Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Yet another reason not to buy cheap clothes

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.

. . .

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.


Exile said...

If there is a second hand market already, then the goods for that market will probably come from abroad. So the effect of yet more goods coming from abroad should be limited. Prices may drop, more traders may get involved, thus increasing competition, etc.

If you really want to do something useful, why not help ship second hand clothing to Cuba? The country struggles because her raw cotton supplies vanished along with the USSR. She can't import from the USA, so relies on donations which mainly come from Scandinavia.

Why not get involved with some group and fill up a container which can be shipped over there?

lagatta said...

Actually, I suspect that the clothing Linda is donated will be re-loved. Several of us have scouted out "society church' bazaars and charity shops receiving quality clothing. I have a cousin who is a senior civil servant in Ottawa and does not disdain such high-end gleaning.

(Men don't usually do that unless they are destitute)...

Exile, I have a friend who does volunteer archaeology in Cuba and she is not allowed by her Cuban friends to go there with less than two suitcases full of wearable and stylish garments.

But the problem is all the synthetic blends - very hard to recycle or re-use. And even a lot of our cottons now - low-end but ALSO high-end - incorporate a small percentage of lycra.

Linda Grant said...

Good point, Lagatta. I generally look at the labels when I buy clothes and most stuff these days has a little lycra to help it hold its shape or give it some stretch. Where does it all go? Is it biodegradable? I have never given it a thought.

Arabella said...

Very interesting article, thanks.
Lycra is a mystery to me. I don't know where it ends up but I do wish it would go away, from skirts especially - made stiff and unappealing by the stuff. Oh for some drape.

Kelly said...

I always feel bad dropping my clothes off at Goodwill or other local shops like that. I've seen back in their warehouse section and there are HUGE piles of clothes, compressed into cubes, that will doubtless never make it out into the shop. So I've never really felt good bringing my clothes there, just a bit better than if I throw them out. However, a veteran's organization has recently started leaving bags in my mailbox and asking me to fill them up with things I would like to donate. They specifically ask for clothing, which I do give because it's easier to give it to them than bringing it to Goodwill, but I've often wondered why exactly they want the clothing. I've always been under the impression that these organizations were overloaded with far too many clothes. I've always thrown out things that were stained or otherwise unsuitable to pass on to another person, but if I knew they would be reused simply for the fiber I would obviously donate stained or torn clothing. I wish there was a way to differentiate while donating.

It also makes it a bit more sad to give these things up knowing that they may never find another loving home!

Sheila said...

Part of the problem for charity shops (I used to work for a charity and know this from our retail section) is that modern cheap clothing such as Primark wears out quickly and is therefore not re-sellable. However, good quality clothes are needed and will sell. People will not pay £3 for a poor quality dress if they can buy a new poor quailty one for £4 but will pay more for a really good quality one that they could not remotely afford to buy new.

Bobbi said...

I tend to save my clothing, especially my work clothes and children's clothes for the annual clothing give away at my church. It is by invitation only to single moms and their children who have been referred to the event by social services.
Sending clothing overseas can be fraught, as a different local group found out, they rented a sea container that wasn't waterproof. The group loaded the container and placed it on the train to be taken to the nearest port. The donated clothes were soaked in a rain storm while in transit. The following week the clothes rotted and cooked in the in the closed container at port, out in the hot sun, waiting to be shipped. It was an expensive lesson, for a group of good willed people. The clean-up bill was not insubstantial.

Arabella said...

Kelly - I've donated clothes to a couple of small local thrift stores where turnover can be slow(they're usually part of a local church or support group of some kind), and have seen my items on display; maybe it's worth trying where you are. But be warned - years ago I bought back a pair of my own jeans from an Oxfam shop I frequented in Leeds; couldn't believe how comfy they were....

Anonymous said...

There's an organization here that accepts season-specific donations (they have very limited storage space) in order to provide free work wardrobes for low-income women just entering or re-entering the workforce. This is a particularly satisfying solution for those items that were simply the result of my bad judgment and have endured little or no wear at all.

And used places are quite the "in" shopping venues around here, including one chain that specifically exists for high-school and young college students to get their designer on cheaply. I'm not rejecting the notion that there's more being churned out than the resale market can bear, but reusing is awfully strong here nonetheless, and I think in this economy it's only going to grow.

Anonymous said...

Now that I live in the sticks, I buy less, but still end up with unworn stuff.

What I used to do in LA was take my better clothes to a local charity shop and put the less-better stuff out on the lawn with a sign: Free! Please take!

In my marginal neighborhood many mothers walking home from the elementary school took for their kids.

-- desertwind

Duchesse said...

Like others posting, I have various charities depending on their mission and the quality of my things.

Also had the unnerving experience of donating a bespoke shirt to charity store, then seeing same shirt in a high end boutique, not even sold as vintage, And it was mine, all right.

Mary said...

Wonderful little book now available in Oxfam shops (& Oxfam Online) - Heart on your Sleeve by Christa Weil. Subtitle is The fashion-lover's guide to finding, choosing and wearing ethical clothes. Costs £4.95.
I doubt much of it is news to readers of The Thoughtful Dresser - but fascinating all the same!
To quote - 'for any woman who feels challenged by the goal of looking great and doing right by other people and the world we live in ..... demystifies what ethical fashion is, offers guidance on sourcing..... explains how wearing sustainable clothing can revolutionise one's appearance for the better'!

lagatta said...

Alas the problem of "mountains of crap" is not restricted to clothes. I have a friend who volunteers in a charity shop - Le Chaînon - that benefits homeless and marginalised women. Whether dishes, home décor or whatever, there is a mountain of unmitigated crap produced in Chinese factories - with no relation to ancient Chinese craft traditions - big, lumbering plates, ugly objects that aren't even clever in a kitchy way, not to mention throwaway clothes.

Nobody buys those things - they can't possibly be cheaper used than they are new - so people scout for the French and English porcelain and leave mountains of worthless stuff.

Even the containers that stuff arrives on become useless stuff.