Lifestyle writer Evie Howarth explains why giving your old clothes to a charity shop might not be as sustainable as you think.

By now, you’re probably aware that buying new clothes is rarely ever sustainable, so what about the secondhand alternatives that are often touted as the answer?

More and more of us are trawling charity shops as well as online options like Depop and eBay, with 25% of the UK making secondhand clothing purchases in 2021 — a number that’s set to increase over the coming years.

This isn’t just a British phenomenon either, with US online thrifting brand ThredUp predicting that the secondhand market will grow by 126% in the next 4 years.

However, while more of us buying secondhand clothes is certainly a good thing, more of us donating them might not be. Of course, a circular economy when it comes to fashion is one of the solutions to reducing waste. The problem is, though, that circle is currently broken.

The reality is that fast fashion brands are still churning out cheap, poorly made garments every hour of the day. And why are they producing millions of tonnes a year? Those pesky marketing ploys that tell consumers they need these items to feel good about themselves by buying the latest looks every few weeks. In fact, it’s got so bad that a third of women in the UK consider an item of clothing to be old after wearing just one or two times.

“A circular economy when it comes to fashion is one of the solutions to reducing waste. The problem is, though, that circle is currently broken”

These “wear once and chuck out” items are then often donated to charity shops because no one will spend money buying your cheap £5 dress off Depop or Vinted when they can get their own, brand-new dress for the same price.

Herein lies the problem, charity shops can’t sell these items either.

The amount of clothing produced has more than doubled since the beginning of the new millennium, meaning charity shops are being inundated with more and more clothes every year that they just can’t sell.

So where do these “unsellable” clothes go?

According to Wrap, only 32% of the clothes donated are sold in UK charity shops, with the rest being passed on to be sorted for recycling, sold in other countries, or sent to landfill.

You might think that the first two options don’t sounds so bad, but the truth is, only 3% of those clothes are suitable for recycling and many of the clothes sent abroad are still sent to landfill, meaning our rubbish is left to clog up other countries.

In fact, the UK is the second biggest exporter of secondhand clothes after the US and the fourth largest producer of fashion waste in the EU, with around 1.5kg of clothes per person ending up in landfill every year.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but around the world that is equal to one garbage truck of clothes being burned or sent to landfill every second.

Even worse, some of it isn’t even being “properly” disposed of, if you can call landfill that. For example, around 15 million items of clothing arrive each week in Ghana, Africa, as clothing “donations” or to be sold in local markets to the population. This wave of textiles has left the population of just 30 million drowning in the western world’s unwanted clothing, with around 40% of it being deemed “unwearable” on arrival.

With no proper waste facilities, clothes are being disposed of in the oceans only to be washed back up onto the shores of African beaches, or pulled up in the nets of local fishermen, at a later date.

“One garbage truck of clothes is burnt or sent to landfill every second.”

If you think the answer is these countries refusing the exports, then you’d be wrong. When Rwanda banned exported garments from the US in 2018 in order to allow its own local clothing economy to survive, the country was hit by duties on its own fashion exports.

Garment workers already suffer at the hands of fast fashion suppliers and now other poorer nations are being hit by the back end of the industry too. So, what can be done to reduce this incredible amount of waste? As ever, the power lies with the consumer.

Don’t buy from fast fashion brands that churn out millions of unrecyclable and unsellable garments every year and then dump it on charity shop doorsteps after a few wears. In fact, don’t buy from fast fashion brands at all.

Instead, if you do need to buy new, then buy sensibly and opt for higher quality items made from natural materials that you’ll wear for years to come. Preferably, a brand with a transparent supply chain that treats workers fairly too.

Pressure also needs to be put on big brands to reduce waste, but our biggest power is the people’s ability to reduce demand for cheap clothes to begin with. The less we buy, the less companies produce.

Put simply, buy second hand items, repair what you already have, and only buy new when you really have to.