May 20

De-Colonising Second-Hand Fashion

by Sophie Cundall

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Like everyone else, I’m also a big fan of a closet switch-up: from our teens to our twenties, thirties and beyond we’re so busy trying on new identities, and the clothes that match, that we quickly outgrow the pieces we were obsessed with 3 years ago. Bodies change, our metabolisms slow down and we get professional jobs. Suddenly, that funky nineties shirt we used to be obsessed with doesn’t quite cut it anymore. No sweat though: we can just donate our pre-loved clothes to the charity shop, right?

Until I saw this BBC article explaining that only about 10% of what we donate is resold, I thought that too. Don’t get me wrong: donating or selling your clothes is a million times better than throwing them out, and I’m sure many of us can proudly say that we have never sent a piece of clothing to landfill. At least, not knowingly.

But therein lies the problem. Those bags upon bags of old bodycon dresses and vest tops we send to the charity shop don’t all get resold, not even close. In the many charity shops I’ve worked in, we were never wanting for stock, just space to sell and store it all. The scores and scores of clothing we sent back to ‘the warehouse’ (just as ominous as it sounds) was shocking. The global charity association suggests that 90% of stock charity shops receives makes its way onto shelves. But this, sadly, cannot be true.

Where, then, does all the stock go? Mostly, it weaves its way to either landfill or to the countries where these clothes were made in the first place, the “Global South” where the legacy of colonialism still thrives because of labour exploitation. It is occasionally recycled, but textile recycling is a specialist job that few recycling centres are equipped for.

I thought my bobbled jumpers were going on the racks of the Oxfam on the high street, next to the Greggs?? I hear you cry. Well, reader, you are sadly mistaken.

This is where fashion colonialism comes in.

Tonnes of stock is being dropped across countries such as Pakistan, Benin, Ghana, Kenya, Togo and more for resale, and I mean tonnes. WRAP reckons that around two thirds of our donations end up overseas. Lorries upon lorries of the stuff. Before fast fashion began to gather pace to become its terrifying, planet-destroying final form, the clothes that ended up on these lorries were re-saleable. Mostly. They would be bought up by local second-hand markets, so local communities had thriving economies, and people could set up their own successful businesses. This was always a threat to the local tailors and makers and their business, but the two markets managed to peacefully co-exist.

Now, however, the quality of the bales has starkly decreased. The second-hand clothing being donated sells for 5 to 10% of the cost of a new, locally made item. Think about the 100% plastic dresses made by exploitative companies I will not name (use your imagination). Think about the consumer culture where we are told to buy more, for less money, for less wears. A drop in quality was inevitable.

We spend more on clothes than we did 60 years ago and have more pieces in our wardrobes. If we spend £1,160 on fast fashion, roughly £11.60 goes to garment workers. Not only this, but the pieces end up back in the countries where the workers making them were exploited, for them to try and sell for less and less money in a more and more volatile second-hand clothing market. You couldn’t make it up: Western countries employ women and even children to make pieces at an inhumane “wage”, and then send them back once they’ve worn them twice for them to sell again.

This is fashion colonialism: chucking discarded polyester into less economically advantaged countries where they fill up local landfills or cause chaos in the second-hand clothing market.

our flammable fabrics and near to unsafe textile factories used by companies you could walk past on your local high street, this disaster demonstrates the very real consequences of our shameful fashion habits. Our clothes are not resold down the road. They are shipped across the world to ruin local economies and quite possibly contribute to disasters such as the Kantamanto Market fire.

It is vital we know where our clothes end up: even if you’re not putting your clothing directly into a bin, you are still contributing to the throwaway culture of overconsumption that means our subpar clothing is replacing the formerly rich pickings on the lorries travelling into the global south.

Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

As the saying goes, the most sustainable clothes are the ones you already have in your wardrobe. Shopping solely second-hand is not enough: we need to fundamentally rethink our consumption habits and the way we view clothing.

Of course, the individual only has so much impact and we need to turn our heads to companies and corporations in the fight to save the planet. But the impact of your bags of clothes dropped at the charity shop door is an example of something that we can and must change. Make your clothes last for longer, wash less, repair with apps like Sojo and tailor items to fit you. Add your clothes into the Whering app to shop your own wardrobe, and make you think twice before donating. Learn where your clothes end up. There’s no excuse: we can’t turn a blind eye anymore. Follow Aja Barber, Venetia La Manna, Fashion Revolution and educate yourself about what you might unknowingly be contributing to.

De-colonise your shopping and donating habits. De-colonise your fashion.