October 26, 2022
by Gena Jones
Sixteen million tons of textile waste produced annually is weighing on the conscience of consumers. More and more people are questioning who made their clothes, if they were paid a living wage, and which companies produce them. Still, attention must be paid to what happens in the afterlife of that clothing, often a more complex topic that requires consumers to question their own habits. In New Orleans, those questions are answered by an environmental effort characterized by art, accessibility, mentorship, and culture. Here, sustainable shopping and fabric use becomes a mode of creativity that both builds and bonds the community.
“I went to a little [private] school. I didn’t wanna be wearing Patagonia everyday… I felt like I only was able to express myself when it came to clothing through thrifted things,” says Eleni San, President of Tulane University’s Thrift Club.
The club founder saw a problem with the way many students would spend thousands on Mardi Gras outfits from SHEIN, an online clothing company known for its harmful environmental and labor practices. In response the club began hosting thrift crawls, sustainability campaigns, and volunteering to sort through donations. It wasn’t until San got more involved that she realized many clothes donated to common thrifts like Goodwill still end up in a landfill of textile waste if unsold: “A lot of thrift stores will be like, ‘We’re sustainable! But only until next season.’”
In 2020, there was a popular trend on TikTok to do thrift hauls showing off your finds. While this helped to eliminate some stigma around secondhand clothing, San said that it also led to overconsumption and rising prices. “Now, when you go to the thrift store it’s like a war to get any good looking clothes, prices are going up everywhere. It used to be a sustainable option for people [on a low budget].” But San is sure to praise one specific place in New Orleans where thrifting and community building is done with genuine attention toward the issue of accessibility.
Described by executive director, Lizz Freeman-Kelly, as a creative community hub, ricRACK holds tight to a core of accessible sustainability in all its pursuits. The sewing and textile nonprofit has a major unique source for its clothing donations: the wardrobes of TV shows and movies filmed in New Orleans. I stopped by at a lucky time, their biannual Le Bag sale; and left having paid only $15 for a bag stuffed full of clothes from the set of the locally filmed series, Queen Sugar.
Her eyes light up as she tells me about the different ways they’ve been able to incorporate sustainability into every aspect of the nonprofit. A big bin of scraps held all the materials they had used and reused, until they were finally small enough to be donated to a local boxing gym owner, who had been searching for an affordable way to fill his punching bags.
“We exist for this community to be a part of,” a goal by Kelly that had been undeniably achieved. The prices at ricRACK were affordable, and the funds from thrift sales help provide creative skill building for the community. She tells me passionately about their partnership with the city’s Pathways program, a 6-week course led by a volunteering Mardi Gras Indian who teaches past juvenile offenders how to sew their own clothes and monetize their skills.
Suddenly, Freeman-Kelly turns to her right and begins dissecting the origins of every piece of fabric on a wall-length drape of textile art she’d made. “That red is from a child’s silk dress that was just torn to shreds, and this is from the obi sash on a kimono, an antique that was just totally ruined, and this brown velvet was something I found at an estate sale.” Next to the artwork were two smaller, yet just as striking, portraits made entirely from thread that had been donated to ricRACK. Whether it be clothes or the materials to make her art, years of experience with thrifting has taught Freeman-Kelly to “….try to never buy new.”
All Artwork by Lizz Freeman-Kelly