A Drop in the Bucket Has a Ripple Effect: Lessons Learned Founding Stanford's Free Store

Our initial proposal was called the Stanford Re-Use Campaign, but, in hindsight, a more accurate title would have been Baiting People with Free Stuff to Change Their Consumer Behavior.

In February 2011, Nicole Greenspan and I were given a class assignment to create a business plan for a social enterprise. We came up with the idea of a campus thrift store and decided that, if we were going to make a plan for it, we might as well try to actually do it. As environmentalists, we hated seeing how many reusables were discarded by students, and, as money-tight students, Palo Alto’s version of Goodwill wasn’t exactly cheap. We e-mailed out a survey to gauge interest in a thrift store, and over 900 students responded with support. This number got us pumped... especially since students basically never answer surveys. We had validation!

After validation came a reality check. We needed a space and stuff to put in the space. First, we reached out to anyone and everyone we thought might have insight, such as Stanford student groups and other college’s thrift stores. Then, armed with best practices, statistics, and a growing team, we approached our student government with our plan, and they suggested locating in the basement of the student union, which was, at the time, being used for storage. The catch: Zoning restrictions prohibited financial transactions in the basement. This was a huge blow for us.

Shoppers rummage through the goods at the Stanford Free Store's grand opening. Photo credit: Union Underground. Used with permission.

Reuse sites were typically messes if they weren’t staffed. But we thought that we needed a staff that was paid, which was impossible without revenue. So we figured, okay, we’ll start with something in the basement, just to get our foot in the door. It would be a “pilot” study, evaluating the supply and demand of reusables on campus. (Stanford’s all about pilot studies. They're a great way to fail gracefully.) Then, after building traction and giving ourselves more search time, we’d find and get a space where we could have a thrift store. We decided to go with a “free store” model, where folks could take donated things regardless of whether they themselves had donated, because it didn't require the extra operational overhead of, for example, a swap system.

There were a lot of hoops to jump through between being told of a potential space and actually getting that space. But, luckily for us, we’d been forewarned in our outreach of such bureaucracy and were ready to be flexible with changing meeting times, but stubborn with our request. We also, luckily, had some “friends in the right places.” So we eventually got administrative approval, and scrambled and boot-strapped our way into setting up the store before the school year ended. This involved, among other things, scrounging for shelving, hoarding the excess of others under our beds, and hanging student art in the basement hallway at 2 am. To avoid delirium and increase hilarity, our team took breaks via mini dance parties. Lots of dance parties. Friendship made what appeared to be perseverance largely just having fun.

And then, somehow, we had our grand opening on May 20, 2011. Chaos! Over 300 people came through a space made for 10. We lost over half of our inventory. And then one of our team members suggested having a daily item limit per customer. It seemed so simple and obvious once she’d said it. We continued to get brilliant ideas for improvement from our team and our customers. We were rewarded with seeing how happy customers were freely giving and taking from their community, and by how many of them eagerly approached us offering to volunteer at the store. We had people's gratitude -- something more powerful than revenue. We realized that the free store was here to stay.

Once the store operations were (mostly) sorted out, we could focus more on educating our customers -- one of our main initial goals. Our initial reasoning was as follows: Reusables didn’t get dumped at Stanford for lack of options. Reusing just wasn't a high enough priority for some people to search for their options or to plan ahead for move-out frenzy. We, thus, wanted to focus on changing the way customers thought about consumption, especially in terms of its environmental impact.

Most people are aware of the socio-economic benefits of giving something to someone who needs it instead of throwing it away. A lot of people, however, don’t really get the connection between the production of new stuff and the depletion of environmental resources. For example, many folks still don’t know what the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is. Luckily for us, while business people sometimes avoid using words like sustainability and green, it's all the rage in higher education right now. So, for example, one of our team members put little tags on hangers with facts about American waste, and another put up a poster depicting The Story of Stuff, based on Annie Leonard's video.

The latest incarnation of the store is dubbed Union Underground.Photo credit: Union Underground. Used with permission.

We also wanted to focus on engaging our customers via a sense of community -- a community where reuse was the norm. Volunteers would start friendly chats with customers, give them advice regarding reuse options on campus, and encourage them to spread the word. True, people can be greatly motivated by convenience and, currently, reusing can be inconvenient. But there's also an inconvenience in breaking social norms. What we need is for sharing to be conformity. Individuals’ actions can add up to some amazing peer pressure. And isn’t large-scale peer pressure just another way of saying cultural shift?

With a cultural shift must come a shift in the unsustainable production, distribution, and disposal systems we currently operate within. These systems are run by human beings. Some of our peers will become the new human beings running those systems. They’ll be CEOs, venture capitalists, senators -- people with a lot of money and power. And if just one of them, in youth, had developed a non-consumerist perspective and became a part of a new culture, imagine how much s/he could change the course of a company, an industry, a nation.

We hope that, little by little, we are helping instill this non-consumerist perspective. Our returning customers make us optimistic about our success. At first, customers are often mostly excited about taking things. Taking as much as possible. As time passed, though, we'd hear them say things like, "I like it, but someone else could probably make better use of it." … "I like it, but do you want it?" ... "I just came to say hi. I don't feel like looking through things." We’re not sure whether our waste-fact signs next to the dressing room mirrors did it, or whether it was just the act of visiting the store, or a bit of both, but we saw people starting to care less and less about stuff. And that's the beginning of a world where people don't evaluate their happiness by stuff.