The first book I read for the Twitter Sustainable Book Club (the what? Find out here) was a timely one. Recently I have thinking about  how to dress sustainably and plastic-free. When discussing sustainable clothing, buying second-hand, along with clothes swaps seems like a no brainer. Of course buying from charity shops is a greener option and from the plastic-free point of view ideal in that it is packaging free. But how sustainable is it?

I have my doubts that buying second-hand helps reduce consumerism. Rather it creates another market but this time for second-hand goods. Furthermore you cannot influence, with your purchasing power, how the clothes were made and by whom. Buying second-hand clothes made in sweat shops is not to my mind guilt free merely because they are second hand..

And there are other issues which have been well documented in this easy to read case study..

Clothing Poverty – The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-hand Clothes by Andrew Brooks

“Following a pair of jeans, Clothing Poverty takes the reader on a vivid around-the-world tour to reveal how clothes are manufactured and retailed, bringing to light how fast fashion and clothing recycling are interconnected. Andrew Brooks shows how recycled clothes are traded across continents, uncovers how retailers and international charities are embroiled in commodity chains which perpetuate poverty, and exposes the hidden trade networks which transect the globe.”

The following summary is way too simple but basically this is what is happeningshopping

Fast Fashion

Those in the richer countries are encouraged to buy and discard clothes on a regular basis a movement described as fast fashion. We wear a lot of clothes. Here are a few statistics

  • The major products consumed were: 420 thousand tonnes of trousers, T-shirts and pullovers 530 thousand tonnes of carpets
  • From 2001 to 2005 spending on women’s clothing grew by 21% and that on men’s by 14%. During the same time – as the end of the quota arrangement approached in 2005 – prices actually dropped by 14%
    Consumers in the UK spend about £780 per head per year, purchasing around 2.15 million tonnes (35kg per person)

You can find more statistics here…

A few months later those new clothes are discarded. Most are thrown away but a small percentage are donated to charity shops. However charity shops can only sell a percentage of those clothes back to U.K. customers. The demand simply isn’t there. So they sell the unsold clothes to international clothes traders. These clothes end up on third world markets.

So clothes are made in the third world then transported to the first world to be worn for a limited time before being given to a charity who sell it back to the third world. These are sold to private market traders who sell them back possibly to those who made them!

Amongst other things Andrew Brooks argues that this impacts adversely on the development of local textile and clothing markets. Both in Africa and at home. It certainly impacts adversely on the environment!

You can see more posts on this here 

Charity Shops & Over Consumption

I have long considered giving to charity shops to distract from the problem of overconsumption. For many gifting good quality clothing justifies buying more. Which does nothing to address the issue of buying too much. At worst it adds a kind of beneficial, even charitable gloss to going out shopping. But while mine is a gut feeling Andrew Brooks explores this in-depth and comes to similar  but far better documented conclusions.

Charity Shops & Poor Quality Clothes

I am not against the sale of second-hand clothing or the money raised going to charity. But only as part of a very different clothing cycle.I remember when charity shops sold good quality second-hand clothing from decades ago. You jumble salecould buy collarless granddad shirts and woolen overcoats as seen on the Smiths Basically dead mens clothes! Because back then most clothes were made to last a life time and only discarded when your granddad had gone to place where he wouldn’t be needing shirts.

Now charity shops are stuffed full of cheap and badly made clothes that are not much cheaper than Primark. It might be that I am shopping in the wrong area.When  I went on a trawl of charity shops in Tunbridge Wells they were posh! But generally the faster turn around in clothes means they are of poorer quality.  Andrew  Brooks who also documents this aspect of the clothing trade.

Charity Shops and Fair Trade /Environmental Issues

If you choose to buy secondhand you lose the chance to influence how your clothes are made by whom and out of what. Any purchase is a vote with your cash and an opportunity to influence the market. Buying second-hand clothes made in sweat shops, out fibres grown unsustainably, by unethical companies is not, (to my mind), guilt free.

Sustainable Clothes

So how can we clothe ourselves in a fitting manner

Fair Share Fabrics My Global Share

Before charity clothing shops can come back into their own, we need to tackle overconsumption and production of  poor quality clothes. Of course one mans over consumption is another’s nothing to wear so how to decide what is sustainable?

This is how the equation works for me

  • We cannot exceed current levels of production

  • We cannot expect others to want less than we have.

  • Therefore we can only consume our global share

Which works out at 11.74kg of fabric per person, per year. 3.8 kg is natural fibres the rest is synthetic fibre. You can check my figures here.

So I  use no more than my share of fibres and because I hate non-biodegradables I keep my use of synthetics to a minimum. The fibres I do use have to be sustainably sourced.

You can see how I manage with fabric rationing here…

Fine Quality Worn To Shreds

A very similar approach and one I really love is that of Mrs M. She buys quality clothes and wears them till they fall apart. One reason for that is that she only allows herself the amount of clothes she could have had under the war-time rationing system. And those clothes have to be ethically sourced. Her clothes have a value. Catch up with her fantastic blog here. 

patchingSharing, Swapping and Mending

Zoe too has some great tips for more varied ethical dressing including how to approach the tricky second-hand clothing issue

1. Use up or give away to friends / family / strangers (in this country) our unwanted clothes

2. Go forward with only:

  • buying really good quality ethically sourced long-lasting clothes containing only sustainable natural fibres and/or
  • buying or receiving unwanted secondhand clothes from family, friends and strangers and/or
  • making your own good quality long-lasting clothes from environmentally conscious and ethically sourced fabrics

3. Hire clothes that will only be worn once or twice e.g. suits and dresses

5. Swap clothes if you want a wardrobe refresh (whilst still in good condition) with others.


You can read more here  plus her great Clothing Poverty Review over here

 You can read more about my fair-trade, sustainable, plastic-free wardrobe here

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4 thoughts on “Why not charity shops…

  1. Yay nice to see you….

    It is a good read and no I don’t think it is the charities fault. I would guess it was one of those situations that has developed gradually without people being aware of the consequences. I think they are trying to make as much money as they can to support their worthwhile causes. It’s just going a bit (lot?) wrong.

    And I certainly think there is a place for second hand clothes market in our society for a number of reasons. I do buy second hand but not so much from charity shops. Quality second hand stuff maintains a value especially specialist stuff like down jacket. Sadly you tend to find it on Ebay rather than Oxfam.

    Wouldnt it be nice if people decided to wear their clothes for longer and donated what they would have spent on a new pair of jeans to charity instead #ifIruled the world!

  2. really interesting post. I must get hold of the book as it sounds like it is well researched. I’ve recently read ‘Overdressed’ by Elizabeth Cline. Although it’s based on the American clothing industry it does deal with similar issues and she also talks about the trade in selling our second-hand clothes back to the Third World. I agree with you about the cheap quality of the clothing sold in many charity shops. Maybe poorly made clothing should come with a warning that it can’t be re-used because it’s so shoddy (I recently wrote a post saying if we keep buying cheap, badly made clothes we should learn to mend). I also agree that people donate to charity shops to ease their ‘green guilt’. However I still think they’re good places to pick up clothes that can be re-used, they give to good causes and raise awareness of the work of charities. It’s also not their fault that too much clothing is donated so they can’t sell it all in their shops. But perhaps they should be more transparent about where the rest of the donated clothing is sent – it’s certainly an issue I’ve only recently come across and I’ve been charity shopping nearly all of my life.

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