Before I begin I would like to credit http://www.uniformreuse.co.uk/uk-clothing-waste.html as the location of much of the information here. I have left the wording of my quotes (underlined) unchanged as I do not want to lose the original sentiment of the argument that has been so brilliantly put forward.
With the constant increase in the availability of cheap clothing on the British High street, around 1.5 – 2 million tonnes of clothing and textiles waste are discarded every year in the UK*. Some retailers are so cheap that they are actively marketed as “throw away” clothing, and they would need to be, everyone has bought a t-shirt that hasn’t even survived one wash before becoming utterly shapeless.
Have you ever looked around Primark, Marks and Spencer, H&M and wondered what is going to happen to all this clothing? Whether bought or remaining unsold? Our consumption of new clothing is insatiable. The constant quest for the latest fashion must mean that people’s wardrobes are bulging at the seams, and if they’re not, is it because they have thrown out what they no longer wear? Tackling clothing and textile waste is a major challenge. Not only are greenhouse gases released as the fabrics decompose, but valuable resources which could have otherwise been reused or recycled are wasted.*
I have worked in retail and I have also volunteered in charity shops. I spent the first 6 years of my career working in retail, and as excited as I would get to see this seasons lines pouring in and coveting the new designs, a niggling part of me would think about the effect that producing all these items and the waste of those that went unsold would have. As people poured in to the shop every day to purchase an item, I wondered what would happen to the item that their new purchase would replace. Current evidence indicates that textile waste is currently the fastest growing stream in household waste and it’s forecast to continue increasing while sales of new clothing rise.
We should all be donating to Charity Shops. Reusing rather than landfilling clothing provides a range of sustainability benefits. For example, every tonne of discarded textiles reused saves 20 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere.* People think that if an item is not in a fit state for resale, i.e. very well worn, damaged or ripped, that they cannot donate it to a Charity Shop. You are wrong. Charities often sell items that are not fit for resale to a “Rag Man” for a price per kilo (the price will vary depending on the agent). These will then be shipped to third world countries or recycled in other ways in order to reduce waste. Most clothes that are recovered are exported and resold for reuse overseas, with Africa being the main market. The remainder is ‘downcycled’ (in the UK or overseas) into lower value products (such as mattresses, wipes, carpet underlay and automotive components)
By shopping in Charity shops you will be buying something that has been “recycled” in a sense avoid adding to consumer demand. You may ask if it makes any difference, the clothes are already made, they have already been shipped here, and they are already on sale. Yes, buying items in charity shops will actually make very little difference to the environmental impact. The main benefits are the money that will then go to that charity (I am considering an article later to explain the efficiency and profitability of retail charity) and your own personal sense of achievement that you have avoided environmental impact, however minute.
I frequently donate things that I bought in charity shops, continuing the circle of recycling, I just have to be careful not to buy it back!
One company I did come across in my retail work was Patagonia who use polyester recycling using the Teijin recovery process). Research suggests there is unexploited potential in this area. They are a very conscientiousness company when it comes to environmental impact and I can only hope that their vision spreads. We are in the throws of a consumer society with an insatiable appetite for ‘disposable’ items. We never fix anything any more, but that’s a whole different post if I feel like it one day.
I would encourage everybody to donate rather than throw away, electrical items (there are rules, phone your local charity shop to check what they will and will not take), furniture, bedding, damaged clothing, curtains, good quality clothing, shoes, rugs. Pretty much anything.