I’ve always wondered about these little babies. On the face of it they seem like a good thing, right? But in my experience looks can be deceiving and well intention initiatives can have unintended negative consequences. Is that the case here or am I just too cynical. Well lets look at them in a bit more detail.
Sooooooo recycling? Long time subscribers to this blog will know I’m not a fan of recycling. If you don’t now why here’s my article on Why Recycling isn’t the Answer. Is clothes recycling any different? What happens to clothing that goes into these bins?
I apologise in advance for using UK information, I could find no research into this in Ireland, but I figure the end result is not going to be substantially different here in Ireland.
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If it’s wearable it’ll be sold to companies that ship clothing to countries with a second-hand clothing market like Poland, Ghana, Pakistan and Ukraine. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Well, maybe, but not at the scale that it’s happening.
Wrap estimates that more than 70% of all UK reused clothing heads overseas. In 2013 the UK exported more than £380m ($600m), or 351,000 tonnes, worth of discarded fashion overseas (Source: BBC News).
Unfortunately not just quality clothing is shipped and there have been reports of un-saleable clothing ending up on bonfires in recipient countries (Source: CBC news). Just think about it, not only does the collection, sorting and shipping of these garments cause carbon emissions, we also have the carbon emissions and associated pollutants that come with open fires.
Also, some argue that this mass influx of second hand clothing has a negative impact on the textile industry in a lot of countries. In Uganda, second-hand garments now account for 81% of all clothing purchases and Ghana’s textile and clothing employment fell by 80% between 1975 and 2000. While Nigeria’s 200,000-person textile workforce has also all but disappeared (Source: BBC News).
On the other hand some point to the fact that the second-hand clothing market has created it’s own industry, albeit of a much lower skill level than the making of clothes would generate.
Worn Out Clothes / Clothes in need of Repair
If the garment is worn-out or in need of repair, regardless of how simple the repair, it may be recycled into new clothing but only if it made from a single fibre, which is quite rare in clothing today. Garments made from more than one type of fibre, like polycotton, can’t be recycled into new fabric and so will be used for carpet padding, painters’ cloths or insulation instead. I:Collect, the company that handles the donations for H&M and several other major retailers, says about 35 per cent of what it collects is used for products like this. (Source: CBC news)
Even if the fabric in a worn out garment is recyclable the market for the recycled fibre garments is so tiny that it might not be worth doing and so end up a rags or landfilled or incineration. Author and environmentalist Elizabeth Cline says less than one per cent of clothing is recycled to make new clothing and according to the UN a garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned globally every second (Source: UN)
If we look at the one of the biggest proponents of clothes recycling bins, H&M. Their own sustainability reports acknowledge that, of the material used to make its estimated half a billion garments a year, only 0.7 per cent is recycled material (Source: CBC news). Based on this figure it would take 12 years for them to use up 1,000 tons of fashion waste, which is the same amount of clothes a brand of this size pumps out in 48 hours. (Source: The Guardian)
Impact on Behaviour
Also lets consider what’s in it for stores the that give vouchers in return for used clothing. What do people do with this voucher? I’d imagine most use it to buy new clothing. So are these voucher scheme actually encouraging more shopping? Probably, seeing that on a global scale, the average consumer purchases 60 per cent more clothing than they did 20 years ago, and that on average, each item is kept half as long, with about 40 per cent of garments in wardrobes in developed countries going completely unworn. (Source: United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE))
It’d be interesting to survey customers who donate bags of clothing in shops that give vouchers in return. Did they donate to that store because it gave out vouchers? Do they spend the voucher on the same day as the donation? Did they buy something that they previously wanted, or was it an impulse purchase? Would they have bought the item in another store had they not had the voucher?
Surely if H&M, and others, were really concerned about sustainability they’d resell pre-worn items, or offer a repair service, or make more clothing from recycled fabric, or change styles less frequently.
Clothes Recycling Bins in stores could also impacting on revenue for charities. If people are dropping good quality clothes into H&M or similar instead of their local charity that’s inevitably going to hit their potential to generate income. The Irish Charity Shops Association state that for every €10kg of clothing donated to non-charity clothing banks / textile recylers up to €68 is lost to charity.
All that said, what if these vouchers are encouraging people who would never consider recycling to donate their clothing instead of binning it? Perhaps the payment of a voucher is giving those people an incentive to think more sustainably. Some argue that giving a voucher places a value on unwanted clothing, something that you don’t get when you donate to a charity shop, and that if we want to move towards a circular economy that’s a good thing.
What to do
Having read this you might be tempted to leave your unwanted clothes in the wardrobe, but don’t. The total amount of unworn clothes owned by Londoners equates to 123 million items, or 333,000 tonnes of CO2e – enough to power 50,000 homes for a whole year. It would take the entire population of London 15 years to drink the water footprint of London’s unworn clothes. (Source: Traid). So if you rehome that pair of jeans that no longer fit you’d be saving someone from using up 2,000 litres of water required for a new pair. (Source: UN)
As is often the case with sustainable living we’re well past seeking the perfect solution, we’re looking for the least bad option (the perfect solution would be not to have any clothes to rehome / dispose of in the first place).
So lets consider our objective. For most, the goal is to get unwanted clothes out of our wardrobes, but that mindset isn’t helping us or our planet. We need to flip our thinking around from how do we get rid of this clothing to how do we get this clothing into the hands of people who will use and value them. When we successfully do that we prevent the purchasing of new items, which saves on litres of water, tonnes of fossil fuels and carbon emissions.
But what’s the best way to do that? Well here’s my hierarchy for rehoming clothes;
- Try to give to friends and family that I know will wear them.
- Rehome through freecycle pages or groups
- Bring to swapshops, and me being me I will stay till the end and take home any of my garments that didn’t get taken.
- Donate really good quality clothes to charity shops. You might be surprised that charity shops are so far down my list that’s because out of the 11,000 tonnes of clothing donated to Oxfam every year, 3,000 tonnes (27%) is sold in its shops. Of the remaining 8,000 tonnes, 1,000 tonnes are disposed of and 5,600 tonnes (half of that donated) head abroad to Eastern Europe and East and West Africa. According to Dr Andrew Brooks, lecturer in development geography at King’s College London, and author of the book Clothing Poverty as little as 10% of what is given to UK charities actually ends up being sold over the counter (Source: BBC News).
- If you can’t get into a charity shop itself you can always drop your donation into one of their branded on-street clothes bin. I have heard that some of these bins, branded as being owned by charities, are actually run by clothing recycling companies who pay the charities pennies to use their brand.
When it comes to worn-out clothes there are less options so this is what I do
- Upcycle worn-out clothes into other items. I’m crocheting a rug out of my son’s old fleece babygrows and tops. It’s only 2/3rds made because I need to wait for another top to be worn out to finish it. If you’re not crafty yourself seek out someone who is.
- Use natural fibre fabric as rags.
- When the rags have worn out, compost them.
I will admit to having to send fabric to textile recyclers, via my local charity shop, in the past. I don’t like doing this because I prefer to take responsibility for my own waste but it was textile waste I’d accumulated over 20 years and waste I don’t intend to accumulate again. Now I have a hierarchy for buying clothing to prevent it.
- Firstly, and most importantly, buy less! And buy quality
- Secondly buy less. I know I’m repeating myself but it really is that important.
- Buy pre-owned or organic natural fibre from a fairtrade certified company. Check out my article on sustainable ethical clothing brands.
- Buy classic styles that won’t go out of fashion. Or keep them for years, till the fashion cycle comes around again. Guarantee you narrow trousers this year will become narrow trousers next year. I have trousers older than my children!
- Care for your clothes; hang them up, clean them rarely and gently.
- Repair your clothes when they need it.
- Wear your clothes until they are threadbare and beyond repair.
And before I go, let me say that even if you do decide to put clothes in those in store clothes recycling bins you’re still doing better than a whole load of people. In the UK, three-quarters of consumers send clothes to landfill rather than recycle or donate. In Australia (the second biggest per capita consumer of new clothing in the world, after the US), it’s estimated that some six tonnes of textiles are sent to landfill every 10 minutes. (Source: Huckmag)
So as always lets just do our best, knowing that my best will look different to your best and our bests will look different today than they will next year. As long as we continue to learn and review our actions as we do we should feel very proud of ourselves.
PS – Hope you enjoyed this article. In previous years I’ve written article on