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.
I love reading about the “Bads” section! Never thought of those. I know where I’ll be donating next time. Of course that’s if I can’t mend or upcycle.
I was so surprised to see in Australia that there were no textile recycling banks. Honestly I cannot remember what I did when I live there, I think I must not have thought about it at all besides going to the charity shop. I never shopped in a charity store either *hangs head in shame* Well, I am definitely not eco warrior even now but do try harder now I think more about it! (sorry for such a convoluted comment, its late at night…)
Brilliant post Kate! We must definitely adapt what we have already and be more mindful of the journey our discards take! xx
Thank you Josie, and yes I think I might use that line a bit more – your rubbish has to go somewhere! I can’t remember where I read / heard it but that was a tipping point for me 🙂
Great info Kate and gets me thinking about what to do with unwanted textiles in my home. You certainly have pointed me in the right direct. X
Glad it was useful Sarah, there’s so much more than just sewing scraps lying around eh. Who knew that even old tea towels full of holes can have some kind of after life…
What a thought-provoking post, Kate, and that final line is really powerful. I avoid the “collect from home” bags as I’d heard that they just got shipped off rather than actually going to a second-hand store. I thought I was being really conscientious taking all my old clothes and fabric scraps to a recycling bank, and then discovered that most of our “waste” gets shipped overseas!! So I find this a real struggle. I try to hand down clothes (all my childrens’ clothes get passed on to friends with younger children), turn them into something else (smaller, obviously!) or be creative with scraps, but I still end up with bags full of fabric scraps and clothes that aren’t in a good enough condition to pass on. I actually love the idea that they might get shredded and turned into stuffing! If I had a fabric shredder I’d do this myself, as we’re always in need of new cushions!
Hello! I’m thinking of adopting the last line about rubbish going somewhere as more of a slogan 😉 though it doesn’t sound particularly sexy does it?! I tend to bag all my scraps and label it “fabric scraps” to try and save the person at the recycling factory some time in going through it. Not sure if it does anything though.
I think historically it has just been a bit too easy for us to export things elsewhere to be dealt with. Out of sight, out of mind syndrome. The fact that China has decided to stop import of “foreign garbage” – plastic, textiles and mixed paper – is a really powerful message. I certainly hope that it will spur industries on to develop alternative ways of packaging etc. I hate to bang on continually about the answer being to consume less, but ultimately prevention is better than cure! Thanks for reading x
I think it’s a great slogan 😉 I agree with everything you say, but I think as you suggest it’s about changing a whole midset. The other week I decided to pop to a local sewing machine repair centre to get a new blade for my overlocker, rather than ordering it online. The owner went upstairs to search in his stock, and came down the the blade on its own (no packaging). My first reaction was “huh?”, as though somehow it couldn’t be right because there was no packaging telling me what it was. Then I realised how geat this was: not only to support a local business, but to save on packaging the blade AND packaging the purchase AND having an A4 printed receipt… but the point that stuck with me was my first reaction being “this is unexpected”. And yet that’s how things used to be sold… so we have to “unlearn” our expectations about packaging!
Your post is absolutely perfect, I think it summarizes everything super well! The only durable solution is owning less clothes…
Because I now live in Haiti, I give my clothes to Haitian people I know. But when in France or in the US I sold them in consignment shops or gave them to Charities. In France I favor charities like Emmaus, which employ marginalized populations.
Oh Delphine that is such a nice thing to say! It makes me so happy when people get some value in reading the things I write. In the UK there are a huge number of charities, one for every thing you can think of. I try and go for the bigger shops myself in the hope that the clothes will have more of a chance of being sold. My absolute favourite is the one with kids things one I put a picture of. It is in a very rich neighbourhood and there are always nice things there so I try and give back my nice things too.
Hi Kate, as usual, this was an informative and thought-provoking post. With respect to the textile sorting, do you know if it is done by hand by people who can identify the different materials or is there an automated way that it’s done? The article on weaving with recycled textiles was also so interesting. Thanks for sharing!
Hello, thanks for your comment. A couple of videos I have seen show people hand sorting the textiles into different grades. Not sure if that’s generally the case (assume so if it’s a qualitative assessment), one to think about!