The thrift store model is a long-standing custom in the American culture that provides goods to community members at a lower cost and helps reuse things to keep them from going to landfills.
The University of Tennessee is reinventing the wheel with an on-campus thrift store to bring sustainability and access to necessities to its students, faculty, and staff.
In 2018, the University’s Office of Sustainability, a department dedicated to creating sustainable alternatives for students, faculty, and staff on campus, opened the Free shop. They partnered with Michaela Barnett, founder of KnoxFillName and an AmeriCorps employee at the time, to address the issue of sustainability and student needs on campus.
The Free Store is a community sharing space that allows students, faculty, and staff to purchase items such as clothing, kitchenware, accessories, and small appliances for free.
“The Free Store is a community resource here on the UTK campus. We get donations from students, faculty, staff and also the public,” said Mack Harmon, student director of the store. “We take anything from just about anywhere in Knoxville and then redistribute it to students, faculty, staff, recent alumni, prospective students, anyone on the UT campus .”
Items are donated by UT students or community members as an alternative way to dispose of clothing and other items.
“The free store is, I would say, more than anything, even more sustainability is dedicated to making sure students have access to basic necessities without having to worry about cost,” Harmon says.
The free store offers clothing, bedding, books, school supplies, decorations and more to the community. Kaitlyn Pigot
They offer clothing as well as several necessities for students, faculty, and staff on the university campus.
“We have clothes, dishes, shoes, household items, decorations, books. Pretty much anything you’d find in a normal thrift store will be here, except it’s completely free and we now get donations on a regular basis,” says Harmon.
The Free Store Foundation directly addresses the issue of sustainability and social responsibility on the University of Tennessee campus.
UT’s Office of Sustainability focuses on creating sustainable alternatives for students, faculty, and staff on campus. The office implements programs at the university to tackle waste, conservation and sustainability issues. They work for “Make Orange Green” and reduce carbon emissions by promoting an eco-friendly and equitable campus.
Since its opening, the Free Store has seen a significant increase in accessibility to sustainable living and student necessities on campus. In their April 2022 monthly report, there was an increase in donations that almost doubled from March 2022.
The Free Store takes responsibility for reducing the environmental impact of the community by addressing the issue of ‘too much’ versus ‘too little’. They contribute to efforts to reduce overconsumption resulting from the fashion industry and campus impact on recycling and landfills.
“Part of that is reducing waste, making sure these clothes don’t end up in landfills, keeping them from being burned, buried and sent overseas. It’s not just the land or land aspect, there’s the social and environmental aspect,” Harmon explains.
The free store is only a small part of the fight against a bigger problem. Fast fashion has a significant impact on our social and environmental worlds.
According to United Nations Climate Change Report, the fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world. Statistics show that the fashion industry is responsible for producing 2% to 8% of total global emissions.
The increase in customer demand through the fast fashion business model has created a high demand for poor quality production and products. The issue of production and consumption of new clothes and other items requires the use of natural resources and the production of greenhouse gases.
“With the sustainable side in landfills, the clothes are already consuming a lot of resources like water and then polluting the water,” said Daria Baker, donations assistant. “The dyes used for clothes, and then the space needed to grow crops, like cotton. We don’t need to keep improving production when we already have all the clothes we’re likely to need.
For 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 13 million tons of clothing and footwear were produced, while only 1.7 million tons were recycled. The environmental impact of the fashion industry comes at the cost of pollution, water use, carbon emissions and human rights.
“Most of our clothing production is done like in other countries, so they don’t get a living wage. The working conditions are also terrible. There’s a lot to think about in clothing,” Baker continued. “We try to fight when we take things out of your hands and redistribute them.”
Founded as an initiative to promote the reduction of waste and gas emissions through the process of reusing items, the store has enjoyed success since its opening.
Building on its success, the Free Store opened a permanent location in February 2022 at 915 22nd St. on the UT campus.
“It’s pretty clear that the free store is growing, we’re reaching more people, and it’s been really great to see how many new faces are coming into the house,” Harmon said.
The store is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Tuesdays from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. More information can be found on their Instagram as well as on the Office of Sustainability website.