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Global Fashion Exchange: “If people are smiling, the world is going to shift”

By Simone Preuss

10 Aug 2018


On average, we wear our clothes a total of seven times and then, many simply get thrown away - 2.5 billion pounds of clothing each year to be precise. Scary but easy to change as one of the simplest and most sustainable ways to let garments live longer is to find them a new owner. And this is the mission of the Global Fashion Exchange (GFX): To promote sustainable consumption patterns, such as reusing and recycling, around the globe through inspiring forums, educational content and cultural events like clothing swaps. Since its inception in 2013, GFX has saved 22 tons of clothes from going to landfills. FashionUnited thought that was pretty impressive and spoke to GFX co-founder Patrick Duffy to find out more.

Patrick, could you talk a little bit about the beginning of the Global Fashion Exchange?

Sure. A long time ago, I worked in nightlife as a promoter, also at production companies for big fashion brands. I honed my skills and then I became a restaurateur. I kind of got an all around experience in entertaining. As that was happening, I became more and more familiar with sustainability. Then I went to the Copenhagen Fashion Week as a journalist, writing for various publications. They had a sustainability area there and back then, I didn’t know much about it. But then Rana Plaza happened and it shifted my perspective on the fashion industry. Everything had to do with overconsumption. It made me sick and I had what I call my Oprah aha-moment. I was thinking about how to reframe everything. Then I was invited back to Copenhagen and there, they had a an initial clothing swap in 2013 and I thought ‘this is something I can take all my skills into and turn it into a message’. And this was at a time when sustainability was still the s-word that nobody wanted to say. Sustainability still needed a lot of support.

Was your idea well received?

[laughs] Not initially. When I told people in the industry of the idea, they said what people often say to a really good idea ‘You are so crazy’. That’s what people said, but that was so not true. But then I realised the people I was talking to were from fashion brands whose main goal was to sell clothes. But we’ve reached capacity when it comes to clothing production, we’re maxed out. I kept presenting my idea and I heard other comments, people saying ‘This is incredible but we don’t know how to do it’. Suddenly, everyone was super excited and supportive and helped me keep pushing the idea. In my personal life, I gave everything away, all my material possessions and even New York City was so expensive to live in. I left it all and really focused on turning it into something that would make me really happy to work on.

Do you charge for the events?

The larger events are completely free because we do not want to exclude anyone because sustainability is a non-exclusionary topic. We just had a massive outdoor event at a venue in New York City at The Brooklyn Mirage, a huge outdoor venue in East Williamsburg. They were fantastic - they promoted the event and supported it by giving the venue for free. We had superstar DJs, many people helping with setting up and 20 ethical and sustainable brands showcasing their wares. They got the space for free because they needed a chance to get their message aout nd I felt it wouldn’t have been right to charge them money to do so. In addition, we had a fashion show with 120 models of all different colours and sizes, some were wheelchair-bound. All worked for free so that the event could be free so that there is no reason why anyone should not be participating - charging a cover of 10 or 20 dollars ticket fee can be a deal breaker for some.

What about the smaller swaps?

The smaller events allow the organisers to cover their costs. And that’s something people always ask, ‘How do you make money?’ For the smaller swaps, we work with the ambassadors to offset their costs and determine how much of a ticket price can we put in the local communities. After all, they are putting time in; they deserve to be paid.

Are people biased against clothes from people they don’t know?

No, not at the swaps because don’t forget, people come voluntarily. And the big swaps are well frequented. They become glamorous events and people get interested. Interest is the hook to bring them into the loop and to educate them on the topic and on sustainability goals like human rights, sustainability, etc. And once they understand a bit more about it, then people will hopefully go beyond the swap.

Would you say the swaps have a mind-changing effect?

Yes, if not a life-changing definitely a mind-changing effect. For example at the recent event in New York with 1,600 people, I was standing at the entrance and talking to each person attending, asking them ‘Do you know what you’re here for?’ Many did know; many did not know; they had just come to swap clothes. So it is a touchpoint to communicate the startling facts - and then the aha-moment happens, the transformational moment. Once people understand the problem - the fashion industry being the most polluting industry and consumers contributing to that - they can’t erase that.

People may not change their lifestyle but they have received the information, and most of the times, people want to get involved. They become activists in their own way, they share through social media and proudly show their swapped items. That’s a positive development.

When targeting people, especially millennials, it is important to psychologically understand how their mind works. And I know what people want; they want the experience. And the experience they have reflects back on the topic and the message, which is sustainability. That’s why it is easier to communicate through a positive experience; if people are smiling, the world is going to shift.

Could you explain how GFX Local came about?

GFX Local came up as a solution to address the fact that we want to spread the word about what we’re doing and to promote more clothing swaps. We noticed after organising the larger swaps that they require a lot of funding and manpower. However, it was always my dream to basically take this education all over the world but it wasn’t going as quickly as I wanted because it was depending on sponsorship; money basically. ‘Money is a silly reason for this not to be spread,’ I thought and GFX Local was born, inspired by Fashion Revolution. We developed a tool kit for those interested to download and apply. Then, we go through a kind of question and answer process to find out if someone is qualified and they sign up to become GFX ambassadors. Or, they can download the kit and do it in their hometown and start a clothing swap.

Are there any country-specific biases? In India for example, second hand is not big at all.

Of course, in all markets, GFX considers what goes on culturally and socioeconomically before starting a swap. Bolivia, Costa Rica, Barcelona, etc. all different and in some, like India for example, second-hand clothing is not desirable. But GFX is fun and the experience really key; a tool to show people that this is great. The quality of the clothing is just as key as well as the marketing and branding.

When doing a swap for the first time, storytelling is important and we do a lot of coaching for the ambassadors to bring influential people to the table. In India, this was Evelyn Sharma, a famous Bollywood actress who also has her own organisation, Seams for Dreams. The organisation provides appropriate clothing to the less privileged members of society in India and raises funds and awareness through fashion events. It really helps when GFX is endorsed by someone else. Evelyn was not just a face but doing something similar, which is related to the cause. This is important not only in India but all over the world. In India, we received such a positive response and great publicity that the local ambassador is creating more events.

What is your personal take-away from starting the Global Fashion Exchange?

Oh, I have learned so much and I have had wonderful teachers at the different organisations I have worked with. Over time, I also got invited to talk at conferences and I have spoken at the United Nations four times about GFX. I was also at the Omina Fashion Summit and I gave the keynote address at the first Australian Circular Fashion Conference. People see me and they see that I’m just a normal person and that one person can change the world. Plus, people want to hear positive things, they don’t want to hear about the crazy problems that are happening. So there is no need to be banging on about the problems but to talk about the solutions. GFX becomes a solution or provides different solutions.

Tell us a bit about GFX Consulting.

GFX Consulting is part of business model that developed out of my thought ‘how am I going to make this work? What am I going to do with tall this knowledge?’ I wanted to keep it open source right from the beginning. And now I am teaching companies how to transform a supply chain and how to communicate it. This could be doing a big project with a major brand but also with small ones and exploring how to find funding, getting connected to different markets and communicating their story. Assessing different needs and building custom solutions basically.

There is a lot of storytelling in marketing and brands are just starting to understand that telling the story of sustainability can be a big part of what they do. The people, the planet, the process. But often, brands are stuck in linear models or cycles whereas circularity is important and we can teach them how to transition.

In view of the recent scandal with brands destroying perfectly good stock, how do you sell circularity and sustainability to brands?

The biggest question is: Why are they burning all of this? That’s where you have to teach people if you buy less, brands need to produce less. Because currently, what brands are doing, they are polluting the earth. So they have to innovate and take a look at what they’re doing. They have to focus on better quality but also circularity, creating products that are 100 percent circular. Brands have to become educators as well. They have to take responsibility alongside the consumer. Slowing down the production as fast fashion is choking the industry. Innovative materials are key, for example those made out of ocean plastics. Luckily, sustainability is a trend and hopefully one that is going to last.

Photos: Global Fashion Exchange

clothing swap
global fashion exchange
Patrick Duffy