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Innovation Earth: A Stylish Way to Save 21 Billion Pounds of Textile Waste a Year

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Being an environmentalist with a deep-seated love of fashion is not very fun. I love shiny, pretty things as much as the next girl, but the typical snippets from my thought process upon purchasing a new article of clothing have grown to be all-consuming: that sweatshirt is conventional cotton, the most pesticide-laden crop on earth. Those leather shoes come from a factory-farmed cow, but the "vegan" ones are made from toxic PVC. And, like an automaton: You can only buy neutral colors. Must... maximize... amount of wears...

Not surprisingly, my style has suffered. Recently, my sister-in-law told me she didn't think she had ever seen my real legs sans the sheath of my (one pair of) trusty black leggings. (I've known her for 15 years.)

As a time-crunched freelancer and mom of two young children, I have neither the time nor patience to comb through the racks at a thrift store. I lack the budget to splurge on a closet full of pieces from the truly sustainable fashion designers I love.

So when my friend and Mommy Greenest founder Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff launched the Shop Drop Challenge last month, pointing out that if every woman in the United States stopped buying new clothes for one month, we could save nearly one billion pounds of textile waste and $10 billion (that's right; $10,000,000,000 a month on clothes), I first thought: Wow, that's incredible—sign me up! And then I thought: Oh great, I'll have an empty closet and be wearing these old, faded leggings for as long as I live.

And then—thankfully—Rachel introduced me to Give + Take in Santa Monica, Calif., a swap boutique that lets your bring in your previously-loved clothing to exchange for points to spend at the store.

(There are outlets for swapping online, but here co-owners Celina Burns and Dora Copperthite bring a more personal approach to the collaborative consumption movement, because let's face it: A woman needs to be able to ask another woman how her butt looks in a pair of jeans before she brings them home.)

Upon first glance, Give + Take looks like any other trendy boutique on the swank Westside of Los Angeles: chic cocktail dresses catch your eye as you walk into the store. Perfectly fitted jackets and chunky-knit sweaters line one wall; rows of event-worthy heels, booties and bags, organized by color, adorn the other.

The difference, however, is that the fashionable clothing in the store is, in fact, secondhand, and you trade for, instead of buy, your purchases. No wallet necessary. (Save for a nominal amount of tax on the items you select; $1.60 on one of my recent excursions.)

Members pay a small monthly fee (currently $25) and only items in great condition are accepted for trade. Points are awarded based on the original value of each item, which meant that when I recently brought in a couple gorgeous but seen-too-many-times dresses for trade, along with several cute tops I was willing to part with, I earned enough points for an almost entirely new wardrobe.

Here's a sampling of some pieces I scored on a recent visit:

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From left: Writing at home and playing with my girls (striped cardigan); heading out to an afternoon cocktail party (black skirt); dressed for a morning work event (blue dress); running errands on the weekend (white dress, blue skinnies, and thanks to my 3-year-old daughter for taking the best photo of the bunch!)

Needless to say, I think my style rut is officially over. "What women are discovering is that the swap allows them the freedom to experiment in ways they would have never dared to before," says co-owner Burns. "There's no risk: if an item doesn't work out, they can trade it back and try something else."

For me, the biggest incentive to stay a loyal Give + Take member is environmental: On a planet of 7 billion people and counting, the idea that we could keep generating 21 billion pounds of textile waste a year (and that's just in the U.S.) is truly preposterous. But for most of Burns' customers, the motivation to swap instead of shop is, not surprisingly, financial.

"The sheer savings appeals to everyone, and it's why we have a truly diverse membership," says Burns. "Our women are students, doctors, lawyers, artists, business women, stay-at-home moms—you name it."

And that gives me hope that the idea will catch on. Burns' vision is to eventually franchise her store, so that a woman in Santa Monica could spend her swap points while vacationing in New York, for instance.

Women control more than 80 percent of U.S. spending; with a spread of Give + Takes around the country, we could truly change the world. It doesn't hurt that we'll all look pretty snazzy doing it, of course.

Got a great idea for my next Innovation Earth column? Send tips, thoughts and suggestions to jennifer@jennifergrayson.com.

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