Have you done a New Year clear out? My house is definitely cluttered and so is my wardrobe. Whilst I was thinking about when I could schedule this in, I received a flyer from a textile collector in my letterbox which prompted me to write this post. Have you ever wondered what happens to your clothes after you have done a clear out? If so, read on! (As ever, this is a complex topic with books written on it; so this is an overview with information I find interesting to know).
A Cancer Research UK shop in West London has almost 10 bags of clothes donated in a day; of which 40% cannot be resold. That is just ONE shop! (source: Amber Butchart, “Rags to Riches” BBC Radio 4 programme)
My experience with door to door textile collections
Previously I wrote about how 57% of people in the UK donate clothes to charity (a further 13% put them into textile recycling banks). Well-intended folk may well be under the impression that donated clothes are handed out freely to people in third world countries. This flyer also confirms that image, don’t you think? The white dove, a plea for unwanted things citing lack of affordability, and a statement that says donations will “help clothe the poor”. Alas, this is not the case. The company is one of many commercial textile collectors that profit from collecting up free clothes and selling them on.
The first time I saw this I fell for it hook, line and stinker and thought I must be doing the right thing. Donating is good, and it would save me lugging around a bag of donations to the local charity shop or textile recycling! A few more repeat leaflets came before I read it in detail and realised just how misleading it is. Luckily its not just me – someone in 2015 had complained about the messaging to the UK advertising regulator who had ruled that the text had to be changed. Alas no follow up was taken as I still get the same leaflet with the same words 2 years later.
What happens after you donate or recycle your clothes
A little infographic to explain the basic process after you take your clothes to a charity shop. If you put your clothes into a textile collection bank, it still ends up with a textile collector – they will pay the council or charity (whoever owns the collection banks) for the goods.
A much more detailed explanation can be found in the WRAP report here if you are interested. Amber Butchart the fashion historian (you will recogniser her also as the red headed model for Tilly & the Buttons) did a BBC Radio 4 programme in May 2017 outlining the topic, the recording is here. I think it oversimplifies the situation a little but it is only a half hour radio show and is still a good introduction.
Is it a good thing to have a huge secondhand clothing industry?
- Clothing recycling is a good marketing message for people who would otherwise throw their clothes in the bin. The numerous collection banks and increasing number of shop schemes makes this pretty easy for people.
- Charities have first dibs on donated clothes if they run their own textile recycling bank.
- Charities receive payment for the donated clothes even if they cannot be resold within the UK. It is impossible for a charity shop to resell everything they get.
- Councils have a revenue stream from selling used clothing donations in textile banks to textile collectors.
- If done ethically, there can be benefits to the exportees. Market traders can make a living, those who can’t afford new clothes can buy old clothes, and processing plants for second hand clothes (e.g. Oxfam has one in Senegal) can create local employment. However I would say there is a healthy level of skepticism as to the validity of these arguments and whether activities like selling old clothes is a way out of poverty for a market trader. Much can be read on this, I would recommend Clothing Poverty by Andrew Brooks who has done a load of research on it.
- Recycling works with fast fashion not against it. It is possible that the messaging can be misinterpreted as “oh I’ll recycle my clothes so I can buy new ones”. Especially when you see shop recycling advertisements with celebrities singing and dancing. The reality is that turning clothing into shredded textiles for insulation is because you can’t do anything else with it. For example, at the moment the technology to turn polyester fabric into polyester fabric is new and not mainstream.
- Volume of donated / recycled clothing: in the UK, the equivalent of 1.3 billion pairs of jeans (650,000 tonnes of clothing) were collected for reuse and recycling in 2014. I calculated this based on Royal Mail postage which provides a guideline of 500g per pair of jeans.
- Used clothing potentially has a negative impact on the local industries where they are exported. Nigeria has banned the import of used clothing for this reason. In 2017 Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and South Sudan announced they will also ban imports. Shortly afterwards, Reuters reported that: “the US Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) … complained that the ban “imposed significant hardship” on the U.S. used-clothing industry”. Are you surprised to hear this?! Note however that there is still the issue of new cheap Chinese imported clothing to contend with, even if secondhand clothing is banned.
What should I do with my clothes then?
I would suggest taking all your clothes to the charity store, because at least they will get revenue regardless of condition. But if packing old bras and undies is too much for you to bear, then put it in a textile recycling bank run by a charity or your local council.
Ultimately though clothing donation or recycling does not solve the problem of there being too much clothing in the world. As usual, the best thing you could do is to buy less, and make do and mend! I believe this phrase was a wartime slogan but it is still applicable today. Remember,
When you throw something out, it doesn’t disappear – it has to go somewhere.