the discarded

The on-campus thrift store focused on mindful living

It's not uncommon to see piles of barely used items overflow in dumpsters and recycling bins outside college dorms at the end of every school year. The things that students acquire throughout the year are more than often discarded, hurting the environment and wasting resources that others may need. Though the school has tried to start a program to donate many of these items, little is known about whether the items find new homes or end up sitting in a basement. There are also safety and quality concerns surrounding self-organized good exchange activities through online social communities.


The secondhand clothing store creates an ecosystem for giving new life to clothing within the CMU community and building a culture of sustainability and minimalism. With an on-campus thrift store that operates year-round, the service would be extremely accessible to students and also friendly to those new to thrifting because of the store's attention on cleanliness. Workshops and events would be held in the space to teach new skills about repurposing items, and community building networks will be hosted to support each other in fostering a mindfulness culture.

Our Approach

  • How Might We Question
  • Stakeholder Mapping
  • Proposal Presentation & Feedback
  • Research

  • Research Plan
  • Interviews
  • Time-elapsed Camera
  • Observation
  • Secondary Research
  • Voting Posters
  • Research Summary Presentation & Feedback
  • Prototype

  • Physical Model
  • Digital Model
  • Final Presentation & Feedback
  • My Role

    As the team leader, I always checked in with my teammates and their progress as well as led our group discussions. I also was very active in bringing new ideas to the table and asking for a lot of feedback from my teammates. I conducted all the user interviews during the research phase, and took charge of figuring out how to incorporate community building into our thrift store. During our final presentation, I presented the community building aspect of our solution through an engaging story, which received positive feedback from the audience.

    • Project Duration4 weeks
    • TeamEmily Ding, Jenny Liu, Yoo Jin Shin, & Yufei Wang
    • Skills/ToolsUser Interviews, System Thinking, Service Design, Storytelling

    Our on-campus thrift store is an organized system dedicated to exchanging/repurposing unwanted items and building a shared, campus-wide mental model of sustainability through shaping students’ worldviews on consumption and disposal.

    It is a centrally located, clean space for the community to exchange clothing and other material in a comfortable, convenient manner.

    This space will also be used to educate the community on conscious living and bringing new life to unwanted clothing in hopes to facilitate positive mindset changes regarding oneself and the environment.


    How might we repurpose unwanted items for CMU students? This was the How Might We statement our team was most interested in when asked to identify a redesign opportunity on the Carnegie Mellon University campus. For this project, we especially focused on using research methods to come up with a design solution while being aware of how our mental models impact what we design.


    Background Research
    Understanding our Core Stakeholders

    Our team started our discussion by trying to understand CMU students and their motivations. We classified this group through three categories:

    1. According to their needs: students who want stuff and students who have too much stuff. Based on our existing knowledge, freshman could be classified in both groups depending on what time of the year it is. Graduating seniors mainly would want to get rid of many of their belongings, putting them in the latter group.

    2. By year of study: freshmen and seniors generally have contrasting motivations. For sophomores and juniors, the acquisition and donation of goods may happen more sporadically, at a small scale each time.

    3. By home location: are the students international, from the US, from the state of Pennsylvania, or from the city of Pittsburgh? We believe that students from further locations might face more difficulties in both obtaining and discarding belongings.

    Through our brainstorming, we also began to consider the factor of time in this equation. The following map is our mental model displaying changes in quantity of personal belongings in terms of time spanning a school year:

    Stakeholder Mapping

    Taking a step back, we mapped our current understanding of how CMU students interact with other stakeholders within the community to view how the entire system works together. At this point, we still had many questions which prompted us to start on research.

    After our proposal presentation, one of our instructors suggested that we explore the stigma of second hand things, which we paid special attention to moving forward with our research.


    Our Research Plan

    Based on the research goals and questions our team talked about, we decided on the appropriate research methods to proceed with. Since there were four of us on the team, we were able to divide up the methods to explore a wider breadth of research as a team. We made a timeline and scheduled meetings every few days to check in as a group.

    Conversing with the Experts

    I conducted 6 hour-long interviews with three students (a residential assistant, student living on campus, and student living off campus) and three CMU ResEd Housefellows. Interview questions depended on their role and the flow of the interview, but generally I wanted to better understand student behaviors with excess items at the end of the school year and how the Whatever Drive (ResEd event for donations) was run. During each interview, I took interpretation notes like the following to sort findings later on.

    The interviews allowed us to comprehend the depth of the existing system and its patterns, which led to many insights:

  • The Giving Wall feels like a lost and found where second-hand items do not feel clean.
  • Donated items are not worth the energy and value to keep, since many students' belongings don’t have significant meaning to them.
  • When people donate their stuff, they do not know where it will actually end up. Contrastingly, students have confidence that others will want what they post on for sale @ cmu (goods exchange Facebook group).
  • Current recycling unwanted items systems are not convenient, but people tend to choose what is convenient for them.
  • The concept of giving what you can and taking what you want sounds nice to students. People are more willing to participate if they believe in the cause.
  • Friends, social media, and experiences influence how people think and what they know. Only a certain population is targeted with thrifting and Facebook.
  • People make purchases when they want something specific. Situations and timing dictate when most students donate.
  • Students love free stuff, and events keep giving out free swag. Parents want their children to have everything they need. Society puts pressure to buy more and have many options. People are not accurate at gauging what they will actually need. What people like in terms of fashion changes over time.
  • Overall, students care heavily about cleanliness, convenience, and purpose when it comes to their personal belongings. The Whatever Drive receives a lot of passive engagement, but not enough to keep the program running smoothly. We confirmed that there is a huge need in this space, but no elegant solution existing yet.

    Time-elapsed camera

    Our team set up a camera in front of the Giving Wall (a shelf where people can leave and take anything) for 2 days in order to observe frequency of interaction and other behaviors with the space, and we noticed that

    1. The space is organized due to a lack of item catalog. Users have to physically search through everything which often makes a mess.

    2. A possible reason students don't spend time at the space is because of the overall un-inviting appearance. Students who did stop by only looked at the upper levels of the wall which happen to be the tidier area.

    3. People are more interested in books than clothing, suggesting that the stigma against second-hand items may depend on the type of item.

    We concluded that people generally deter from the Giving Wall due to the messy and dirty impression that it has, but that also depends on the type of item they see.


    We also observed the Giving Wall at different times of the day for an entire week, taking notes, photos, and more time lapses. From this, we found that

    1. The space is organized due to a lack of item catalog. Users have to physically search through everything which often makes a mess.

    2. A possible reason students don't spend time at the space is because of the overall un-inviting appearance. Students who did stop by only looked at the upper levels of the wall which happen to be the tidier area.

    This research strengthened previous findings that organization and presentation strongly influence how people interact with the space.

    Secondary Research

    By looking into current solutions and the larger system that they exist in, we got new ideas for what we could bring into our CMU community (such as activities to repurpose items) and other organizations that may need these unwanted items (Dress for Success, Construction Junction, etc).

    Finding our Focus

    From our research through time-elapsed cameras, we realized that behavior towards different categories within second-hand items differs. Therefore, we decided to narrow down our scope to one category of second-hand items: books or clothing. Books gain the most attention on the Giving Wall, whereas clothing receive the least amount of interaction. According to findings from the interviews, the issue around excessive clothing is very significant and much too large for current programs to deal with. After many discussions as the team, we decided to pursue the track of second-hand clothing since there is a lot of traffic for the area and it suffers the most from stigma against second-hand items.

    Voting Posters

    To get more feedback related to the realm of second-hand clothing, we put up posters and stickers all around CMU campus for students to provide their input. This method was fast and effective for helped us refine our final direction. Most significantly, we found that most people do like thrift shopping and general shopping semi-frequently in a physical environment.

    From our research summary presentation to instructors, we got suggestions to explore an educational component to our thrift system and look more into repurposing clothing instead of focusing purely on the buying and selling aspect.


    Following the feedback we got from our instructors, we added community building and clothing repurposing activities to our physical thrift shop. I spearheaded the community building activities that would bring more awareness to mindful consumption.

    Community Building
    We're All In This Together

    From our research, we found that students are influenced by their friends and trends around them, and that people learn by experience and example. So beyond facilitated workshops to learn practical ways to repurpose unwanted clothing, the thrift store also promotes community building with the mentor / family program.

    People placed into a tight knit “family” grouped by clothing size and fashion style where they can share clothes and develop sustainable habits together. Students would be motivated to participate because it allows them to be in an inviting environment where they can share clothes and knowledge with their “siblings”, helping out with their finances and the environment!

    These communities would also hold monthly hang outs with their mentor leading an activity or challenge (i.e. the packing party, four box method, konmari method) related to minimalism.

    Everyone is able to support one another in changing their behavior and mindset towards mindful consumption. The end goal is that the mentees will eventually become mentors for new “families” so that the philosophy can spread.

    Workshops and Events

    To fully utilize our thrift store space and community, we plan to hold events to reach and educate a wider audience about sustainable practices.

    Participants can learn how to repurpose clothing into hats, gloves, blankets, and more to reuse themselves or give to charity. Experts can also teach novices how to use a sewing machine in order to prolong the lives of clothing pieces. We will also invite specialists in the community to talk about environmental issues to spread practical knowledge to those in the CMU community.

    This will lead to increased awareness of one’s consumption and waste habits, positive mindset shifts towards minimalist living, and new skills to promote sustainability.

    Final Prototype of the Thrift Store

    Our on-campus thrift store is a versatile space for buying, cleaning, and selling clothes as well as attending workshops and events.

    The space is well-organized and well-located, strategically positioned in the University Center.

    With a room for washing, drying, and sorting unwanted clothing, the space has a large focus on cleanliness.

    In addition, the price tags of all the clothing in the store each have a small story attached to them. This way, people can get a glimpse into the clothing's history and value.

    In the studio space, experts and enthusiasts teach and learn how to bring new life to unwanted items through events and workshops on repurposing clothing.

    Finally, the store has a modern appearance to fight against the stigma around second-hand clothing.

    With our solution, we are able to create an effective system to deal with the excess clothing at hand through the on-campus thrift store while also digging at the root of the problem by teaching skills for sustainability and facilitating positive mindset changes towards a more conscious way of living in regards to oneself and the environment. Our solution will reorient the current culture of things being discarded into a community where items are instead sustainability thrifted.

  • When faced with a complex system, it helps to start with a narrow focus instead of trying to fix everything that looks wrong. Focus on shifting patterns instead of patching all the surface-level issues.
  • Working in interdisciplinary teams is a blessing! Everyone brings new ideas from different worldviews, and the final solution is something that each one couldn't have come up with on their own.
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