Clothing donation bins are a common sight in retail parks and supermarket car parks around the UK, a convenient drop off point for last season’s fast fashion. For most British consumers, after the black bags are posted through the slot, it’s out of sight out of mind. But few people consider what happens to their unwanted clothes after the trapdoor closes.
It is a common misconception that our used clothes are freely distributed to those in need. In this case, the term ‘donated’ is applied loosely as only between 10% to 30% find their way to UK charity shops. Instead, the majority embarks on a different journey oversees where it is traded for retail in developing countries.
The wholesale trade of used clothing is a thriving global industry. 351 billion kilograms of used clothing are exported annually from the UK alone where charities such as Oxfam and The Salvation Army supplement their profits from this practice. The US is the largest contributor to this scheme with the UK taking second place. The global worth of used clothing exports is £2.8 billion per year.
At a first glance, charities profiting from selling donated clothing abroad may seem socially justifiable, but this cycle raises a range of ethical concerns. The fashion industry has been scrutinised for its environmental impacts, the use of sweatshops, and encouraging the practice of fast trend consumption that accelerates these issues. What is less widely reported on is the impact on economy and culture to the countries that are flooded with discarded fashion from the west.
Many of the key markets for the trade of used clothing are Sub Saharan nations, with Ghana receiving the majority. A report published by Oxfam justified the value of export practices with the statistic that 90% of Ghanaians regularly purchase used clothing. However, Ghana, like many other African countries has the potential for its own thriving fashion industry. One that is currently hindered by the influx of cheaper second-hand clothing.
The traditional practices of weaving and batik dying textiles for dressmaking are utilized in the creation of sought after collections shown at New York Fashion Week, yet these industries are under threat. Homegrown textile and garment making used to provide stable employment, now many of these businesses have been forced to admit defeat.
Ghanaian consumers may be purchasing used clothing, but would this be the case if western capitalism hadn’t damaged the development of the country’s domestic clothing industry? The greater irony is that like in Bangladesh and Benin, Ghanaian factories can produce high-quality clothing cost-effectively due to its cheap labour pool -a situation western fashion brands make the most of. Yet the majority of its citizens are buying back these same garments once they have been worn and discarded in another country’s fashion season.
The Oxfam report argues that the export of used clothing has created hundreds of thousands of jobs in developing nations, such as wholesalers and market sellers. But for those selling second-hand garments, job security is conditional on the quality of clothing available, and there is little to no consistency. These roles don’t provide the opportunity for financial growth, limiting these individuals to low paid work. The stock they are selling is designed for western countries with varying climates. Winter wear is redundant in countries where average temperatures year-round are 29.5 centigrade. This clothing may not also meet the needs for local lifestyle, cultural tastes, religious ideology, and body inclusivity.
A defining point of these ethical concerns is the issue of dignity versus necessity. The used fashion industry has damaged domestic clothing production, which hinders local economic growth and forces emerging nations to be reliant on wealthier ones. People living in poverty forced by circumstance to buy used clothing that was made to last one season flags several human rights issues. Access to affordable new clothing designed for the national market it is sold in is a basic right western appetite for fast fashion is circumventing for millions of people.
Fast fashion turned used clothing is also circumventing domestic cultural expression around the world. When a nation’s homegrown fashion industry is thwarted out of the market, the progression of national culture is also disrupted. This damages national identity as fashion is a core element of the arts. As creative expression is driven by younger generations, an influx of western culture via social media and the dominance of cheap used fashion manipulates impressions and threatens to render unique cultural traditions and skills obsolete.
The ethical issues surrounding the used clothing industry are complex and cannot be solved overnight without severe repercussions. But something that is rapidly changing is western consumers attitudes towards fast fashion. As the Covid-19 pandemic has forced stores to close and drastically reduced social activities, many people have begun to re-assess their consumerism. The call for more ethical and sustainable practices is gaining momentum with a new generation focused on global issues such as climate change and equality.
What can be altered is the awareness of how donation practices are often misleading and more effective ways to ensure unwanted clothing is freely distributed as most people intend. In the UK, local charities and organisations that support asylum seekers detained with virtually no personal belongings gladly accept donations of suitable items.
With UK fashion sales figures at an all-time low due to lockdown closures of non-essential stores. Consumers surveyed are expressing positive intent to shop more sustainably. Fashion consumption could be evolving towards a brighter future. With more education around the impact of fast fashion from manufacture to donation practices, consumers can make better decisions. Change begins with industry trends established by its customers, and these decisions can have a global impact.