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Where do all those old clothes go?

“In 2013 the UK was home to 6 billion items of clothing, roughly a hundred per adult; a quarter of these never leave the wardrobe.” (Frank Trentmann, Empire of Things).

Every now and again you may go through your clothes and throw a bundle into the bin outside the supermarket or take it to the Oxfam shop. You see the clothes, neatly lined up and labelled, hanging in the shops. You might buy something yourself, pleased to have found a bargain, contributed to a good cause and helped recycling. Of course, that’s likely to be better for the environment than buying a new garment. But nothing’s simple.

Perhaps you’ve wondered why there are always plastic bags of clothes waiting to be unpacked in charity shops. The answer is in the statistics. There are far more second-hand clothes in rich countries can ever be sold in your local Oxfam and only about 10% to 30% of second-hand clothes are actually sold in charity shops. If the clothes are not good enough to be sold in Europe, or they have been sitting on the shelves for too long, the charities sell them on. Torn or unwearable clothes may be recycled, into stuffing for upholstery, car parts, insulating materials. Dirty ones go to landfill. But most go from consumers in rich countries to commercial traders and shippers and so to consumers in the developing world. The trade was worth £ 2.8 billion a year in 2015.

Containers of clothes packed into huge bales are received by dealers who collect them in huge warehouses and sell them on to small traders. In Accra, Ghana, the huge bales of clothes are cut open with a knife and out burst the tightly-packed western rejects of the rich world, some as good as new. The traders who buy the bales aren’t allowed to examine them, so they may get things worth very little or which they can’t sell. And there’s a pecking order. People who own boutiques pick out the best things, then those who have stalls in the central markets. Some of the clothes are taken far into the countryside. I’ve seen the unsellable ones being used to form paths over the mud between the market stalls.

Of course, many items of clothing are just thrown in the bin. About 300,000 tonnes of clothing went to landfill last year. That's more than 10,000 items of clothing every 5 minutes! The “green” alternative of taking your used clothes to the charity shop is surely better than throwing them away. It generates employment, is a source of cheap clothing, and of course it means some clothes get re-used. However, even ten years ago, a bale of clothes cost nearly £ 100 – an awful lot for a poor trader. And for the poorest purchasers, even second- hand clothes can be expensive.

It’s been argued that the second-hand clothes trade, along with very cheap imports from East Asia, kills local textile industries, as well as helping to destroy cultural capital such as local types of clothing and textiles. In Ghana, there are factories making local ‘Dutch wax’, a style of wax cloth developed from Indonesian designs brought by the Dutch. However, most of these are owned by foreign firms and a lot of the ‘African’ cloth on sale in Accra is actually cheap Chinese copies of African designs.

So perhaps we should only take good, wearable, clothes to charity shops, where they might be bought by people in the UK. We could pass them on to friends or organise a clothes swap, or even wear them a few more times, until they are actually worn out, then use them to replace cleaning cloths. Why spend good money on (plastic, non-recyclable) j-cloths when a holey T-shirt will do just as well? In 1854 William Rischer said, in a rather different context, one where Britain was deliberately destroying indigenous clothing industries… “the more civilised a people are… the more do they use their old linen etc. as rags”.

Greens may not have a hundred items of clothing in their wardrobes or buried deep at the back of their sweater drawer; personally I haven’t counted, but I know there’s stuff in both I hardly use and certainly don’t need. “Need” …. perhaps not a word which can accurately be applied to clothes for consumers in most western countries. It’s more complicated than that, clothes being so much part of a person’s identity, the image they present to the world and perhaps to themselves … But, those vexed questions notwithstanding, clothes seem to be one area of consumption where the “Reduce” aspect of Reduce Redesign Repair Recycle is particularly relevant.

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