Thrift Store in Berkeley, California (Alex Gomez)


Community clothing: Working wardrobes as a sustainability powerhouse

A local non-profit organization helps community members shop for sustainable work appropriate and interview clothes.
<a href="" target="_self">Alex Gomez</a>

Alex Gomez

August 14, 2023

There is no bigger buzz word in fashion right now than sustainability. Brands are rolling out low environmental impact fabrics, collecting used clothing for fabric recycling, and including green-related themes in marketing campaigns. However, the brand that walks the walk more than anyone else on sustainability is not a fashion house at all, but rather an Orange County non-profit that has been operating a sustainability-focused organization for more than 30 years.

Working Wardrobes’s mission is to help men, women, young adults, and veterans overcome the challenges of writing a resume, preparing for interviews, and affording work-appropriate clothing so they can achieve the dignity of work, and “the power of a paycheck”. An important part of Working Wardrobes’s mission is providing their clients with skills workshops for resume writing and interviewing, as well as other job readiness training. They also provide head-to-toe outfits for interviewing and the first days on the job – this is where the sustainability angle comes in. 

Working Wardrobes, which primarily operates out of a warehouse in Irvine and retail stores in Costa Mesa, Garden Grove, Laguna Niguel, and Tustin, has an incredibly positive impact on the Orange County community as a recycled clothing powerhouse. The warehouse collects new and used clothes, shoes, and accessories, bringing in more than 10,000 items per month. Working Wardrobes’s Operations Manager, Johanna Hulme, presented to the FLARE magazine and Blue Bin Group teams at Sage Hill School this spring. Hulme explained how her Donation Center team separates goods that they collect into three categories:

First, they take the “high-end” or name brand goods and send them to one of their fancier retail stores in Laguna Niguel or Tustin. Items in good condition that are not work appropriate are sold at the “outlets” in Costa Mesa and Garden Grove. Proceeds from these four thrift stores fund operations for the non-profit. 80 cents of every dollar in proceeds are returned to Working Wardrobes. 

Second, items appropriate for Working Wardrobes’s clients to wear for interviews or work are categorized, hung, steamed, and prepared for use in one of their big events, such as the annual Power Up for Success on-site job fair at Camp Pendleton. Working Wardrobes also works with vendors who generously donate new clothes for use with Working Wardrobes’ clients or for sale in their retail stores. 

Third, items that cannot be used in interview-related programming or sold are donated to groups that offer second-hand clothing to those in need or clothing recycling organizations.

Sage Hill School has close ties to Hulme’s team in the warehouse, as well as the retail outlet in Costa Mesa. Members of FLARE magazine worked shifts at the Costa Mesa outlet store in the fall to learn more about the connection between clothes and service to the community. Sage Hill 9th graders sort, steam, and organize clothes in the warehouse as part of their six-part Service Learning rotation.

Hulme’s team has presented to the Sage Hill Parent Association, and teams of parent volunteers have also worked in the warehouse. 28 Sage Hill students and members of FLARE and Blue Bin Group attended a speech by Hulme at Sage in April that focused on the life cycle of clothing and the environmental degradation caused by fast fashion.

After graduating the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), Hulme challenged students to consider the impact that they can have on the environment through their clothing choices. Hulme highlights issues related to buying from fast fashion brands, many of which are popular with students because of their social media-driven marketing campaigns.

She shared images showing the incredible amount of water that goes into manufacturing a pair of jeans. When accounting for the growing of cotton, the dye process, and the “wash” of a new pair of jeans, almost 10,000 gallons of water may be used. A single pair of jeans can use a thousand gallons of water during production, not to even mention the devastation caused by the dyeing process and contaminated wastewater. While presenting at Sage Hill, Hulme wore a pair of “low water” impact jeans from Levi’s Waterless clothing line. According to Levi’s, their Waterless products are made with up to 96% less water than typical clothing. 

What can we do to support Working Wardrobes and improve our community related to clothing? 

Encourage your family to donate high-end, business-appropriate, business casual, and other clothing items to the Working Wardrobes Donation Center in Irvine. Items are requested to be clean and on hangers. The team especially appreciates business-appropriate shoes, handbags, and jewelry. Shop at one of the Working Wardrobes retail outlets and volunteer in the warehouse by processing clothing. Working Wardrobes also takes donations.

 How can we be part of the solution in terms of the environmental impact of clothing?

Buy less. Resist the constant stream of advertisements enticing you to buy items that are inexpensive to purchase, but expensive in terms of their environmental impact.

Buy second hand. Many of us love the thrill of finding a diamond in the rough at Goodwill and other thrift stores. Value the creativity it takes for you and your friends to come up with a vintage look. Trading jeans, t-shirts, sweatshirts, and dresses with your friends is a good way to practice sustainability. Also,s hop your closet rather than always looking to buy something new.

As conscientious shoppers, each of us can positively impact our communities and the environment by making smart choices when it comes to buying, wearing, sharing, and recycling our clothes. Similar to Working Wardrobes, many organizations in our community operate thrift stores who use their proceeds to fund causes that improve people’s lives. Shopping at these thrift stores both keeps consumers away from fast fashion stores and contributes to great causes. T

Two local stores to consider: The Collection by Casa Teresa and TickTocker Thrift Shop

The Collection is located in Orange and this boutique offers unique lightly used men and women’s clothing, shoes, purses, and jewelry, all displayed in a lovely cottage-type location. Proceeds from the store fund programs for pregnant women in crisis.

The TickTocker Thrift Shop has been in operation since 1959 and is ran by the National Charity League (NCL) and benefits the groups with whom NCL works including Human Options, Children’s Hospital of Orange County, and Orangewood Foundation. 

Consider shopping at Cinderella’s Closest who works “turning dresses into dreams” by providing dresses, shoes, undergarments, jewelry, and evening bags to juniors and seniors referred by school counselors, social workers, or community outreach coordinators. They make going to prom possible for girls who otherwise could not attend. 

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