How to set up a free shop

Author: Sincoste free shop volunteer group (Madrid)

I’m going clothes shopping but this time I don’t need to take any money. Hold on, I’ll just take this jacket that doesn’t fit me anymore.

Why a free shop?

In 2007, Inditex (Pull and Bear, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Stradivarius, Zara Home, etc.) had 3,691 shops in 68 different countries. They have succeeded in standardising a sales model in which clothes are constantly renewed (Zara sends new models to its shops twice a week and garments are designed, produced and distributed in only three weeks). What is the secret of this and other big businesses in the sector? Constantly changing outsourcing enables them to produce textiles with virtually no legal or environmental restrictions at unbelievably low prices in China, Indonesia, Morocco and Mexico.

Looking at this scenario, we can see the need for projects which promote alternatives for sustainable consumption and encourage people to consume less. This is precisely how some of the free shops we have today began: they aim to dignify the exchange of second-hand clothes, creating an attractive space containing objects of value, to help develop a credible alternative to today’s consumerism.

What do you need?

Free shops are based on a simple idea: you take clothes you don’t want to the shop and you get clothes you need (you can do only one of these things if you like) and no money is involved. As there is no income, there should be no costs, but certain needs have to be covered:

  • Premises: Most free shops are located in cultural centres, premises belonging to associations, social centres where there are squatters, etc., and they do not have to pay rent. The size can vary considerably, but less than 25-30 m2 would be very small. Their legal status corresponds to that of the premises they occupy; as they are not businesses, they do not need a special permit. It is usually advisable to make contact with local shops and associations and the local residents to inform them about the project.
  • Materials and logistics: You need clothes hangers (they can be found at closing time in shopping centres), bars to hang them on (you can sometimes get them where building work is in progress if you ask; they don’t need to be very strong but they need to be stiff), storage space (the nearer the shop the better, it doesn’t have to be very big), low shelves for shoes, hooks for bags and backpacks, a big mirror and a changing cubicle.
  • Volunteers: Ideally there should always be someone looking after the shop, but this is not necessary all the time if users can see clear explanations about the way the shop works and they can serve themselves. However, maintaining the shop calls for a team of volunteers (depending on its size and the scope of its activities).

How does it work?

Opening hours: it is advisable to have fixed opening hours and they should be displayed to users. The volunteers are responsible for opening and closing the shop.

Users bringing clothes: users should make sure the clothes they bring are clean and in good repair and put them in a clearly marked container (like a large letter box).

Adding stock: at regular intervals the clothes brought in should be checked and stocks replaced. Badly torn or very dirty garments should be discarded (they can be rejected or offered to other organisations that can wash and/or mend them and use them for social projects). It is important to store clothes in boxes according to the type of garment, so that stocks can be replaced easily. Priority should be given to clothes for the current season.

Arranging clothes: It is better to display clothes on hangers than folded and they should be ordered by type of garment (T-shirts, shirts, etc.). The shop should not be overloaded (add new stock gradually).

Users taking clothes: Ideally users should serve themselves, trying clothes on and taking what they want. Posters explain how to replace garments and ask users to put empty hangers on a bar provided for this purpose. They are also asked to make a note of the garment they are taking on a sheet provided, so that a record can be kept of the use of the shop and the items most in demand. It is better not to provide plastic bags, so that users get used to bringing their own cloth bags.

Going further: A challenge for this type of project is to act as an effective antidote to consumerism and not be seen as yet another outlet for consumer goods or a charitable centre designed to ease our consciences. It is therefore important to liaise with other initiatives and offer information about the problems of the fashion industry, decorate the shop with photos and posters that will make people think or give new users a leaflet (often the most regular customers are elderly people or immigrants), and organise workshops (screen printing, mending clothes, etc.). Another challenge is to find enough volunteers to keep the shop clean and tidy, with a sufficiently wide range of goods to make it a real consumer alternative for a broad public.

Examples of projects running in Spain:

Madrid: www.patiomaravillas.net/sincoste
Seco Social Centre (ods.cs-seco.org, in the section ‘Red de apoyo’)
Barcelona: www.canmasdeu.net
Relocating: La Fibra in Mataró, contact via www.musaik.net
Seville: www.ecolocal.es

Is it very difficult?

  • It isn’t always easy to get users to respect the rules and estimating how much clothing is likely to come in and go out each week can be complicated.
  • As users have widely varying profiles, it is often difficult to get them to review their ideas about consumerism, which is a basic idea in the project.
  • A group of volunteers who will keep things going is needed and whether things get done depends on their availability.
  • It is relatively easy to attract users, both to bring clothes (sometimes too many) and to take them.

What do we get from free shops?

  • You can get clothes without paying for them.
  • You make use of something that would otherwise be thrown away.
  • It may make you rethink your clothing consumption needs.
  • They create a living space for exchange and an effective alternative which encourages responsible, economical consumption.