• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Reduce, reuse, refashion (?)

Clothing as grist for campus barter?

August 18, 2014

I'll admit it.  I'm not anti-consumer, but I'm anti-consumerism.  That is, I would love to see American society get to a point where most everyone has everything (s)he needs, but I'm adamantly opposed to consumption for consumption's sake.  Or for the sole purpose of pumping up GDP on the backs of credit card holders.  Spending money you don't have on products you don't need, which have been manufactured from a declining stock of natural resources extracted inefficiently using highly polluting forms of energy and generating several tons of waste for every ton of usable material just seems . . . well . . . kind of stupid.  Of course, some may disagree.

When students arrive on campus, they've already been subjected to almost two decades of consumerist propaganda.  That may seem a slanted characterization, but "propaganda" is precisely what Edward Bernays, one of the founders of modern advertising, called his product.  Emotional manipulation, far more than information sharing.  Some students know they've been propagandized, at least they know it intellectually.  But knowing at an abstract level that your emotions and expectations have been manipulated doesn't mean that you're able to filter out and counteract the effects of that manipulation.  I find that all but the very most ecologically-minded students still want stuff on the basis of "it's cool", or for some similarly insubstantial reason.  Can't say it surprises me.  Can't say I'm not subject, from time to time, to the same urges myself.

The consumerist paradigm underlies some of the biggest non-intellectual hurdles I try to help Greenback students overcome.  It's not that I want them to stop buying things; I just want them to stop buying things reflexively.  And it's not that I want them to subsist parsimoniously; I just want "buy something new" to be the least favored solution to any particular need, not the default option.  That being the case, I'm hoping to establish a barter culture on campus.  It will never replace the new-goods-for-cash local economy entirely, but if it can supplant even a significant portion, I'll consider that a win.  If you and I barter -- trade goods neither one of us needs any more -- we each end up reusing some product and, as a result, decreasing aggregate consumption.

The obvious material for barter on campus might seem to be textbooks, but textbooks have a number of disadvantages as the substance of pure barter.  For one, it's unlikely that student A just took course X and is about to take course Y, while student B just completed Y and is about to take X.  A collection of students might be able to form a barter pool on the basis of "bring one, take one" or some similar ethic, but the opportunity for simple barter between two parties seems limited.  Additionally, the market in textbooks only occurs at the beginning of each semester or term; it's not a continuous opportunity addressing a continuous want.  As such, it's not well suited to establishing new habits or new expectations which might carry over to post-graduate life.

Clothing, on the other hand, seems like it might be a good fit (pun intended).  I've long held clothing (in the guise of "fashion") to be an exceptional example of wasteful production and consumption.  An industry based on fulfillment of no particular need, but rather of artificially-generated demand.  The answer to no real-world problem.  Yet now, all the aspects of the rag trade that made me dislike it previously seem to be precisely the factors that might make it good barter fodder.  Live and learn.

Americans (Greenback students included) clearly buy more clothing than they need, almost all of it brand new.  According to an article in The Atlantic, Americans now purchase five times as much clothing annually as they did in 1980.  Now I haven't verified that statement independently, but if it's anywhere near true it indicates a tremendous amount of unnecessary consumption.  I mean, I was around in 1980 -- trust me, there weren't a whole lot of people running around this country naked.  So a 400% (+/-) increase in consumption would have to be driven by something other than physical need.  A desire for novelty or trend-followership seems a likely alternative explanation.  And if that's really what's driving clothing consumption, then maybe a barter system can take hold.

Compared to textbook exchange, clothing barter has a number of inherent advantages.  For starts, if your clothes fit me, then my clothes probably fit you -- a simple two-party exchange should work much of the time.  Similarly, if your sense of style appeals to me then maybe mine appeals to you, so direct exchange might appeal on an aesthetic, as well as a sizing, level.  And clothing can be exchanged continually, year-round, which makes this form of barter a better candidate for long-term habit/behavior/expectation modification.

There are, of course, hurdles to be overcome.  Wearing clothes that someone else has worn before probably evokes an "ick" reaction in some of our more coddled Millenial undergrads.  And the fact that an item was purchased some time ago by another student pretty much implies that it's no longer on the cutting edge of fashion, if that matters.  No doubt, other negatives will crop up.  But, as I've seen attributed to Samuel Johnson, "nothing will ever be attempted if every reasonable objection must first be overcome."

Barter to try.


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