribute to global warming.
This year has been recorded as the hottest on record since 1940, with broken heat records outpacing cool records. Scientists say the world is at a tipping point as the earth gets warmer.
The Swap Project hopes to put a dent in climate change, no matter how little, by reducing the amount of fashion waste going into landfills. They encourage the public to exchange their good-quality but unused, for whatever reason, clothes with someone else’s items.
With a cover charge of RM50, which goes to pay operational and venue costs, everyone is entitled to take home 15 items – be they clothes, shoes, or jewellery.
“The more satisfying part of it is actually giving my clothes to other people because I have so many pieces that I was reluctant to throw away; I didn’t think they were old enough to be recycled,” said Victoria Lee, a 37-year-old business owner.
Since its inception, the group has held 28 events, or about six or seven per year albeit fewer during the pandemic years.
The Swap Project is not the only clothes-swapping initiative in Malaysia. It has worked with a similar group in Malaysia, namely the Fashion Revolution by influencer Melissa Tan.
To date, the group has managed to swap between 6,000 to 7,000 pieces of clothing.
“Not a lot of people know about (us). Definitely not enough,” she sighed, adding the group is still working on spreading the word. The pandemic restrictions from 2020 to 2022 did not help.
Since the lockdown, however, things have improved, with more and more people attending each meet.
All of the customers Bernama talked to mentioned the importance of environment and sustainability. Others cited the fun of bargain hunting and searching for fashion gems, as well as knowing that whatever item they get, it is most likely one-of-kind.
Lee, who came to the event with her friend Faustina Gui, told Bernama that clothes-swapping has helped her channel her energy into buying less while keeping her fashion needs satisfied.
“It’s something I’m trying to unlearn in my life. I was once like the kind to go to a sale and I have to get something out of the pile no matter what,” she said. She added she has been able to find something that suited her style each time she went to a clothes-swapping event.
But not everyone is as lucky.
Margaret Gunasegran, 37, and friend Hesti Kuniawaty, 30, try on clothes at the Swap Project event in Petaling Jaya recently. --fotoBERNAMA (2023) COPYRIGHT RESERVED
Despite lofty aspirations, there are several issues The Swap Project has to contend with or work on to succeed. For one thing, there is a limit on choices. People of non-average height, weight and sizes tend to be out of luck when looking to swap clothes in a style they favour.
For instance, first-timer Margaret Gunasegran, 37, only found two items she liked that fit her. The accounts manager at a computer company had come with her colleague and friend Hesti Kurniawaty.
Several times, a volunteer came to Margaret, showing her a blouse or dress to try on, which she declined. Despite her disappointing haul, Margaret told Bernama she plans to come and try her luck again.
“You can get the size that you wanted (here) because there are US or European sizes, which are not in the (Malaysian) market,” she said, adding that the low cover charge meant whatever she got from the swap event was already a bargain.
“It’s satisfying because you’re not wasting money unnecessarily,” she said.
Another issue is the gender limit. Most of the patrons are women, which means most items are women’s clothing.
But here and there in the cafe, a few men sit, huddled together in one corner, seemingly worried about intruding on what seemed a very female space.
Most of them are partners or family members of the women there. None participated. A few indicated interest but said they did not feel like going through the trouble of looking for clothes.
Chong acknowledged the limitations and said she was working on increasing the inventory, size and style choices, to give patrons more choices when they come in to swap their clothes. She also said she may hold men-only swapping events.
“If more people participate, then there’s definitely more choices,” she said.
Mishall Nair (left), 36, and mother Komala Nair, 68, showing their sartorial picks at The Swap Project event recently. --fotoBERNAMA (2023) COPYRIGHT RESERVED
One issue that looms large is the public ignorance or misconception of clothes swapping and what it means, but changing that perception is mostly beyond the group’s control.
Mother Komala Nair and daughter Mishall Nair love clothes swapping but admitted it was still mostly a niche market in Malaysia.
Komala blames a mindset among the older generation that equates purchasing new items with status.
“(They ask) ‘Why take people’s clothes? We are not poor, even though we were actually poor but the ego was there. But now through social media, through my children, I tend to learn,” she said.
Mishall, who is also an official with the Securities Commission Malaysia, said some people may also be apprehensive about swapping, worried about the unknown. This is her third time at The Swap Project event.
The 36-year-old said she has tried to spread the word and encourage people to attend, but there were not many takers.
“Some people would rather buy, like on Carousell. They think, ‘What if I don’t get what I want? At least if I’m buying, I know what I’m getting instead of coming here with my good clothes to swap,” she said.
Nevertheless, she thinks sustainable practices are growing in popularity and will likely be more common in the future, as long as people continue to increase awareness and spread the message as much as possible.
“Clothes … are filling up the landfills. I feel the younger generation has been exposed to this. So a large group of Malaysians are pushing for (sustainable practices),” she said.