Switching It Up

Billings business takes old clothes and gives them new life in other people’s closets

As the owner of Switch Society, a clothing swap shop in Billings, Emily Petroff has two goals: to help women look and feel their best, and to give the landfill a rest. Emily loves giving new life to old clothes, so they don’t end up in the trash.

“Eighty percent of the American closet hasn’t been worn in the last year,” says Emily. “We encourage our customers to bring us all of that 80 percent and we give them points for those items. Then they shop the store with those points.”

When you step into the shop on Grand Avenue, it’s clear Switch Society is not a typical clothing store. Customers walk in with armfuls of old clothes and usually walk out carrying something new from someone else’s closet.

When customers shop, no money exchanges hands. The shop operates using a membership model, with customers buying either a monthly membership for $10 or an annual membership for $99. When a member brings in old clothes, each item is assigned a point value. Items that are newer, in very good condition, are name brand or are made of sustainable materials earn more points. Customers can shop the store with their points or bank them to use later.

“The average price of a piece of thrifted clothing nationally is about $16.67,” says Emily. ”I think it’s a little higher here in Billings, so they really only need about seven to 10 pieces of clothing over the course of an entire year to pay for their annual membership.“

Emily’s budding business started out last January after she created a Facebook group and hosted a free clothing swap at a Billings hotel. The response was strong, and Emily realized there was a market for a business that sells old clothes in a new, environmentally friendly way. Since the Switch Society store opened its doors last May, Emily has collected more than 40,000 clothing items. No clothing goes to waste. Items that aren’t in good enough shape for exchange are given new life. Emily loves to sew and enjoys hosting upcycling workshops where she helps customers learn how to turn trash into treasure.

“We encourage people to bring us their ripped, torn, stained and broken things, and we upcycle them into new things,” Emily says.

Emily also plans to get a shredder, so unusable clothing can be shredded and re-used in products like mattress filling and insulation. As she researched the fashion industry and developed a business model for her shop, Emily says she learned how much waste there is in the textile industry, and how the fashion industry hurts the planet. Her shop has a zero-waste culture, and customers learn the important role they play in reducing textile waste.

“No one should ever be without clothing,” Emily says. “Two billion pairs of jeans are produced every single year. There are too many textiles in the world.”

While the store only sells women’s clothing, members also earn points when they bring in men’s and children’s clothing. Those items are saved for free family swaps Emily hosts twice a year.

Emily says it’s fun to see customers get excited when someone else buys their old clothes. While new customers are sometimes initially a little unsure about how the store operates, they get excited once they realize the endless possibilities for swapping.

“Once they come in and see the quality of items we have, the diversity and style and sizes, it’s easier to give up the things that have been in the back of the closet for a long time,” she says.

Emily’s bright, energetic personality keeps customers like Lynn Johnson returning again and again. Lynn says she really likes Switch Society’s concept of sustainability. She started out as a customer, then became a store volunteer. Recently, she joined the board of directors for the business, which is set up as a public benefit corporation.

“I like the fact that we’re not throwing stuff into the landfill,” says Lynn. “I’ve got grandkids who are in that age bracket where they’re in a disposable society, as I was at one point. So I like that part of her business model and that we’re doing a little bit to save the earth.”

The store’s inventory turns over quickly, making it easy to spot something new on each visit. Customers are welcome to bring in all types of clothing year-round. Switch Society also allows returns at any time.

“So someone can take something, try it one time and if it doesn’t work, or they just wanted to wear it for that one event, you can just bring it back and try something else,” Emily says.

Emily is thankful for her mom and her sister, who have pitched in to get the store up and running. As her business grows, she hopes to draw in more volunteers who can earn shopping points by working at the shop.

Sharing her passion for fashion and supporting women of all shapes and sizes is a love for this business owner. She’s created the store to be a safe space, where women are encouraged to feel good about themselves.

“I don’t let anyone speak negatively about their body,” says Emily. “In some ways, I think people are craving that kind of experience. To be able to go somewhere and know that you’re not allowed to do that to yourself feels really good.”

“Emily is very accepting of herself and she gives everybody else the idea that you can accept yourself, no matter what size you are, what color your hair is,” says Lynn Johnson. “She’s very encouraging. It’s a safe place to be.”

Inclusivity is also very important to Emily. She enjoys serving customers of all ages and all socio-economic backgrounds. A scholarship program helps members who don’t have clothing to exchange, and customers can donate points to others in need.

While Emily has her hands full running her growing business, she’s always thinking about the future. As Switch Society grows, she knows she’ll need a larger space to house it. She’s also a business coach, and dreams about expanding the business to other communities.

“I love to support small business owners, and to take this concept I’ve created and help them create their own business around that is something that is right up my alley,” says Emily.

Learning from other entrepreneurs is also something she values. Last summer, she competed against startup business owners from across the country in a reality TV series called “The Blox.” The show is expected to air this winter. While she didn’t win the competition, her fellow contestants taught her a great deal about starting, operating and growing a successful business.

“I learned a lot, and there was a lot of validation for me about what we’re doing here and how necessary it is,” Emily says.

As a new business owner, Emily’s days are often long and challenging. But she says it doesn’t feel like work, because she likes to support women and speak up for the environment.

“I’m pretty loud and obnoxious, so I’m happy to use this voice,” Emily says with a laugh, “and I love these women who come in here.”

YOU CAN FIND THE SWITCH SOCIETY at 2500 Grand Ave. in Billings or on the web at switchsociety.org.


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