[Sustainable Tuesdays] On thrift and preloved clothes in Malaysia – Interview with Thrift on Wheels!

Thrift on Wheels

Hello sustainability-loving girls and boys! Today’s post is actually my first interview since I started the blog. It came about when I was doing my research on second hand clothes and Syakirin & Athirah, the lovely sisters at Thrift on Wheels! commented on my post. I was really impressed that I got readers from Malaysia and started the conversation. I found what they are doing so interesting and inspiring, and I thought you might as well. Enjoy!

Thrift on Wheels

Alex: Tell me a bit about yourselves.

Syakirin & Athirah: ThriftOnWheels! is founded by two thrifty sisters, Syakirin Rosik and Athirah Rosik. We’re two girls in our mid 20s who love to thrift and have always wanted to provide a better living to underprivileged communities in Malaysia. Prior to ThriftOnWheels!, Syakirin was in grad school doing research in Physics, while Athirah has always been in the food and beverage industry. We are both still actively involved in our respective careers, but ThriftOnWheels! has been our number one passion since it started!

Alex: What is Thrift on Wheels?

Syakirin & Athirah: ThriftOnWheels! is a first-of-its-kind social enterprise in Malaysia. It’s a mobile thrift store that buys used clothes from Malaysian households and the clothes that we’ve collected are either sold at our mobile thrift store, donated to the less privileged, or upcycled by marginalized groups. We’re focused on reducing textile waste, and creating a conscious and sustainable fashion movement here in Malaysia. At the same time, we are trying to provide as many job opportunities as we can to members of the lower income groups so they could better support themselves and their families. Our tagline is “virtue of wise use” which reflects what ThriftOnWheels! is all about. We want Malaysians to know that the clothes that they have used could be made into something new, and the clothes that are no longer wanted by someone else might just be the treasure they’ve been looking for! What’s better, they could purchase it for up to 90% cheaper than retail prices.

Alex: How did you come up with the idea?

Syakirin & Athirah: To be frank, it comes from our own lack of awareness before we started to thrift. We were just like any other consumer who contributes to fast fashion culture, and we keep on buying more, and more clothes until we no longer have the space to store them. We realized that we spent too much on brands that do not provide good working and living condition to their workers. Not only that, so many of these clothes just end up at the landfill after a few wears. Since then, we would only spend on used clothes to save them from the landfill, plus we get to pay less! It has been six months since we’ve started, and needless to say, we’ll never look back.

The idea for ThriftOnWheels! came to us when we found out that many other households in Malaysia are facing the same problem of having nowhere to send their used clothes to. Few of them are donated, and issues such as inappropriate clothes being donated to charity groups is ever-present. So ThriftOnWheels! also acts as a sorting, and distribution point for donations. Basically, we make sure orphanages get children’s clothes and beautiful, clean blouses are sent to refugee shelters.

Alex: How do people react to it? 

Our first week in business was overwhelming. Requests for item pick-ups that came in on the first few days took us by surprise. The numbers were beyond what we expected. So for the first few weeks, we were already fully booked two months in advance. Our very first sale was held at a local park, and within two hours, most of our denims were sold out, and at the end of the sale, we realized we’ve created a movement, not just a business.

Alex: Tell us about one hidden gem/funky item that you found in since you started your business.

Syakirin & Athirah: We’ve found so many high end brands! We’ve found Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger, Polo etc. The most common would be Zara and H&M, unsurprisingly, as these two brands are major contributors to fast fashion culture so many of the items are only used a few times before being sold to us. We’ve also found so many unused items with tags attached which costs more for us to buy. Our favourite piece would a laced, vintage dress from the 70’s. It was a wedding gift from a groom to his bride and was bought in Italy. The lovely woman who sold us the dress has never worn it before. An unused, laced, vintage dress! Only in a thrift store!

Thrift on Wheels!

We also love this Tommy Hilfiger sweater, bought by a thrifter for her father who sent us this photo. This sweater was sold at RM30. Nothing is more than RM50 in ThriftOnWheels! as we want to keep it affordable. These vintage Reader’s Digest magazines are definitely our absolute favourite. It’s a rare find and we absolutely love the unique covers! We love it so much that we haven’t even put it up for sale yet! 😀

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Alex: How would you describe the consumer attitude in Malaysia? Are people prone to fast fashion buy/wear once/throw away or are they wearing item until they are worn out and then finding alternative uses instead of throwing away? Do you think clothes to landfill is an issue in Malaysia?

Syakirin & Athirah: Annually, Malaysians create about 11 million tons of waste. In year 2000, 6% of Malaysian waste is textile waste. In these 15 years, many other fast fashion brands have opened in Malaysia such as Forever21 and Cotton On from Australia, so we’re confident this percentage has increased significantly. If the numbers reached 10% of our waste, that would be 1.1 million tons of clothes taking up space in the landfill every year. So yes, it is a big issue, although many are not aware of it. Malaysian consumers are definitely more prone to fast fashion brands. It’s common to hear youth queuing up to get the latest collections from these brands. As we know, fashion trends are fast changing, so many of these items are kept only for a few years before it’s no longer used. Some Malaysians would donate them, but again, we are trying to avoid a fur coat being sent to an orphanage which will have absolutely no use so ThriftOnWheels! are providing a sorting point for these clothes.

Alex: What is the perception in Malaysia about second hand clothes? Do people buy/wear them?

Syakirin & Athirah: Few Malaysians are open to wearing or buying used clothes. When we first started thrifting, many of our friends don’t understand why we don’t just buy retail. But once we’ve explained our personal stand, most of them are interested to start thrifting. All they need is to overcome the mental barrier that used clothes are dirty, and gross. They’ve come to realized that they can buy branded clothes for much less in a thrift store without compromising on quality. We realized that Malaysian consumers need to be educated on conscious and responsible fashion, and we’re willing to lead the campaign.

Alex: Are people interested in sewing/making their own clothes? Is upcycling/refashioning popular? Would it be for fashion/thrift/environmental concerns?

Refashioning is quite unpopular here but both of us have always refashioned our clothes. Since we started ThriftOnWheels!, we’ve learnt a lot more about refashioning and sewing in general. We made pillowcases and purses from donated clothes, and these new products are sold back at our mobile thrift store.

Alex: What’s in store for the future of Thrift on Wheels?

Syakirin & Athirah: We are currently working on our mobile thrift store and we’re hoping to roll out very soon. Apart from that, we’re excited to launch a collaboration with local brands in the next few months. In the near future, we will build a “Thrift House” where we will store and display all thrift items including clothes, books and shoes plus, it will house members of marginalized groups such as refugee families who would help us upcycle the donated items. Malaysians who would like to donate or sell their items could simply drop it off at the “Thrift House”, and at the same time thrift our items.

Thank you ladies for answering my questions!

If you’d like to know more, check out the Thrift on Wheels website, their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Happy Sustainable Tuesday everyone!

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9 comments

  1. Really interesting article Alex. I enjoyed reading it. Good luck to the ladies at Thrift on Wheels. You’re doing an amazing job!

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  2. What a brilliant, inspiring idea. I love thrifting and get a lot of fabric from charity shops or car boot sales. I love the idea of providing a way for people to dispose of their unwanted clothing responsibly. Fabulous!

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    1. Really inspiring, aren’t they? It’s great that countries that haven’t got a particular thrift tradition are getting on board! I love charity shop fabric too, makes you feel a bit virtuous, doesn’t it? 🙂

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