What happens to your clothes in their next life and why it matters

Leaving your old jeans at a clothing recycling bin might feel like your good deed for the day, but are you actually making a difference?

Photo by Sarah Brown on Unsplash

What makes my fashion ‘fast’?

Fast fashion is buzzword that has become quite popular recently. It describes cheap, trendy clothes which are often inspired by what is put on the runway or seen on celebrities, and are quickly made available on the high street for consumers. Customers can have the latest styles as quickly as possible for very low prices, which has contributed to a culture of overproduction and consumption where outfits are worn once (ideally on Instagram) before being replaced by the next trend. There is obviously a benefit to having stylish clothes for those who might otherwise not be able to afford whatever is trending.

Photo by fran hogan on Unsplash

What happens to donated clothes?

Charity shops have been around for years and if you’re like me, they are a go-to place to drop off clothes that no longer have a home in the wardrobe. Similarly, clothes collection bins are also a popular way to recycle and reuse unwanted clothes. I have always seen both of these options as great opportunities to give clothes a new lease on life and help others at the same time. With the word ‘charity’ in the title, it’s easy to just assume that all donated clothes will automatically be put to good use in a home that needs them. However, Dr Andrew Brooks argues in his book Clothing Poverty that much of what is donated is sold for profit overseas.

The way most people encounter the second-hand clothing trade is their High Street second-hand store. I think there is a common presumption amongst the general public that if they give something to charity it’s most likely to be sold in one of these shops. And while many garments are sold in these shops, the demand is relatively low compared to the supply, and far more get exported overseas. — Dr Andrew Brooks

The second-hand garment trade is worth billions, estimated in 2016 to be worth between $1.5 billion and $3.4 billion with leading exporters of second-hand clothing being the UK, USA, Germany, China and South Korea. Brooks estimates that only about 10% — 30% of all donated clothes in the UK find a new home in the UK, with the rest being sold internationally — predominately to Eastern Europe and countries in Africa. Once imported, these clothes are often then sold through intermediaries which retail the items to local communities.

Photo by Prudence Earl on Unsplash

Why should we care?

Everyone should have a feel good outfit. For a lot of people, myself included, what you wear is sometimes one of the few variables in a day that you have control over and I don’t believe that should be lost just because you can’t afford to buy a new outfit. If the donation system that we currently have doesn’t distribute feel good clothes to the people who need them, then that’s something we should care about.

Photo by Tom Parsons on Unsplash

How to make sure the next life is a better one

So when it’s time for me to part with my high waisted jeans and bright yellow jacket (lets face it my £5 white T-shirt won’t hold up enough to be donated) — where can I send them to ensure they have a good next life?

Thinking about how ‘sustainability’ intersects with various aspects of life

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