Why not charity shops…

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


Selling second hand clothes to Africa

You give to Oxfam, (and lots of other charities), they sell it to textile businesses (not charities) who make a profit from selling it to poorer Africans! Oh the irony!

According to the latest available UN figures, the UK is the second largest used clothing exporter after the US. It exported more than £380m ($600m), or 351,000 tonnes, worth of our discarded fashion overseas in 2013. Top destinations were Poland, Ghana, Pakistan and Ukraine. From the BBC News

According to Dr Brook in his book Clothing Poverty only a small percentage of clothes donated to Oxfam end up in U.K. stores. Most is sold to be exported. The majority is sold through “normal market exchanges”. It is purchased by “clients in the global south “ who sell to “African traders.”

Apparently most charities do this.

“Only about one-fifth of the clothing donated to charities is directly used or sold in their thrift shops. Says Rivoli, “There are nowhere near enough people in America to absorb the mountains of castoffs, even if they were given away.”

So charities find another way to fund their programs using the clothing and other textiles that can’t be sold at their thrift shops: they sell it to textile recyclers at 5–7 cents per pound.”

Cambridge University issued a report in 2006 titled Well Dressed? The Present and Future Sustainability of Clothing and Textiles in the United Kingdom, in which it raised concerns that trade in secondhand clothes in African countries inhibits development of local industries even as it creates employment in these countries.

And the authors of Recycling of Low Grade Clothing Waste warn that in the long run, as prices and quality of new clothing continue to decline, so too will the demand for used clothing diminish. This is because in the world of fast fashion, new clothing could be bought almost as inexpensively as used clothing.

Read more

One of the sad ironies of today’s globalised economy is that many cotton farmers and ex-factory workers in countries such as Zambia are now too poor to afford any clothes other than imported second-hand ones from the west, whereas 30 or 40 years ago they could buy locally produced new clothes. The Guardian

And it would appear that H&M have got it really sussed. They sell you the clothes then you give them back so they can be reworn…. or resold.  From the H&M website

Don’t let fashion go to waste

No true fashion lover likes seeing clothes go to waste. We want to make it as easy as possible for you to give your garments a new life. For example, we’ve already made some new collections from worn clothes – many of which came via our own Garment Collecting service.

Looking ahead, there are three ways to repurpose the unwanted garments:

  • Rewear – clothing that can be worn again will be sold as second hand clothes
  • Reuse – old clothes and textiles will be turned into other products, such as cleaning cloths
  • Recycle – everything else is turned into textile fibres, or other use such as insulation.

You can see all posts on Charity Shops here

You can see all our posts on clothing, fabrics and the plastic-free wardrobe here.


Charity Shop Issues

A reason not to buy in charity shops can be found on the Woven website about the second hand clothing trade in AFRICA

The following has been taken from the website

Africa is the fastest growing population center in the world. It currently has 1.1 billion people. That numbers nearly quadruples to 4.1billion by 2100.
The continent has the highest unemployment rates in the world in spite of having six of the worlds fastest growing economies.

“Probably 90% of the clothing people are buying in the whole country are second-hand clothes.” Sylvia Owori, Ugandan fashion designer.

Everyday before sunrise vendors line up to get first dibs on the huge pallets of compressed clothes as they come off trucks. They have absolutely no idea what’s inside.

How much do you think someone living in Africa (the poorest continent on Earth) pays for a pair of second-hand jeans?
Places where over 80% of people make less than $2 a day (the UN global poverty benchmark). $1? $2? $3, more than a days wage? Guess again:
$5 to $7. Over two or three times what they earn in a day. But wait, there’s more.
All but a fraction of that money leaves the continent. Why? Because vendors purchase these bundles from international “clothing recyclers” that buy 97% the clothes you and I donate to charities like Goodwill, The Salvation Army and The Cancer Society. Vendors in the developing world pay up to a 1,000% markup for bundled clothes, lining these international companies pockets with huge profits–$3 billion a year huge–and none of that money supports the causes we thought we were.

This isn’t to blame the charities we donated to. In all honesty they do their best and if they could sell more donated clothes locally they would–they’d make more money that way. The truth is people don’t want to buy second-hand clothes in the developed world and charities that accept clothes have no other choice but to sell clothes they can’t sell locally to clothing recyclers.]


The impact is devastating:  50% loss in jobs and a 40% decline in industry over two decades.
Textile and clothing employment along with other support work offer valuable entry level jobs in fledgling economies. Ghana and Nigeria are among the hardest hit losing 80% and over 95% of their textile employment respectively.


Most people understand what’s happening on the production side of the textile industry (i.e. sweatshops, etc) but few realize what’s happens to their clothes at the end of life when they donate them and they think they are doing some good.
Before I started looking into this I thought that clothes I donated were helping people in my local community by providing affordable clothes to less fortunate families. I was shocked to learn that only 3% of the clothes donated are ever resold locally. That’s three items for every 100 donated.
I was even more shocked to hear that the nonprofit I donate my clothes to only earns between $0.10 and $0.25 per pound. That’s about $0.20 to $0.50 for a pair of jeans.

More posts on this subject here