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The True Cost of Charity

CW: This article mentions rape which could be distressing to some readers.

From a social media influencer raving about their second-hand hauls online to a teenager making thousands by reselling vintage clothing, charity shops are facing an unprecedented surge in popularity.

In the UK alone, there are almost four thousand charity stores which employ 36,000 people. They offer low-cost and often high-quality clothing at an affordable price point, whilst simultaneously raising money for a worthy cause. These shops are advantageous for both those they serve and the environment. For example, in 2019 the British Heart Foundation reused 71,000 tonnes of items, preventing the release of 135,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

But what happens to the donations that don’t make it onto the racks?

The life cycle of a donation

To answer this question we must first delve into the life cycle of a donation. Garments are donated in-store, at textile banks or by door-to-door collection. They are then sorted by volunteers into two heaps. High-quality, trendy pieces will be sold in-store, and savvy managers know what will sell best where and cleverly direct stock to the appropriate locations in order to ensure a high turnover and therefore higher profits.

Despite the thriving 730 million pound market in second hand clothing, ingenious marketing techniques and the rapid adoption of online trading platforms, only 10% of donations are ever sold in-store. There simply isn't room for the remaining 90% which are deemed poor-quality, old, or merely unfashionable.

These items are relegated to the second mound to be retailed to textile merchants. This heap is sorted by quality and type and the garments bundled into bales which are shipped to recipient countries and sold at local markets and shops.

Who are the recipient countries?

The UK is the world’s second-largest exporter of second-hand clothing behind the U.S., shipping 612 million dollars worth in 2014. The vast majority goes to sub-Saharan African countries including Ghana ($65 million), Kenya ($42 million) and Togo ($26 million).

The donations have become so commonplace that a terminology has sprung up to describe the unwelcome influx. In Ghana “obroni wawu” means white men’s dead clothes and the Nigerians call them “kafa ulaya” (the clothes of the dead whites), whilst roupa da calamidade (clothing of the calamity) is used in Mozambique. Calamity is an apt description for the impact these exports have on native industries, citizens, and local culture.

So what’s the problem?

An incessant flood of second-hand clothing is inundating the African market and undercutting domestic textile industries. As the obroni wawu is sold for as little as five or ten per cent of the cost of a new, locally made garment, native craftspeople cannot stay afloat. Of the forty textile factories in Ghana only one remains. Textile and clothing employment fell by 80% between 1975 and 2000. In Nigeria the 200,000-person textile workforce has all but disappeared. Kenya, meanwhile, now has only 15 functioning textile mills.

‘In the case of East Africa, they have absolutely wiped a huge quantity of local, artisanal infrastructures. So we’re talking weavers, spinners, ginners and artisans who, for millennia, have been producing local cloths with local traditions.’ - Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution

In the UK, we have the HCA Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts to protect our textile heritage but there is a lack of similar initiatives in Africa. Therefore, without a local industry to support them, local handicrafts that have been passed down the generations for centuries are being lost. The rich tapestry of African textile manufacture is being unpicked by the debris of our clothing addiction.

What can charities do about it?

Charities can't afford to back out of a £2.3 billion market. However they can be wiser about their clients.

British charity Smalls For All, sends donated bras and underwear to vulnerable women in Africa to protect them from attacks and rape. Rag linen can be donated to Monkey World.

Alternatively, by creating online stores charities can increase their stock turnover, reducing the amount of surplus goods traded to textile merchants. However the sheer volume of donations makes the idea of reselling them all to UK customers an impossibility.

Perhaps the best way to reduce the overflow of donations to African countries is to shift the responsibility back to the people of the United Kingdom and the companies who produce them?

What can we do about it?

The bottom line is that the fashion industry is spiralling out of control. Since the year 2000, the amount of clothing produced has more than doubled with the industry churning out 80 billion garments a year. That’s over ten garments for every single person on this planet every single year.

With our insatiable appetites for the next big thing, this figure is set to increase. By 2030 global apparel consumption is projected to rise by 63% to 102 million tonnes—equivalent to more than 500 billion additional T-shirts. This unsustainable growth has caused the UN to issue a damning prophecy. If we continue down this path, by 2050 the equivalent of three planets will be required to provide the natural resources we need.

Here in the U.K. we are particularly guilty of over-consumption. We buy more clothes per person in the UK than any other country in Europe. Yet the average British woman wears just five outfits on repeat, despite their overflowing wardrobes.

This puts us in the perfect position to turn the industry around. Before making a purchase we need to start considering this question: Will I wear this a minimum of 30 times? If the answer is “No”, then stop. Put the offending item back on the shelf. Delete it from your shopping basket. Do not take it to the fitting room.

Use your innate purchasing power to push brands to make more sustainable fashion choices. Stop using your hard earned money to support unethical and destructive fast fashion practices. Buy less. Reuse more. You have the power to force the fashion industry to slow down.

Only 25% of the population is needed to change the world.

So, what are you waiting for?


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