GreenSpace: Green giveaway, clothes of all colors

Posted: January 23, 2012

The two women were meeting for coffee.

One did a double take as she saw the other's backpack. "Funny," she said, "I once had a backpack that looked just like that."

Betsy Teutsch, a calligrapher from Mount Airy, thought a moment and said, "Did you donate it to the GJC Women's Clothing GiveAway?"

They burst out laughing.

Several years into what has to be the region's biggest clothing swap, fans of the event are getting used to seeing former dresses or shoes or purses popping up on someone else.

And they love it.

It means the event is a success. It means that instead of buying new, people are reducing and reusing the old. It's not promoted as a green event, but it sure winds up being one.

And it's happening again this Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Germantown Jewish Centre, 400 W. Ellet St.

Actually, people can begin dropping things off Monday - preferably folded rather than on hangers. Come Sunday, when the doors open, Genie Ravital will likely be awed by the piles and racks of clothing.

Ravital, a Mount Airy psychotherapist, is the one who started it all seven years ago. She's hazy on how. It's just that "I think there's a lot of waste in our society. I love recycling and reusing. And this is just so much fun."

Do I need to elaborate on our culture's clothing excess?

If so, consider what Teutsch sees when she walks into the auditorium the day of the swap: "It's like a groaning banquet. . . . I have sometimes looked around and been a little overwhelmed. This is just our excess. How much do we all have?"

Well, in 2010, U.S. consumers spent $334 billion on clothing and shoes - more than $1,000 for every man, woman, and child. (Except that they spent nearly twice as much on female clothing than male.)

Sadly, not enough of our discards even make it to the used-clothing market. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures from 2010 show that 8.9 million tons of clothing and footwear - 3.6 percent of the municipal waste stream - were tossed.

The Mount Airy event is blissfully rule-free. You bring what you want and take what you want.

The volunteers don't even keep data on how many clothes come or go. They just do it.

It's free - sort of. People are asked to donate $20. Some do, some don't, and some give more.

Last year, the event sent $4,300 to the Darfur Alert Coalition, which raises both awareness and funds to help the people of Darfur.

This year, the charity is Women for Women International, helping female survivors of war rebuild their lives.

No need to even line up early to get the best stuff. It keeps coming in all day.

By now, the phenomenon - and I do think it's that - "has a kind of a reverse chic," Teutsch said. "I was once going to a fancy dinner . . . and there was this beautiful [used] dress. It fit perfectly. Now, it's my favorite little black dress. I often wonder when I put it on, 'Who gave this away?' "

"There's this spirit of how everyone is friends that day," Ravital said. Friends are finding stuff for each other. Random strangers are finding stuff for each other. "It's very celebratory. Women supporting each other," she said.

She has gotten shoes, workout clothes, a jacket, hats . . . no end of stuff from the giveaway. Some of it goes back next year. "I definitely have a very rotating wardrobe that revolves around this event," Ravital said.

Sometimes, it's tough to let go of a favorite item that no longer fits - if I could just lose five pounds! - or that no longer matches.

But I love one friend's attitude: She says she's "liberating" her clothes. It only makes sense that they should live out their lives productively instead of being eaten by moths.

So far, the giveaway has had just one problem: too many leftover clothes. (One year, the excess filled half a truck - "an obscene amount of stuff," Teutsch said.)

So last year, women with jobs that put them in touch with low-income families put out the word: Come! Take!

Still, there was stuff left.

So the final bit goes to Whosoever Gospel Mission in Germantown, which provides shelter, education, counseling, rehabilitation, food, and, yes!, clothing to needy people in the region.

There, it joins the six to eight tons - tons! - of used clothing the mission receives every week to be sorted. Some of it is given directly to the needy. Some winds up in the mission's thrift shops, helping by bringing both money to the mission and inexpensive clothing to the needy.

Even then, the life of some of the skirts, blouses, sweaters, and pants is not over. Whatever's left over at the mission goes abroad, to be given or sold to needy people elsewhere.

Taking advantage of excess has benefits far down the line. "It helps us. It helps homeless people. It helps needy people. It also helps needy people in developing countries," said Mission executive director Bob Emberger. "It's a valuable commodity."

So it shouldn't be wasted.


"GreenSpace" appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey's "Well Being" column. Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or @sbauers on Twitter. Visit her blog at www.philly.com/greenspace.

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