Although relatively few students have ventured into the basement of Old Union, those that do encounter an innovative example of social entrepreneurship applied to our very own Stanford campus. Union Underground, a free store and student art gallery, offers a creative stab at a partial solution to the problem of waste at Stanford.
The store is open Friday through Sunday from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. and is staffed by volunteers. The store operates on a donations model whereby students and groups donate used clothing or other items, and visitors to the store can take up to three items per day. Thus far, because of space constraints, the store is unable to accept larger donations like couches or TVs, but it hopes to be able to expand.
Union Underground is impressive for a number of reasons. Firstly, the free store is an excellent example of innovation applied to our very own campus. Numerous students, groups and classes at Stanford are involved in addressing some of the biggest challenges facing society today in new ways. Efforts like Union Underground remind us that these projects can — and should — start “closer to home,” addressing real issues on Stanford’s campus.
For that reason, another major reason to applaud Union Underground is for taking a small step against the very real problem of waste. The transient nature of life at Stanford means students regularly dispose of items like clothing or room furnishings, many of which are perfectly serviceable. For some things, resale is an option, and students can always take items for donation to centers that are a little farther away. Many items, however, are simply just thrown away. Union Underground offers a convenient alternative to contributing to landfills and one that more directly engages the Stanford community.
The free store is also a great example of making change happen. The founders had an idea for a student thrift store and in consultation with other interested students, the administration and similar initiatives elsewhere, they worked to quickly make their vision a reality, including the choice to switch to a free store model due to zoning restrictions. Furthermore, the store’s founding as a collaborative effort between the Green Living Council and Students for a Sustainable Stanford, along with recent partnership with the ASSU, is encouraging. Although partnership is not easy, there are real benefits to working together to tackle what are ultimately common problems including greater visibility and potentially higher effectiveness.
Union Underground cannot by itself solve the problem of waste at Stanford. The store has its own set of concerns to deal with, some of which are self-reinforcing. The lack of space for larger donations means that the store cannot offer some items that Stanford students would avail of and would like to donate, such as couches, and there is a certain stigma against used items. This, and the store’s location and newness, feed into the lack of awareness and publicity of the store among the student body. The store must avoid becoming a “dumping ground” for anything and everything students should maybe otherwise (legitimately) throw away. Lastly, although the Spring Quarter trial was a success, it remains to be seen whether Stanford students can indeed be trusted to maintain the balance of giving and taking that is necessary to make a free store work.
On the whole, however, the store and the idea behind it are promising. The collaborative effort to provide a useful service to students and, at the same time, engage them with the issue of sustainability is laudable and sets a great example for others on this campus.