When we donate our clothes at the local second hand shop, most of us believe that this is the end of the line for our old wardrobe items. If you were to go into the same shop a few days later, you might be surprised to find that many of the things you gave are no longer on display. This is because for a lot of the items we drop off, that second hand shop is just the start of a journey that can take our discarded clothes thousands of miles away from our neighbourhoods, and may have some consequences we didn’t consider.
Not everything we give will be suitable for re-sale, so the first stop for most donated clothes is the sorting area. Different second hand shops have different policies and practices, which are determined by varying factors; they are part of a larger chain, the shop is a non-profit charity or the shop is a for-profit business. Depending on how your second hand shop operates, clothes that don’t make the cut for their local retail racks may be traded to another non-profit, sold at an even bigger discount at an outlet branch, sold to a textile recycler or sold to businesses that will ship them overseas for sale in developing countries. In the worst-case scenario, clothes that are unsuitable for sale will end up in the landfill.
No matter how much space a second hand shop has, or how many different ways they sell clothes, they are still bound to receive a lot of garments that are just too damaged or dirty to do anything with but throw out. And because some smaller stores don’t have the necessary logistics to sell to textile recyclers or overseas vendors, the destination for your donated clothes at these places is either the racks or the trash. Unfortunately if something is out of style, not well cared for, or just plain ugly it will likely end up in the landfill. Even though we all have good intentions when donating clothes, the truth is that sometimes we’re unknowingly making someone else deal with our garbage.
The clothes that do make the cut to be sold in your local store will be priced, cleaned, and dated before going on display. Noting the date that an item comes in allows the shop to determine if something has been sitting out for a long time without selling. Again, different stores do things differently, but few have the room to keep non-selling items on display indefinitely. If it’s clear that something is not going to move it will be pulled and either thrown away or redirected.
The other common option may be surprising to some because it involves clothes that were donated for free being sold at a profit to other businesses, who will sell them again. When we donate that bag of last year’s trendy shirts, that sweater we never wear, or your old favourite jeans that don’t quite fit anymore, we often think they will go to someone in our community who may not have the budget for new garments, or who just appreciates a good deal. Huge international businesses selling and reselling our old stuff at a profit doesn’t quite fit that narrative. But, many charities that sell donated clothes in bulk do a lot of important work in their communities and abroad with the money they make from those sales. And many donated clothes go directly towards helping those in need. Following the refugee crisis in Europe in recent years, appeals from humanitarian groups led to massive volumes of clothes being donated, particularly much needed winter coats and socks. Sadly, some unscrupulous people took the opportunity to clear out any old crap from their wardrobes, so groups working at the camps in Calais received some boxes full of sparkly dresses and high heels – totally inappropriate for refugees and contributing to the waste problem in the camps, not to mention a waste of space and fuel for the convoys who transported them there in the first place, and wasted time for volunteers. Regrettably, there can also be drawbacks when our clothes end up being sold overseas.
All countries, including those considered as “developing”, have economies, markets, and industries. And in every country from the U.S. to the U.K. to Uganda there are people who are trying to earn a living designing, making, and selling clothes. Understandably, these people can have a hard time creating successful businesses when their local market is constantly flooded with essentially free product. This means fewer businesses, fewer jobs, fewer opportunities. These donated clothes can also create a negative ripple effect on all the local associated industries, such as real estate, advertising, and tech, which could benefit from business-to-business interactions with thriving local fashion and clothing companies. The truth is that in many developing countries, donated clothing is actually preventing certain local industries from developing.
It may be uncomfortable to think that some of the clothes we give in order to help people in our neighbourhood may end up hurting people far away, or may just end up in our local landfill. But knowing what really happens to our donated clothes can help us make better more thoughtful decisions about how we get rid of them, how we treat them when we own them, and most importantly how we decide what clothes, and how many clothes, to buy in the first place. Vivienne Westwood is not usually associated with second hand clothes but she gave some great advice when she said, “Buy less, choose well, make it last. Quality not quantity. Everybody’s buying far too many clothes.”
By buying less to begin with, we can reduce the volume of clothing and clothing waste that has to be dealt with in each of the steps above. When we choose to buy quality clothes that are designed and made to last we can keep them longer ourselves. And if we do ever decide to pass them along, these things will actually be a gift when donated, and not a burden.