On Tuesday afternoon, one corner of the lobby of Hodges Library suddenly resembled a crowded yard sale, with racks of clothing, rows of shoes and tables stacked with ties, hats and water bottles.
It was the latest iteration of the popular Free Store, a pop-up created by the UT Office of Sustainability which seeks to reduce the environmental impact of so-called “fast fashion” and give underprivileged college students access to free merchandise.
As students sauntered through one of the busiest thoroughfares on campus, many stopped to ask if free really meant free, and it did.
Like student volunteer Mithon’al Paul, those who scanned the racks for shirts and tried on hats were mainly attracted to the opportunity to get new clothing and accessories for free.
“We’re broke, so it’s beneficial to us because it’s easier to go out here than going out to the mall and buying something there at an expensive price,” Paul said. “The affordability part is covered.”
Leah McCord, who serves as the social impact coordinator and free store administrator for the Office of Sustainability, says giving students access to free items is one of two goals of the pop-up store. The other goal, and perhaps the more important one to the work of the Office of Sustainability, is to reduce the effects of material waste on the planet.
For each item recycled, McCord says, the campus has an opportunity not only to cut down on waste, but also to supply the students who walk around unsheltered in the rain with a necessary upgrade.
“Our goal is really to create this circular economy,” McCord said. “We want students to know that if they need a coat or, you know, we had umbrellas out earlier today. ... we need to keep them out of the landfill, and why not give them to people who can use them?”
Yet another benefit of the Free Store, which the Office of Sustainability tries to put on at least twice a semester, is that students with excess clothing have somewhere to donate their unused or unwanted items.
Nell Springer, another student volunteer with the Free Store, says she may take advantage of this perk in the future.
“It’s good to know there’s somewhere on campus to be able to donate clothes, cause I know I have so many I’ve just been meaning to get rid of, and I didn’t really know where to go to donate them,” Springer said.
For students interested in donating to the Free Store and helping create a “circular economy” of recycling and sustainability on campus, collections bins are placed in the lobbies of residence halls before winter and summer breaks and the Office of Sustainability’s recycling drop-off on Neyland Drive has its own bin for the Free Store.
But of course, there’s always the option of helping the cause just by taking free stuff. And since the Office of Sustainability is hoping to establish a Free Store at a permanent location on campus open three days a week, that option may soon be available to students like never before.