Every once in a while I take a bag full of clothes to the charity shop. My view is that yeah, all right, I've bought disposable clothes, but since they'll get a second lease of life in someone else's wardrobe, with the charity benfiting as the middle man, then when I buy something, I am, in part making a charitable donation further down the line.
Or so I thought.
“Disposability has caused an explosion of problems,” says Dr Lucy Norris, the co-curator of a new exhibition at the Horniman Museum in south London, which traces the odyssey of clothes dumped in Oxfam clothing banks and charity shops. “Clothing is now given in such huge quantities to British charities that they can’t sell it all in the shops. The volume is increasing, while the quality is decreasing.”
For charities to get a return on our tat, most of it is exported. But if you had visions of your old treasures being parachuted into Burma as aid, think again. Charities don’t give clothes away, they sell them. “It takes too long to ship things to disaster areas, and to air-freight them is too expensive,” says Rob McNeil of Oxfam.
Instead, the clothes end up in eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, where they are either sold whole or organised into great colour- coded mounds, as in Panipat, north India, then shredded, pulped and respun into what is known as “shoddy” yarn (recycled wool) and made into cheap blankets.
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The problem is that much of what is donated is synthetic, which is the most difficult to recycle; cotton is also expensive to reuse. The easiest textile to recycle is wool, but the demise of knitwear over the past 15 years has seen the “shoddy” industry suffer. And while donation bins are being stuffed with synthetics, charity shops are struggling to stay competitive with the likes of £3 jeans.
Now that our castoffs are being shipped halfway around the world, what about the environment? Do the benefits of recycling outweigh the carbon cost of shipping? Oxfam hasn’t assessed that: the environmental benefit is only part of the story — cash is the rest. And it’s a difficult area. Second-hand clothing exports can damage the local garment trade — from 1985 to 1992, 51 out of 72 Zambian clothing firms closed, partly due to foreign competition. “If we sent stuff to where there is already a second-hand clothing market, it could undercut that industry,” says McNeil.
You really should read the rest.