Ethical instalment: The problem with donating clothing

Everyone sometimes needs a little retail therapy and as far fetched as it seems, it does really work sometimes.

Shopping is fun, it makes you feel good and if you shop right it can make you look good too, but is that as far as it goes? 

What happens after? When your jeans don't fit right anymore or blue isn't the new black and flares are the new skinnys?

What happens to your clothes? Why aren't charity donations the answer anymore? 

To begin, it is important to highlight that the 'fast fashion' business model is ultimately the cause of this growing problem..

Fast fashion: a contemporary term used by fashion retailers to express that designs move from catwalk quickly in order to capture current fashion trends.

- Fast fashion now means that instead of just 2-4 ranges being launched in to stores there are now as many as 52. This is a result of rising competition among brands and a race to sell product the cheapest; while staying on top of ever changing trends.

- A race to the bottom (the lowest price) also means a race to the finish (the quickest production times) both of these have a consistent effect on the people making your clothes, most of whom are already over worked and under payed, many of them will be as young as 10 and most of them will be trapped in the fast fashion industry for the rest of their lives.

- Thousands of Syrian refugees are now working illegally in the Turkish garment industry (mostly supplying Europe) where child labour, low wages and poor conditions are common.

- Not only that, but the rising demand for fabrics has an effect on the planet too, rushed growth of fabrics such as cotton means an increase in the amount of chemicals used and chemicals of course have a direct impact on all living things around them: an obvious one is the farmers, who will go on to develop cancer amongst other life threatening issues.

One of the most popular solutions to our excess of clothing is donating it to charities or recycling efforts. 

But this does not fix the system and it does not in anyway change your environmental impact. 

Firstly, the clothes you donate either through collection bags or directly to stores, very rarely end up being re-sold in charity shops, in fact, estimates for the UK indicate only 10-30% of donations are sold in UK thrift stores.

Most donations are shipped to poorer countries where they are then re-sold by communities there. Sounds good right?

Well, this does provide jobs with in the local markets but it has also meant a massive destruction of textile industries: in Kenya for example where in the 1980s 500,000 people were employed in the textile industry, but due to the increase in imported worn clothing, this number has dropped by more than 96% to around 20,000.

According to Oxfam, more than 70% of the clothes donated globally end up in Africa. Kenya alone imports around 100,000 tonnes of second-hand clothes, shoes and accessories a year – many of which were originally donated to charity shops in the west.

As well as the social and cultural effects, are the economic impacts of used clothing imports, which forge a relationship of dependency on the west and in many ways prevent Africa from developing.

In Xipamanine Market, Maputo, Mozambique, a used pair of jeans will typically cost £2.90 and a T-shirt £1.50. Second-hand clothes are cheaper than new alternatives and normally better quality, but the average daily income in Mozambique is just £1, so even used clothes are difficult to afford.

This is a very sad realisation, many cotton farmers and ex-factory workers in countries such as Zambia and Mozambique are too poor to afford any clothes other than imported second-hand ones from the west, whereas 30 or 40 years ago they could buy locally produced new clothes.

There is even now a proposed ban on the importation of second-hand clothes into East Africa, although many argue this is not the answer.  

But Africa is not the only country importing our used clothing...

A massive 351m kilograms of clothes (equivalent to 2.9bn T-shirts) are traded annually from Britain alone: The top five destinations are Poland, Ghana, Pakistan, Ukraine and Benin.

Although the global financial crisis hit hard in central and eastern Europe, but one industry has thrived: second-hand clothing stores. Second-hand clothes retailers in Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Croatia have grown rapidly over recent years and, as the pace of income convergence between the West and Eastern Europe slows, they are investing millions of euros to expand their businesses further.

'Hada' a firm that imports 30-40 tonnes of used clothes per week from Britain (its main sourcing market) has grown into an operation with annual turnover of 32.4 million euros ($40 million).

However with fast fashion becoming more about the price and the look, the quality is dropping and it is dropping to such low levels that it can not be re-sold by thrift stores and instead is sent away to landfill. 

Eleven percent of donations made to Goodwill (USA) in 2014, for example, were deemed unsaleable and carted to landfills — about 22 million pounds in all — costing the organization millions of dollars in transport fees and other expenses.

For the store and stall owners, not only in Africa and Hungary, a decrease in the quality of donations means the business is tougher and this is just one of the reasons why the donation model is questionable. 

Americans are buying and discarding clothing at record rates — buying about five times more clothing than in 1980, and throwing away 40 percent more textiles in 2009 than a decade earlier.

Although donating your clothes may make room in your wardrobe and take some of the guilt away from only wearing something once, it's lifespan goes much further than sitting in the donation bag.

The vast majority — 85 percent, or 12 million tons — of unused textiles are carted off directly to U.S. landfills each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That's more than 7 percent of national landfill waste.

There is a lot of information and numbers to take in surrounding this issue, so here are some key points:

- The fast fashion model means a decrease in quality, so less clothes can be re-worn or recycled : meaning more ends up on landfill

- The clothes that can be re-sold to poorer countries have their own problems, there is a lot of travel expenses (paid for by the charities you donated to) and pollution involved.

- By overwhelming other countries with our used clothing, we are destroying their textile industries which has negative social and cultural effects.

- Ultimately by encouraging the creation of second hand markets and stores, we are making developing countries dependent on the western world- which can prevent development.

- Essentially, there are only so many bodies in the world and so many more garments, not everything can be worn, and in fact, many textiles have to be re-used as insulation and washcloths to save landfill space, which effects other industries.

- All the small finer details such as the plastic bags that get posted through your door, storage space, transport for the clothing and the markets in which they are re-sold have their own problems (Many markets catch fire, which is very hard to prevent due to the masses of fabric surrounding the area)

Contemporary donating?

A recent example of a contemporary donating model is H&M's World Recycle Week that was endorsed by Popstar M.I.A.

The idea is that you drop off your old clothes to be recycles in to new textile fibres. In return you get vouchers to use at H&M. 

Which sounds like a great concept, in fact I shared this with you a few months ago. But after further reading, it isn't so feasible. 

H&M wanted to collect 1,000 tons of unwanted clothes during the week, but technical issues with commercial fibre recycling mean that only a small percentage of recycled yarn is used in new garments. 

This article found that it would take 12 years for H&M to use up 1,000 tons of fashion waste.

1,000 tons of clothing is actually about the same amount of clothing that H&M sells world wide in 48 hours. 

Not only that, the vouchers you get in exchange encourage you to buy more.

Therefore, this concept is greenwashing.

 - Greenwashing is the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice. Greenwashing can make a company appear to be more environmentally friendly than it really is. - 

The solution?

Of course donating clothing has some benefits and we should definitely not stop doing it all together, but what we do need is a new process for how it works, the current model is overwhelmed and no longer sustainable.

As individuals, what we can do is buy less and buy better.

Be less influenced by fast fashion and fads and when buying items be more cautious of the quality, donating works best when the clothes are actually safe to re-wear.

Also, question everything. Unfortunately big business greenwash their promotions more and more, so it is important to do your own research and make your own informed decisions. 

Further reading including sources:

A closing fact:

According to the UN figures, the UK is the second largest used clothing exporter after the US. It exported more than £380m ($600m), or 351,000 tonnes, worth of our discarded fashion overseas in 2013. 
The U.S. sends away a full billion pounds of used clothing per year, making it the eighth largest export. 


Jess xx

Look out for more Ethical instalment posts, in the meantime, here are some top tips for shopping smarter from the True Cost Website

1 - WILL YOU WEAR IT 30 TIMES? The rapid turnover of trends characterising Fast Fashion means clothes are disposable. Along with the deflation of clothing prices this has put the supply chain under unprecedented pressure leading directly to outrages like Rana Plaza and Tazreen (the 2012 Dhaka fashion factory fire that killed over 100). Just asking yourself if you will wear a prospective item 30 times is a great place to start shopping smarter and more intentional. 

2 - BREAK THE CYCLE: The traditional spring/summer autumn/winter of international fashion weeks is just for show. Zara, the Spanish fast fashion behemoth broke the mold, introducing mini seasons every week. 50-100 new micro seasons a year is the new normal. So slow down your fashion cycle. 

3 - SPREAD YOUR FASHION $: The global fashion industry is worth $2.5 trillion. Shouldn’t this be shared? Look for producer centric brands like People Tree run to rigorous Fairtrade standards with longstanding producer groups who get a fair share of the profits.


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