Where do my unwanted clothes end up?

Where do my unwanted clothes end up?

During lockdown, many opted for a spring clean, turning to their wardrobes for a habitual clear out. Wardrobe purges are cathartic; they turn up long-forgotten faves and those regretful purchases you'd much rather part ways with. Some of these clothes will likely end up in the bin, joining the 350,000 annual tonnes of clothing that make their way to a UK landfill.

Others will simply be given to a charity shop. But what seems harmless at first – sold donations aid a charitable cause of your choice – may not be so straightforward.

The problem is that most of our donations are not destined for the shop rails but are instead cast off overseas. In fact, only 10% to 30% of donations are actually sold on the shop floor. WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) estimates that around two thirds of re-used clothes end up abroad.

The UK is the second largest exporter of pre-owned clothes and sends the majority of its shipments to Sub-Saharan Africa. Here, secondhand garments can sell for as little as 5% of the cost of a new garment, putting local designers out of pocket. This renders recipient countries in a state of dependency on western cast-offs which stifles the development of a domestic textile trade. In his book Clothing Poverty, Dr Andrew Brooks tracked the decline of the African apparel sector. This has seen the apparel share of manufacturing decease by an average of 5.3% per year between 1981 and 2000.

Voicing their discontent, the East Africa Community previously proposed a ban on all secondhand clothing imports to be enacted by 2019. Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, expressed a national desire “to grow and establish our industries” after his country has witnessed a 50% decline in textile mills in just two decades.

As the largest exporter of secondhand garms, the Americans weren’t too happy. They threatened to suspend the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which is essentially a duty-free trade deal. While this stopped regional efforts in their tracks, Kenya has recently banned all ‘mitumba’ importations (the Swahili term to describe the imported plastic-wrapped bundles) owing to the Coronavirus pandemic.

But it's likely that a ban won't stop us from ridding ourselves of all our unwanted stuff. We’d simply find somewhere else to burden with our hand-me-downs. In the words of Orsola de Castro, “your local charity shop has really turned into your local bin”.

So, what are our other options? Currently, only around 15% of textiles produced each year are recycled but there are various clothes banks and recycling schemes out there who aim to responsibly dispose of our clothes. For example, LMB recycling centre repurposes ripped and stained garments into industrial wipers. You can donate to them though various clothes banks, including Love Not Landfill, who also incorporate high-quality donations into their swap shops and secondhand pop ups.

Smalls for All distributes new and gently used bras to those who need it most in Africa and the UK. Meanwhile, Swedish Stockings run a recycling club, which turns old pantyhose into filler material for fibreglass tanks. They are currently searching for a closed loop technological solution, which will eventually recycle old hosiery into new.

For clothes in perfect condition, I would recommend renting, swapping with us  or selling them with your friends or via an app. That way, you know your chosen recipient will be happy to receive your old clothes which you're saving from a miserable life spent in a landfill.

This post was written by Melissa Watt, our Sustainability Manager.

Twitter/Instagram: @melissawatttt