If you donate clothes to charity – where do they really end up? Sophie Bond (1) considers fashion’s second life.
There’s a green t-shirt that lives bundled on our bedroom floor. It has been my husband’s second skin for years. It is faded and threadbare, its hem wavy and stretched, the logo cracked, peeling and split by a gaping hole. When worn, it literally provides a window into his soul.
It is a shirt that causes wives to despair, grandmas to blush and supermarket cashiers to enquire as to whether he’s living rough (yes, really).
One day he’ll give in, and it will be torn up for rags. It will have truly done its dash.
Few garments are worth keeping forever: perhaps a delicate christening gown or a commemorative sports jersey will make the cut. Some faithful clothes will give us years of service. Others end up in the bin much sooner.
Tastes and bodies change, drawers and wardrobes overflow and eventually, it’s time to have a clear-out.
In our household, this involves me going room to room, rummaging out the tired, unworn and too small and filling bags for the local opportunity shop*.
My problem is that I leave the shop bearing just as many goods as I donated, but that’s another story.
The mystery of the big blue clothing bin
So, what happens to our discarded donated clothes? Let’s look at a New Zealand example. Have you ever dropped goods into a big blue clothing bin, or filled up one of those large pink plastic bags? It’s probable those items ended up being processed by SaveMart, the country’s largest used clothing recycler.
SaveMart takes donations via clothing bins, and also collects from other opportunity shops. Some of the items it sells are seconds or surplus from retailers.
The clothing is sorted and the stuff deemed suitable is sold through 31 SaveMart outlets nationwide. Unsold stock is removed after 4 weeks, baled up and shipped off to Papua New Guinea.
In its figures for 2012/2013, SaveMart says it sent 2457 bales of clothing to Papua New Guinea where it was distributed for free via charities and churches.
Garments and fabric that are past it are recycled, with cotton being made into cleaning rags and woollens and acrylics sent to India to be made into blankets.
It’s probably no great surprise that in the most developed nations, supply of used garments far exceeds demand.
Second hand clothing is a surprising export trade
Many countries participate in the global trade of secondhand clothing, with the US and UK each exporting over US$660 million worth every year.
Charities sell their surplus donations to textile merchants, who sort, bale and export the garments to be sold around the globe. The UK’s cast-offs head for the most part to Eastern Europe and Africa; Canada and South America consume clothing from the US.
If the jacket you donated in Edinburgh ends up baled and shipped to Pakistan, it won’t be gifted to someone in need. True, the charity will make some money by selling it on, thus furthering their cause, but the textile merchant will put his own margin on and make a profit from your gift.
From an environmental standpoint, this redistribution of our cast-offs seems like a pretty great thing – less clothes to landfill. And customers in developing nations have access to an affordable commodity.
What actually happens to those clothes in the markets in Africa?
But do shoppers in Ghana really get a range that caters to their body shapes, climate and local trends? Are the prices really fair when a t-shirt sold in a Mozambique market can cost more than the average daily income?
There are reports by those in the textile industry of container loads of used clothing from developed countries just being abandoned.
And what about the local textile industries? Would they do better, creating more jobs and supporting the local economy, without the global second-hand trade?
Its easy to feel justified in buying new clothes, knowing that we’ll be donating our old ones. But, as with all consumables, it’s worth pausing to think about where they will end up once we’re done with them. Perhaps we should focus more on clothing ourselves in long-lasting pieces and being satisfied with less?
*opportunity shop, aka charity or thrift store
More detail on the global trade of second-hand clothing by the BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30227025
1. Sophie Bond has taken a break from journalism to (mostly) enjoy being a stay-at-home mother to her sons. She aspires to be a more conscious consumer and thinks she may be addicted to op-shopping.
Muka kids social enterprise, is platform to trade pre-loved organic and ethical clothing. Muka kids helps make quality, ethical and sustainable clothing more accessible to all. In additional, a percentage of sales made on muka goes towards giving small business loans (micro-finance) to women cotton farmers in India. Helping them find financial independence and escape the debt trap of subsistence cotton farming (the substance 80% of our clothing is made from).