Thousands of people give their used clothing donations to charities every year, especially in the UK. Handing over these big full bags makes us feel like we have done something good for humanity that day. We all have the belief that our old clothing will be sold in the charity shops, being loved by someone else and supports a good cause. And for some of the clothing, it does. But for the rest, a huge percentage of the items is shipped abroad as part of a £2.8 billion ($4.3 billion) secondhand clothing trade industry. 

The textile industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, after petroleum. But how is this possible, if so many of us recycle unwanted garments and donate them?

The developing world’s growing demand for cheap and fast fashion means that we are consuming clothing at record high speeds. The mass amount of clothing produced has more than doubled since the year 2000, churning out over 80 billion garments annually. This desire for new styles every week and faster production means that the materials used are cheap and of low quality. Ultimately, fashion has become disposable and worthless. 

So inevitably, the average person in Western countries hoards closets full of clothing. Items that were only wearable a few times before becoming damaged, out of style or forgotten about. And eventually thrown away or donated. To put things in perspective, UK consumers throw away over a million tonnes of clothing items per year.

clothing donations
Textile waste mountain in Nairobi – The Hidden Burden of our Fashion Waste

However, the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimates that nearly half of the clothing we throw away does end up going to a new home or other use instead of landfill. This is largely thanks to the encouragement of charities and recycling centres to donate our old clothes to their stores. We’ve all received collection bags in the post asking us to fill them up with our old clothes. And most of us in the UK now have easy access to clothing banks/bins (which are mostly ‘for-profit’ textile recycling companies). 

UK consumers throw away over a million tonnes of clothing items per year.

Clothing Donations Are Traded Overseas For Profit

What we are not told, is that most of our clothing donations that can not be sold at the charity shops, are traded abroad for profit. Charity shops are relatively small, with a low demand for clothes yet a high supply of donations. Therefore, the majority of the garments are weighed, and exported overseas, mainly to under-developed countries. WRAP estimates that over 70% of donations gets sent overseas. The remaining items that can not be resold are often recycled. They are shredded into rags for industrial use (such as auto body shops) or ground into fibres for insulation, carpet padding or even paper. Unfortunately, the same thing can not be said about countries in the Global South who receive our clothing cast-offs in huge quantities.  

In his book Clothing Poverty, Andrew Brooks shares that what can’t be sold in charity shops is then sold to textile companies. These merchants organise clothing depending on their quality and forward them onto overseas buyers as tradable goods. Most of these buyers are from under-developed countries such as Africa and Eastern Europe, where such garments are in higher demand. The final destination of each item of clothing depends greatly on the type of clothing and the demand for them in different countries (mainly depending on climate temperatures).

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clothing donations
Clothing bales exported to Ghana, Africa. Image via research project Dead White Man’s Clothes

You may be thinking to yourself, is this not a good thing? And many believe it is, but Brooks argues otherwise. Here’s why. The huge flood of secondhand clothing from Western giants has had a negative effect on local indigenous businesses. The ready supply of cheap garments from Asia means that the second-hand market in Africa has dominated the clothing market. Brooks states that in Ghana, textile employment fell by 80% from 1975-2000. And in Nigeria the industry is no longer there. Countries such as Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Burundi are seeking to ban the import of secondhand apparel, in hope to protect local business.

Bama Athreya, from the International Labor Rights Fund stated that ‘The tailors and small producers have been put out of business. Those were good jobs for Africans and there are no jobs taking their place. This is a trade that feeds on the poor rather than benefits the poor.

clothing donations
‘Obroni W’awu’ is an Akan phrase from Ghana, meaning ‘Dead White Man’s Clothes’. This refers to the secondhand clothing market.

Wake Up And Smell The Money

Many people who give clothing to charities, don’t realise that they will be ‘sold’ to people in Africa instead of given away for free. Brooks explains that textiles merchants sell huge bales of garments to smaller market sellers who then sort through the clothing. Some of these clothing bales contain good quality clothing. However, others can be full of damaged items that can not be re-sold. He states that sellers ‘have been forced out of the business when a succession of bad bales led to the loss of all their money’ (p.176).

Now there is the question of what happens to the clothing donations that can not be salvaged. Yet, has already travelled all the way to Africa? They end up in landfill, in countries that do not have the capability to recycle textiles nor handle large volumes of waste. In 2013 alone, the UK shipped 350,000 tons of garments overseas.

So the question of whether the secondhand clothing industry is a good thing is still up for debate.

The secondhand clothing trade does create more employment opportunities in under-developed countries. But on the other hand, this trade has caused the collapse of the local garment trade. Brooks continues to believe that the answer lies in supporting local production. All in all, some people have gained and grown richer, while others have not and remain below the poverty line. As Brooks concludes, this is after all the ‘outcome of capitalist enterprise’ (p.145).

Supporting African artisans through Sustainable Fashion brands – Bag from AAKS.

Sustainable Solutions

Have you just had a wardrobe clear-out? You’re probably considering giving your clothing donations to charity. That, or throwing them in a clothing bank. However, this is not necessarily the most sustainable option. Your intended generosity could be doing more harm than good to the planet and to local indigenous communities. There are ways we can support local business and reduce textile waste by simply tweaking our consumer behaviours.

We truly believe that donating used clothing to charity is a good thing. It funds a good charitable cause and defers garments from landfill. Which is what we all want at the end of the day! Not only that, but buying secondhand clothing reduces the amount of energy and water that goes into making new garments. Win win. What we truly need, on a global scale, is a Fast Fashion Diet. As much as we need a Fast Food Diet. Consider these steps before donating as your first option:

13 Alternatives To Clothing Donations

  1. Check the stores guidelines. Many are very selective in what they can accept (some do not accept bras and socks).
  2. Take your clothing directly to a homeless shelter, especially warm garments like coats and sturdy shoes.
  3. Find garment-specific organisations or charities. You can donate your pre-loved wedding dress to a good cause or find a unique vintage dress! Try Brides Do Good or Heartfelt Vintage.
  4. Repair items or get them adjusted if they not longer fit. Everyone knows someone with a sewing machine these days!
  5. Find creative ways to upcycle your clothing and reinvent them into new, modern pieces that are one of a kind.
  6. Support companies that make new clothing out of disposed materials and recycled textiles.
  7. Support ethically made fashion from African artisans, check out this list of African-owned brands by EcoCult.
  8. Buy from companies that pay fair wages. Use tools such as Fashion Checker and the Good On You app.
  9. Consume less – Find happiness and be content with what you already own. Take inspiration from The Minimalists.
  10. Make clothes last longer by following laundry labels.
  11. Using natural laundry detergents and softeners. As well as hand-washing delicate materials (like lace and silk).
  12. Buy to last! Resist the urge to impulse buy just because there is a sale. It is not a good deal if you don’t need it. If you truly need something than think about it’s long-term lifeline. Invest in high-quality fabrics and timeless pieces that you will treasure for years to come.
  13. The most sustainable fabrics are natural, such as organic linen, organic hemp, recycled cotton. There are many innovative textiles now on the market. For example, Tencel (from wood pulp), Piñatex (from pineapple leaf fibre) and Econyl (from synthetic waste such as industrial plastic and fishing nets).

What are your thoughts on clothing donations? Let us know in the comments below!

pinatex sustainable fashion
Designer Mayya Saliba designed a clutch bag made from Piñatex. Commissioned by the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London.

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Dr Andrew Brooks (2015), Clothing Poverty – The Hidden World of Fast Fashion & Secondhand Clothes.  
The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) – Sustainable Fashion And Textiles
Traid Fact Sheets – The Impacts of Clothing
Ellen Macarthur Foundation – A New Textiles Economy