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Marks & Spencer’s Shwopping, One Year Later: Progress and Potential

Words by Leon Kaye

A year has already passed since Marks & Spencer launched its Shwopping campaign in many of its United Kingdom stores. In partnership with the NGO Oxfam, Shwopping has helped move textile and garment recycling a huge step forward. The premise of the Shwopping initiative is customers can drop unwanted clothing into a specially labeled box when they shop for new garments--even if the clothing was not purchased at M&S. With beloved actress Joanna Lumley as Shwopping’s spokeswoman, the program launched in April 2012 with gusto.

So how has the program fared one year later? Yesterday morning I chatted over the phone with Adam Elman from his London office. As Marks & Spencer’s Head of Delivery for Plan A, the company’s sustainability and ethical agenda, Elman updated me on Shwopping’s successes and challenges.

Customers want to be ‘green’ but say, ‘Don’t preach at me; so help me to live more sustainably and make it easier for me’ - Adam Elman, Marks & Spencer

To recap how Shwopping works: customers can drop off unwanted garments at an M&S store in a “Shwop Drop Box” (only Ms. Lumley can elegantly articulate that term). In return, customers can enter drawings for prizes, and today, in fact, those who walk into an M&S store and “Shwop” receive a £5 voucher redeemable at the stores.

M&S delivers the garments to Oxfam, where they are sorted. Some are sold in charity shops in the UK; cold weather clothes end up in Eastern Europe while garments suitable for warmer climates end up in Africa. Clothing in poor condition is recycled into mattress bedding, carpet inlay or even into dishy winter coats sold in M&S stores and online. Each eco-fashion coat boasts a QR code that the owner can scan and understand the origins of the fibers within that coat.

As a last resort, some end up incinerated in waste-to-energy plants; none of the garments ends up in landfill.

The goal of M&S is to engender a “one-to-one shopping culture” in which consumers will eventually “shwop” a used garment for a new one. Widespread garment recycling, however, has a long road ahead.

Textile recycling has longed slumped behind the reuse and reprocessing of other goods. The numbers are daunting: globally 500,000 tons of textiles, or about 1 billion garments, are sent to landfill annually. Crunch the numbers and 114,000 clothing items hourly end up in municipal waste streams. The cycle only worsens year to year: in the UK alone, approximately 350 million new garments are sold annually.

“It’s a journey,” Elman said, “mass consumer change is not going to happen overnight.”  But Shwopping has already made progress. So far almost 4 million garments have been “shwopped,” with the result that 1,300 tons of clothing have not ended up in landfill. The program has generated $3.7 million dollars for Oxfam and the programs the NGO funds worldwide.

M&S is also experimenting with procuring unwanted clothes: the company has a pilot “Shwop at Work” program in which companies can place Shwop Drops within their offices and employees receive a voucher in return for the clothes they drop off. “There is a lot we could do to make it better,” Elman said, and he listed some ideas such as Shwop Drop boxes at M&S food stores and picking up clothes when furniture is delivered. Everything is a learning process, from the location of the boxes, pick up of those boxes, and even gauging feedback from customers and employees.

Earlier this year, H&M launched a global garment recycling program. I asked Elman whether M&S would do the same. Currently M&S has pilot programs in Greece and the United Arab Emirates, but for now the focus is on the UK. Part of the challenge is the environmental trade off: in smaller markets the carbon emissions and fuel consumption would more than offset the benefits of recycling those clothes. Then there is the cultural aspect: India, for example, has many M&S stores but a culture of reuse already exists.

In Senegal, Shwopping has begun to bear fruit. Many of the recycled clothes end up in Senegal because Oxfam has long run programs in this country of almost 13 million. The focal point is Frip Ethique, Oxfam’s secondhand clothing distribution center in the business district of Dakar, Senegal’s capital. Almost 50 people, who are paid far more than the average local wage, sort through the clothes and sell them to wholesalers who in turn sell them throughout Senegal. According to Sally Williams of The Telegraph, last year the operation netted over $330,000 in profits, which Oxfam then uses to fund various programs including a rice-growing project in the northern part of the country and another assisting residents in a flood-prone slum area of Dakar.

As we wrapped up our chat, I asked Elman what he thought of other recycling programs such as the aforementioned H&M scheme. His response: “If it continues to other stores, we will be really proud . . . extremely proud.”

So while there is a long road until Shwopping truly scales, the foundation has been set. American retailers, are you listening?

Watch the video below to learn about Joanna Lumley’s experience in Senegal.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image credit: Marks & Spencer]


Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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