'Don't feed the monster!' The people who have stopped buying new clothes (2023)

Lauren Cowdery is flicking through the rails of the Cancer Research charity shop in Goole, east Yorkshire. “Too bobbly!” she tuts at a ribbed top. “This skirt is big but it would be easy to take in … ” Cowdery appears to be shopping, but she is merely browsing. She is on a mission not to buy any new clothes, even ones that have recently belonged to someone else. “I think you have to pull back and ask: ‘Do I need this?’” she says.

Cowdery is one of a growing number of people who love clothes but try their hardest to resist buying them for reasons of sustainability. According to the charity Wrap, which promotes sustainable waste management, the average lifetime for a garment in the UK is just 2.2 years. An estimated £30bn of unused clothing hangs in UK wardrobes, and yet still we shop for more. “Each week we buy 38m items and 11m items go to landfill,” says Maria Chenoweth, chief executive of Traid, a charity working to stop clothes being thrown away. “We don’t have enough resources to keep feeding this monster.”

Chenoweth believes that consumers are switching to secondhand shopping, or adding a pre-owned element into their purchasing habits. She points to a 30% rise in turnover at Traid shops in 2018 compared with 2017. When she was a teenager in the 80s, her father banned her from jumble sales in case people thought the family was poor. She disobeyed him, and dragged her sacks of clothes through her bedroom window. Now, Chenoweth considers it “a huge gesture of activism to buy secondhand”, a necessary choice for those who “do not believe in damaging the environment and perpetuating this consumption and waste”.

So how hard is it to make the transition to a more sustainable way of shopping? In the UK, clothing has the fourth largest environmental impact after housing, transport and food. More than half of fast-fashion items are thrown away in less than a year, according to McKinsey’s State of Fashion report last year. But is buying secondhand really an antidote to fast fashion?

In Goole, where Cowdery works as a marketing officer for the Junction Theatre, there are ample local distractions for a lunch break: Dorothy Perkins, New Look, Peacocks. Cowdery used to buy things “because they were there”. In the evenings, she went on Asos. “I’d think: ‘Oh brilliant, a discount code! Free shipping! I’ll order stuff! Hmm … It doesn’t fit very well, but I can’t be bothered to send it back … I’ll keep it.’”

Each month, Cowdery bought two or three things. “At £20 a time, that starts to build up. There’s a wardrobe of stuff. Things with the tags still on … I took a look at myself and thought: ‘What are you doing?’”

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Curious about a post she saw on Facebook, one weekend Cowdery dropped into the Leeds Community Clothes Exchange, a local swap shop. Four years on, she is one of its three directors, helping to oversee the 2,000 items – “designer stuff, vintage stuff, handmade things, wedding dresses” – that pass through the doors of the Woodhouse community centre each month.

Cowdery and I meet in one of those lunch hours that used to be spent shopping. Her skirt, top and cardigan are all from the Clothes Exchange; her boots are from the Autism Plus shop in Goole. “At the exchange, it’s one for one on everything,” she explains. There are no value judgments. A garment is saleable if all its buttons are present and there are no stains. Some prom dresses return again and again. “People take them, wear them, bring them back.” Regulars set aside pieces for each other. The fitting room is a place of encouragement.

As her involvement in the clothes exchange grew, Cowdery’s visits to Peacocks dwindled. Now, its shop floor struck her as “an explosion in a jumble sale”. She began to delete unopened emails from Asos and Topshop. She swore off buying new clothes for a year. “I thought I’d reach the end and think: ‘I’ve done that. I’ll move on,’” she says. Instead, “It changed how I thought about clothes.”

Cowdery still loves clothes – especially anything velvet – but she has found a safe way to consume them. The clothes exchange enables her to refresh her wardrobe without adding to it. She can be acquisitive, as long as she relinquishes in equal measure. Where she once bought three pieces a month, she now swaps 10 to 15 – mostly things she picked up at the previous exchange.

Clothes come and go at the Basingstoke home of Sarah Fewell, too. In fact, so many parcels come and go that she knows her postman by his first name (Jay). Fewell has always loved cutting up old clothes, sticking on studs, even at 14 when most of her friends were into Hollister. But now she has turned her passion for preloved clothes into a sustainable version of fast fashion.

Fewell runs a shop called Identity Party on the website Depop, which since being established in 2011 has offered its 10 million users a blend of eBay-style trading with Instagram-style posting. Her brand is “a lot of 80s, 90s, quite bohemian, grungy”. She especially loves “selling things with animals on, a good old ugly jumper and anything by St Michael.”

Two years ago, in the second year of a politics degree at Goldsmiths, University of London, Fewell was browsing the charity shops when she saw “a really nice dress that wasn’t for me”. She already had a Depop profile, having sold some unwanted clothes, so she bought the dress, listed it as “‘very Phoebe from Friends” and it promptly sold.

She bought and sold relentlessly during her third year. “When I left university, I thought, I don’t want a real job.”

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Now with Identity Party, Fewell has professionalised her love of vintage.

She doesn’t totally eschew new clothes for her own wardobe; they make up about 10%. She buys gymwear new, for instance (“It would be a bit gross to wear secondhand gym clothes”). She even bought some on Black Friday: “That’s maybe contradictory of me to engage in Black Friday, but I just wanted gym clothes.”

We are sitting in a cafe in a shopping mall in Basingstoke. Fewell, who is wearing an Identity Party top and jeans and an eBay jacket, runs through her working week: Monday, she posts; Tuesday, she photographs; Wednesday she uploads. A fourth day is spent scouring the charity shops of Basingstoke, Newbury and Reading. A fifth and a sixth on further photography and posting.

Fewell’s days are long. But all the hours spent cutting out shoulder pads and removing used handkerchiefs from pockets have made her one of Depop’s top sellers. Since that first dress, she has sold more than 3,000 items, and her customer base includes her own friends, who no longer find secondhand shopping “a bit niche”.

“A lot of people are getting really sick of fast fashion,” Fewell says. “People used to watch hauls [mass trying-on sessions of newly purchased clothing] on YouTube and be like: ‘Yeah, great.’ Now if you click on a haul and read the comments, everyone’s like: ‘Oh, there’s so much stuff, it looks really bad quality.’ People are a lot more aware.”

In 2017, when she posted that first dress, Fewell “wasn’t very conscious” of the sustainability benefits of secondhand clothing. “I wasn’t really thinking: ‘I could push this message.’” After a couple of months, “it got added in there”. Now she trades her “handpicked vintage gems” as sustainable fashion. Facts about clothing waste are printed on the reverse of her business cards. When a piece of clothing doesn’t suit a customer, she urges them to sell it on, to close the loop.

But does Fewell ever look at the floor of her parents’ spare room – now her stock room – at the sea of pink plastic packages waiting to be driven to the post office, and think that buying and selling secondhand clothing may not be the height of sustainability? In some ways, Depop mirrors fast fashion: consumers buy cheaply and often. Fewell points out that the bags are made of recycled plastic; she would like to afford biodegradable ones. “The downside, environmentally, is postage and packing,” she admits. “But people are always going to want to buy clothes. Buying secondhand is probably the best way they can do it.”

The key, says Stephanie Campbell from Wrap’s Love Your Clothes campaign, is “to keep clothing out of landfill”. Each year 430,000 tonnes of clothing are disposed of and not recycled in the UK. Meanwhile, the number of new clothes sold is rising: 1.13m tonnes in 2016, an increase of 200,000 tonnes on 2012.

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'Don't feed the monster!' The people who have stopped buying new clothes (2)

“It’s a slow, gradual mindset change,” says Zoe Edwards, a sewing teacher and blogger who 11 years ago pledged never to buy new clothes. “It’s not like a switch goes on and all of a sudden, it’s: ‘Right, this is how I shop now.’”

Edwards was working for “a very fast-fashion, low-end clothing supplier” in London. Her job was to order the trims: labels, hanging loops, buttons, zips. The quantity of delivered fabric always varied, so she had to order a surfeit of trims, a routine waste that made her uncomfortable. She had always loved sewing, selling her handmade clothes on market stalls and Etsy. Now, her two ways of living jarred.

“I didn’t want to be part of fast fashion any more,” she says. She quit her job, sewed clothes, sold the clothes, taught sewing and blogged about it. In the past 11 years, Edwards has bought only “one or two things”. Her bras are new, and she thinks she may have purchased a top from Zara in about 2010. Even her knickers are what she calls “me-made”.

So how difficult is it to stop buying clothes? Tania Arrayales, a self-described “fashion disruptor”, has founded an organisation in New York called Fashion of Tomorrow to advocate a more sustainable approach to the clothing industry. Arrayales was a founding member of Style Lend, a peer-to-peer clothing rental site, and swore off all clothing purchases for a year, inspired by the documentary True Cost. But weren’t there times when she was desperate to break her self-imposed rule?

“The challenge was feeling a little bit … I wasn’t as trendy as I used to be. I couldn’t make an impact when I went to an event,” she says. “I didn’t have anything new and shiny. But I wanted to restructure the way my brain saw shopping.”

'Don't feed the monster!' The people who have stopped buying new clothes (3)

In her second year, she allowed herself to buy vintage clothes. The year after that, she bought the odd piece of new clothing from sustainable brands. Any time she felt her style “lack a little”, she rented what she needed from Style Lend (there are lending sites in the UK, too, but this is not yet a flourishing market). “I started seeing pieces in a new light. I discovered styling,” Arrayales says.

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Cowdery has noticed a similar sense of exploration and play at the Clothes Exchange. “I’ve been more experimental, more free, with clothes. I don’t keep things for best. I wear them. And I don’t worry about the size on the label,” she says.

The fluidity around sizing is one of the pleasures of secondhand shopping. Depop sellers such as Fewell list clothes as fitting size eight to 14. Shoppers are encouraged to view their size as variable. “That’s the great thing about swapping,” Cowdery says. No one gets depressed because something their size won’t zip up. “You just look by eye, and ask yourself: ‘Will that fit?’”

Edwards has faced a similar confrontation with her personal taste. Sewing requires a lot of decision-making: the colour and weight of fabric, length of dress, shape of sleeves. She buys vintage fabric and refashions charity shop finds, but even so, she doesn’t think “sewing is necessarily the most sustainable way to dress yourself”. There is still the acquisition of fabric and materials. And a tendency to prize the making over the wearing, so that a lot of making goes on that never gets worn. “There is a big slow fashion movement within the sewing community,” Edwards says. “People are using their stash rather than buying new stuff.”

The volume of clothing of all kinds – new, secondhand and handmade – is challenging. And selling on secondhand clothes has its limits. To avoid swamping the secondhand market, or passing the problem on to others, including developing countries where many used clothes are sold in bulk, other technologies, such as fibre-to-fibre recycling, need to be encouraged.

“Clothing is a way to show who I am, what I feel, what I believe,” Edwards says. “It’s a way to communicate with the world. It’s got real social value, but it has got to be done mindfully.”

So what can a person who loves new clothes but wants to live more sustainably do? As Edwards says, if you are spending time on fashion sites, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination or will to switch your browser to eBay, Depop, thredUP, HEWI London or any of the raft of “resale disruptors”. Chenoweth says that “not keeping stuff in your wardrobe is important if you’re not wearing it”. Donating clothes puts them back into circulation.

As Cowdery says: “Clothes have a story. If you wear something once then throw it in the bin, it hasn’t had a story. You want to know there’s life in these things.”

This article was amended on 19 February 2019. An earlier version referred to Newbury as Newberry. This has been corrected.

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FAQs

Why do some people buy clothes and not wear them? ›

A big reason why we buy clothes that we never wear is because we make impulse purchases. Impulsive shopping happens when you have the sudden urge to make an unplanned purchase. It's very common and nearly everyone has made an impulse purchase at some point in their life.

Are people buying used clothes? ›

While dominated by clothing resale, 82% of Americans, or 272 million people, buy or sell pre-owned products, OfferUp found, including electronics, furniture, home goods and sporting equipment, as well as apparel.

Why is clothes shopping so fun? ›

Shopping, and especially for gifts, may boost serotonin in multiple ways. First, shopping involves hunting for, discovery, and then acquisition of something new. Gift-giving then augments this pleasure with the added bonus of giving something to someone. Giving tends also to boost serotonin.

What does clothing say about a person? ›

Clothes reflect who you are, how you feel at the moment and sometimes even what you want to achieve in life? Always remember whatever you wear should reflect the real you. Your dressing sense reflects your personality, character, mood, style and what actually you are as an individual.

What are the 3 main reasons humans wear clothes? ›

Protection: Clothing that provides physical safeguards to the body, preventing harm from climate and environment. Identification: Establishing who someone is or what they do. Modesty: Covering the body according to the code of decency established by society.

Why do people not thrift? ›

Many people don't want to thrift because they feel guilty, as if thrifting clothing will take away from those in dire need. However, there will never be a shortage of clothes, so thrift away. Thrift stores deal with a huge volume of donations with racks stuffed full and bins piled high.

What age buys the most clothes? ›

This statistic shows the average annual expenditure on women's and girls' apparel by consumers in the United States in 2021, by age. In 2021, the 45 to 54 age group was the highest spender on women's and girls' clothing, spending 995 U.S. dollars on average in the year.

How often should clothes be bought? ›

Details like your activity level, the way you store garments between uses, and your laundering process can shorten or lengthen their lifespan. As a rule of thumb, though, check garments for wear about every two to three months. Then buy new when things start to show signs of wear.

Why fast fashion is a waste of money? ›

With fast-fashion, you are usually paying less for less quality. This has terrible consequences for the environment, with one survey showing that nearly a fifth of 2,000 British shoppers surveyed admitting to binning clothes. These head to the landfill and contribute to polluting the world around us.

Why do I want to buy things I don't need? ›

These reactive purchases have become known as the Diderot Effect. The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption which leads you to acquire more new things. As a result, we end up buying things that our previous selves never needed to feel happy or fulfilled.

Why are people addicted to fast fashion? ›

The clothes are easy and quick to purchase, and delivery times are also reasonably short. This shopping experience makes it seem like the clothes “come out of nowhere,” and consumers don't have to think about who made their clothes and where they will go after they are no longer wanted.

Should humans wear clothes? ›

Clothing can insulate against cold or hot conditions, and it can provide a hygienic barrier, keeping infectious and toxic materials away from the body. It can protect feet from injury and discomfort or facilitate navigation in varied environments. Clothing also provides protection from ultraviolet radiation.

Do clothes show your personality? ›

Yes and no. The clothes we choose do reflect our personalities and values in one way or another, but often in abstract ways. And we aren't mind readers, which means we can't know for sure why someone else dresses the way they do.

What is the psychology behind buying clothes? ›

Studies have shown that shopping makes us feel good because our brain reacts to novel stimuli, like a new outfit, for example, by releasing increased amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Often referred to as the “feel-good chemical”, dopamine influences feelings of reward and motivation.

Did the first humans wear clothes? ›

The last Ice Age occurred about 120,000 years ago, but the study's date suggests humans started wearing clothes in the preceding Ice Age 180,000 years ago, according to temperature estimates from ice core studies, Gilligan said. Modern humans first appeared about 200,000 years ago.

Why and when did humans start wearing clothes? ›

Humans began to wear clothing 170,000 years ago, according to a new study that suggests our ancestors first put on clothes after the second-to-last Ice Age, when being nude must have been too cool for comfort.

Do rich people go thrifting? ›

Wealthier people have begun to frequent thrift stores, shopping for the same items as low-income people who were the original customers of the secondhand shops. In addition to wearing the clothes themselves, many thrifters in recent years also began to resell the clothing on websites like Depop at a higher rate.

Is thrifting better than buying new clothes? ›

Also, thrifting reduces the number of wasted resources that get burnt up from making new clothing or other textile products. If you looked it up, you would find that there is an astronomical amount of water used in textile production that is incredibly wasteful.

Is there anything wrong with thrifting? ›

The action of thrifting itself is not wrong; however, reselling thrifted items for higher prices and taking resources away from those who need them is unethical.

What clothes make you look younger than your age? ›

14 Simple Tips To Dress And Look Younger Naturally
  1. Show off your best features. ...
  2. Wear well-fitting clothes. ...
  3. Go for colorful clothing. ...
  4. Add flashy layers. ...
  5. Simplify your outfits. ...
  6. Wear trendy clothing. ...
  7. Choose quality over quantity. ...
  8. Choose a girly fashion style.

What age spends the most money? ›

Overall in 2021, Gen X (anyone born from 1965 to 1980) spent the most money of any U.S. generation, with an average annual expenditure of $83,357. The second biggest spenders are Millennials with an average annual expenditure of $69,061.

How many years should you keep clothes? ›

Consumers in our modern society don't keep clothes for long. They wear a high-street garment on average only 7 times. Under normal wear and tear, the average life expectancy of clothing would be more than 2 years.

How long is too long to keep clothes? ›

Set an expiration date for the items in your closet. If you live in a four-season climate and you haven't worn a piece of clothing in a year, it's probably time to donate it. And if you live in a one- or two-season climate, then you likely should let go of something you haven't worn in the past six months.

How many clothes does a woman need? ›

The researchers found that a “sufficient” wardrobe consists of 74 garments and 20 outfits in total. As an example, they've suggested six outfits for work, three outfits for home wear, three outfits for sports, two outfits for festive occasions, plus four outdoor jackets and trousers or skirts.

How many times should you wear clothes before washing? ›

T-shirts, tank tops and camisoles should be washed after each wearing. Outer clothes like dress shirts and khakis can be worn a few times before washing unless it is hot out and you are sweating or they are visibly dirty or stained. Jeans can typically be worn 3 times before washing.

Why are people boycotting fast fashion? ›

Boycotting fast fashion is a way to practice using what you have. Challenge yourself to make different outfits from a few pairs of shirts and pants. This can help encourage you to be more creative in using what is already in your closet and prevent clothing to be thrown away.

Does fast fashion help poor people? ›

In addition, on a deeper level, fast fashion allows lower income individuals and families to purchase more items of clothing that are modern and trendy. Because of this, low-income individuals can wear styles comparable to those of their more well-off peers, thus mitigating the impacts of classism through clothing.

Why do people avoid fast fashion? ›

The people in fast fashion factories face dangerous working conditions with exposure to toxic chemicals, poor air quality and overcrowding, leading to tragic factory accidents, like the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 that killed over 1,000 workers in Bangladesh, and long-term health complications.

Why do I regret everything I buy? ›

The phenomenon of buyer's remorse has been generally associated with the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, a state of psychological discomfort when at least two elements of cognition are in opposition, and which motivates the person to appease it by changing how they think about the situation.

Why Buying things will never make you happy? ›

The things we own require time, energy, and focus. They need to be cleaned, organized, managed, and maintained. And as a result, they often distract us from the things that truly do bring us lasting happiness. Our purchases cost us more than we realize.

Why do I always regret everything I buy? ›

Buyer's remorse refers to negative emotions—such as regret, anxiety or guilt—that consumers may experience after buying an item. It's typically linked to large purchases—like a car or a new home. But some people may experience it after smaller purchases—like buying a new bag or set of golf clubs.

What age consumes the most fast fashion? ›

The target audience for fast fashion is consumers aged between 18 and 24, while women and young girls consume fast fashion more than any other demographic group. Fast fashion brands did not aim to democratise fashion, nor to make it affordable in comparison to its counterparts.

Does fast fashion affect mental health? ›

The relentless pressure of fast fashion to repeatedly buy new clothes only to discard them to follow trends, doesn't help our mental health either. It's not only unaffordable to keep up with but it's also hugely damaging on the environment too - all resulting on a negative strain on our mental health.

Why is fast fashion ruining the world? ›

These unsold garments are often burned, as it's cheaper and easier for the company than finding a way to reuse or recycle them. Apart from wasting resources, the fast fashion industry pollutes waterways with toxic dyes, and increases the number of microfibres in the ocean through the use of fossil fuel-based fabrics.

Why do I buy things and not use them? ›

When people decide not to use something at one point in time, the item can start to feel more special. And as it feels more special, they want to protect it and are less likely to want to use it in the future.

What is the psychology of buying clothes? ›

Studies have shown that shopping makes us feel good because our brain reacts to novel stimuli, like a new outfit, for example, by releasing increased amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Often referred to as the “feel-good chemical”, dopamine influences feelings of reward and motivation.

What do you call someone who is addicted to buying clothes? ›

What is the medical term for a shopaholic? There is, though, an actual medical term for people who have an uncontrollable and compulsive desire to shop: oniomania.

Is it OK to wear clothes you just bought? ›

Dermatology and immunology experts agree that washing new clothes before you wear them is your best bet to reduce your exposure to skin-irritating compounds. Of course, the key is to use detergents and high-efficiency washing machines that help to remove those residues and chemicals.

What happens to your brain when you buy something? ›

When we make a purchase, our brain releases endorphins and dopamine. For some, this momentary pleasure can lead to compulsive shopping, as the instant reward and motivation to re-experience the 'rush' starts to outweigh self-control and practical financial considerations.

Why do people keep things they don't need? ›

Here are the TOP 7 main reasons (but there are many):

Memories – just looking at them transports us to a different time. Feeling – nothing gives us more comfort than that item. Practicality – it isn't broken, so I'm not changing it! Just In Case – you might need it one day and don't want to buy another one.

What is it called when you buy unnecessary things? ›

A hoarding disorder is where someone acquires an excessive number of items and stores them in a chaotic manner, usually resulting in unmanageable amounts of clutter. The items can be of little or no monetary value.

Does clothing affect mental health? ›

Fashion does influence our mental state. Cuts, colors, and patterns are proven to enhance our mood. One of the reasons is clothes are connected to specific roles. Studies have also shown that routine dressing rituals can also help people ward off thoughts that lead to anxiety and depression.

Do clothes affect your behavior? ›

Fashion and clothing influences behavior in multiple ways; our perception of ourselves, how others react to us, our confidence and self-esteem.

Are clothes part of your personality? ›

The Journal of Experimental Psychology says that the colour, comfort, fit and style of our clothes can directly affect our confidence levels. More than 96 per cent of people report a change in their emotional state with a change in their style of dressing.

Is shopping addiction a mental illness? ›

Shopping addiction isn't classified as a mental illness, but rather compulsive buying may be associated with other mental health conditions that involve impulsivity and compulsive behaviors. This type of activity can also be used as short term masking of other mental distress like depressive symptoms.

How do you spot a shopping addict? ›

Emotional Symptoms of a Shopping Addiction
  1. Spending more than they can afford.
  2. Shopping as a reaction to feeling angry or depressed.
  3. Shopping as a way to feel less guilty about a previous shopping spree.
  4. Harming relationships due to spending or shopping too much.
  5. Losing control of the shopping behavior.

What are the signs of a shopaholic? ›

Signs of Shopping Addiction
  • Always thinking about things they plan to purchase.
  • Being unable to stop their compulsive shopping.
  • Experiencing a rush of euphoria after buying something.
  • Feeling regret or guilt about things they have purchased.
  • Financial problems or an inability to pay off debts.
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