Op-Ed | The Trouble with Second-Hand Clothes

As the Christmas season approaches, millions of Westerners will flock to charity shops to donate their second-hand clothes. But the multi-billion dollar global market for used clothing is not what it seems, posing difficult questions for those hoping to do good by donating, argues Tansy Hoskins.

A second-hand clothing market in Kenya | Photo: Katrina Shakarian

LONDON, United Kingdom — American rapper Macklemore’s hugely popular anthem “Thrift Shop,” which has been viewed over 450 million times on YouTube, is a cheeky tribute to the joys of shopping on the cheap, featuring mountains of second-hand coats, sweaters, jackets, jeans, jumpsuits, dresses, shoes and shirts.

On the surface, the recycling of used clothes, often charitably donated, means old garments don’t go to waste, while new owners get a bargain. It seems like a “win-win” situation that couldn’t be more ethically sound. And as the Christmas season approaches, millions of Westerners will soon flock to charity shops to donate their second-hand clothes.

But on closer inspection, the reselling of clothes is more complex than one might think, posing difficult questions for those hoping to do good by donating their old clothes.

Contrary to its homespun image, the second-hand clothing industry is dominated by what Dr Andrew Brooks and Prof David Simon at the University of London have called “hidden professionalism.” The majority of donated clothing is sold to second-hand clothing merchants, who sort garments, then bundle them in bales for resale, usually outside the country in which the clothing was originally donated.

One key market is sub-Saharan Africa, where a third of all globally donated clothes are sold. In a paper entitled “Unravelling the Relationships between Used-Clothing Imports and the Decline of African Clothing Industries,” Brooks and Simon quote a representative of UK-based anti-poverty organisation Oxfam Wastesaver, who states that 300 bales of second-hand clothing can be sold in Africa for around £25,000 (about $40,000 at current exchange rates), while transport costs are just £2,000. Even taking into account the costs of things like collection and processing, these numbers suggest that the selling of second-hand clothing can be a lucrative affair, especially as the clothing being sold has often been charitably donated for free. While exact figures are scarce, in 2009, used clothing exports from OECD countries were worth $1.9 billion, according to the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database.

But it’s not just the “hidden professionalism” of the used clothing business — and the resulting gap between costs and resale prices — that hurts markets like sub-Saharan Africa. The flood of castoffs collected via second-hand clothing schemes (along with the rise of cheap Chinese apparel imports) have also helped to undermine Africa’s own fledgling textiles and clothing manufacturing industry, says Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang.

The second-hand clothing market has a negative impact in donor markets, as well. Consumers in the global North throw away vast quantities of clothing every year. In the UK, for example, people dump 1.4 million tonnes of clothing into landfills, annually. To combat dumping, charities and local governments have increasingly instituted clothing recycling programmes. But, ultimately, recycling tackles the symptom not the cause — and gives consumers a false sense of security that the rate at which they are consuming and disposing of clothing is at all sustainable.

The truth is, “fast fashion” is a deeply unsustainable model. And by emphasising recycling rather than tackling the root cause of why people continue to buy and dispose of larger and larger quantities of lighter, thinner and less well-made clothing, consumers are reassured that they can continue shopping as normal.

“There is now this notion that fashion is just a commodity, and that we are just consumers,” laments Dilys Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion. “It doesn’t do justice to us or to fashion. Fashion should be about cherishing clothes and creating an identity, [but today it's] based on constant adrenalin and the excitement of purchasing. There is no anticipation or dreaming. Nothing lasts or is looked after. We each have a mini-landfill in our closets.”

But why stop and think when the charity shop or recycling bank is there to take care of the mess?

Related Articles

Post a Comment

12 comments

  1. This is a very thought-provoking article, one that I would not have considered before, in regards to the effect of used clothing on the textile trades of Africa.
    However, I would disagree with Dilys’ statement below:

    “There is now this notion that fashion is just a commodity, and that we are just consumers,” laments Dilys Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion. “It doesn’t do justice to us or to fashion. Fashion should be about cherishing clothes and creating an identity, [but today it's] based on constant adrenalin and the excitement of purchasing. There is no anticipation or dreaming. Nothing lasts or is looked after. We each have a mini-landfill in our closets.”

    As a woman of age (61) and very modest income, I most certainly do NOT have a “mini-landfill in my closets”. I have just the opposite, clothing that I have found or thrifted or sidewalk-saled , keep clean and mended and have had for years. There are many of us out there who love and cherish garments but most certainly do not have funds to shop and shop and shop. Second hand clothing means survival for us. I live in the SF Bay Area.
    Thanks, however, for an interesting article!
    Wendy Williams (a life-longlover of threads!)

    Wendy Williams from Burlingame, CA, United States
  2. I love the fresh perspective. My vintage jewelry company, sweetandspark.com, is based in San Francisco and everyone is so focused on recycling food and waste products that the issue of mass clothing consumption is ignored. Actually, nobody seems to think it’s even a problem. I believe that this is only the very beginning for the secondhand industry. Stay tuned & appreciate vintage.

    Jillian Bremer from San Francisco, CA, United States
  3. Well done. It’s high time the nefarious side of donations/used clothes to go mainstream public.

    Gentry Lane from Los Angeles, CA, United States
  4. This is an interesting article and definitely touches on something that many lay people are not aware of, however, it does seem to be localized in the argument that if people were buying better, more well-made fashion rather than ‘fast-fashion’ that this problem would be ameliorated. That just isn’t so.

    What would have improved this op-ed would have been some honesty about which donation accepters are bundling and selling. For example, is it Goodwill? Is it the Value Village chains? Is it the brightly colored drop boxes on urban street corners? How can we ‘edit’ our wardrobes when styles change or our bodies change or we change or our age changes without contributing to this problem?

    As noted below there needs to be another problem addressed – that well made, quality fashion comes at a very high price. The designer fashions promoted by this newspaper can cost hundreds of dollars for a pair of pants, or a dress. Are the materials so expensive? Are we certain that the workers are not just not working in a Bangladeshi factory but working in lit, clean conditions with standard working hours, health benefits, paid sick days, access to retirement plans and places to sit when needed? OR do the high prices reflect extreme profit margins, extreme executive pay and shareholder demands for short-term profits?

    Yes, saying “no” to “fast fashion” means less of some things that we definitely don’t want, but is there anything we can say “yes” to that reflects more modest budgets of buyers and working conditions that allow workers and owners to prosper?

    Elle Ben from United States
  5. I agree with Wendy this article is very thought provoking, so much so, it made we want to comment.
    I am someone who does not have a much spare income so sometimes I buy cheaper items when I don’t have a lot of cash to spare and when I have a little bit more money I would invest in items that I hope will last longer. They don’t always last much longer, but most items do. Or the option is that I make my own.
    I never thought fast fashion was sustainable and have aways done my best not to buy into it.
    However, I am not sure the consumers who do buy a lot of the cheaper clothes would see that they are buying into fast fashion, rather they may see an item at a price point they can afford and they may try to make it last as long as possible. They probably would not even be aware of the issues mentioned here.
    Ultimately, everyone has a choice of what they spend their money on and if great articles like this educate people about issues they would otherwise be unaware of, then I would love to see more of them.

    Jackie Manning from Cork, Cork, Ireland
  6. The author fails to discuss the positive changes used clothing might have on the African economy, by employing vendors and giving entrepreneurs the opportunity to create a business with little capital as well as distribute clothing to remote communities.

    The author also fails to discuss the positive effect the sale of excess used goods donations by charities does for the charities. The sale of excess donations funds many charitable operations and raises a large amount of funds for charities in the western world.

    Just saying, there is more to the story.

    Aida Hodkinson from Ottawa, ON, Canada
  7. Thank you for your comments, I am glad the article is useful.

    I think Dilys Williams is right to highlight the rate of clothing consumption today, which whilst it differs between people is out of control. Whilst some people do not consume enough, there are many people who will relate to the idea of their wardrobe being like an overwhelming mass of landfill – without it bringing satisfaction.

    If people want more detailed analysis, the paper by Dr Andrew Brooks and Prof David Simon is well worth reading. As is Professor Ha-Joon Chang work on Africa. Per-capita growth in Africa was growing during the 1960’s and 70’s, but collapsed in the 1980’s when Sub-Saharan African countries adopted the free-market, free-trade policies of the World Bank and the IMF. This exposed fledgling local garment industry to international competition with the result that they were destroyed – part of this was the opening up of Africa to used clothing imports.

    Tansy Hoskins from London, London, United Kingdom
  8. In my opinion this article is a little pointless. What does it suggest, other than the fac that many clothes go to Africa instead of landfills? And it might be thought-provoking, but it doesn’t answer the question ‘what do we do now?’ Feel sorry for Africa? Buy less clothes? Keep them for life? Great quality clothes are rarely affordable for the vast majority, so I don’t see any solution here – or if there really should be one in the first place or we should all focus on more important stuff.

    Anca Dunavete from Portsmouth, Portsmouth, United Kingdom
  9. The suggestion that the used clothing industry is somehow exclusively to blame for the problems of native textile producers is over-simplistic. There are also some glaring inaccuracies and omissions in the article.

    A study on the impact of the used clothing sector in Kenya concluded that other key factors included:

    1) the adverse impacts of droughts which hit cotton producers;
    2) the increase in cheap cotton lint from Pakistan and India;
    3) the collapse of the Kenyan Cotton Board which resulted in the withdrawal of subsidies;
    4) the import of cheap new textiles from Asia; and
    5) trade liberalisation in 1990.

    These issues are reflected across Sub-Saharan Africa.

    In fact if the used clothing industry were to withdraw from Sub-Saharan Africa overnight, not only would this put tens of millions of people out of work, but unless there is a significant change in global business models, the supply of clothing to these areas would be met by new clothing imports mainly from China and India.

    The role that the global new fashion industry has on textile and clothing production in Africa is much more significant than is stated in this article. Why is “Cotton Made in Africa” but not sold in Africa to local textile/clothing manufacturers? and why are clothing manufacturers and retailers in the West not buying their goods from African producers?

    The article also suggests that the used clothing trade is quite lucrative. if that is the case then why is it that 15% of the UK used clothing trade has disappeared this year due to bankruptcies with similar experiences being recorded across the wider European industry? No mention of the fact that clothing collectors have to pay £300-£400 ($500 – $650) per tonne to the benefiting charity or local authority for each tonne collected through a clothing bank or around £600 (almost $1000) for each tonne collected from a charity shops. Plus when you factor in collection costs, warehousing, machinery, costs of sorting clothing into 150 grades, wages, other overheads etc. those net profit margins soon diminish. Well run UK businesses which employ hundreds of people may still be able to turn in small net profits, but nothing like the margins suggested in this article.

    Also the amount of good quality clothing being landfilled annually in the UK annually is around 350,000 tonnes (WRAP, Valuing our Clothes) with a further 80,000 tonnes going to incineration. The figure of 1.4 million tonnes mentioned in this item is more likely to refer to the total waste figure which will include carpets, mattresses and furniture.

    Alan Wheeler from United Kingdom
  10. Dear Tansy,

    A nice brief thoughtful article that sheds light on one of the many mass consumerist symptoms that plagues our society as a whole.

    Thought I would share a snippet of my article that I just wrote on the comments section here that expands on your closing paragraph. My piece approaches slow fashion from a production standpoint.

    Apologies on the caps…

    “ON THE MORNING OF APRIL 24TH, 2013, MORE THAN 1,100 PEOPLE DIED AND ABOUT 2,500 WERE INJURED WHEN AN EIGHT-STORY GARMENT FACTORY COLLAPSED IN BANGLADESH. THE FACTORY, LOCATED IN SAVAR, HAD MANUFACTURED CLOTHES FOR GLOBAL RETAILERS LIKE MANGO, BENETTON AND WALMART.

    JUST A FEW MONTHS BEFORE IN NOVEMBER 2012, ANOTHER FACTORY — THIS TIME LOCATED ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF DHAKA — HAD BEEN DESTROYED BY A FIRE, KILLING OVER 100 PEOPLE. IT IS BELIEVED THAT NEGLIGENCE AND POOR SAFETY STANDARDS CAUSED BOTH TRAGEDIES.

    THE SAFETY RECORD OF THE BANGLADESH GARMENT INDUSTRY, THE SECOND-LARGEST EXPORTER OF CLOTHING AFTER CHINA, IS ONE OF THE WORST IN THE WORLD. ACCORDING TO THE ANTI-SWEATSHOP ADVOCACY GROUP CLEAN CLOTHES CAMPAIGN, AT LEAST 400 GARMENT WORKERS WERE KILLED IN THE COUNTRY’S MANY FACTORY FIRES BETWEEN 2006 AND 2009.

    THE UNSAFE WORK CONDITIONS (AND FRIGHTFULLY LOW WAGES) AT GARMENT FACTORIES IN PLACES LIKE BANGLADESH, CHINA, SRI LANKA AND INDONESIA MAY SEEM LIKE PROBLEMS TOO VAST AND TOO FAR AWAY TO CARE ABOUT. BUT THE FACT OF THE MATTER IS, THEY ARE MUCH CLOSER TO HOME THAN YOU MAY THINK.

    JUST OPEN YOUR CLOSET. THAT BLOUSE OR JACKET FROM FAST FASHION BRANDS LIKE H&M, JOE FRESH, ZARA OR AMERICAN EAGLE WAS MORE THAN LIKELY PUT TOGETHER BY A FACTORY WORKER WHO IS SEVERELY UNDERPAID AND, IN SOME CASES, WHOSE LIFE IS IN CONSTANT DANGER. IT WAS ALSO LIKELY PRODUCED IN AN ENVIRONMENTALLY UNSUSTAINABLE WAY.

    AS CONVENIENT AS IT WOULD BE TO DEFLECT ACCOUNTABILITY TO BRANDS, GOVERNMENTS AND FACTORIES, CONSUMERS HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY AS WELL. AND IT STARTS WITH QUESTIONING THE TRUE COST OF EXTREMELY CHEAP CLOTHING.

    OVER THE LAST FEW DECADES THE APPAREL INDUSTRY HAS SEEN THE RISE OF FAST FASHION BEHEMOTHS. THOUGH THEY MAY HAVE DIFFERENT STYLES, THEY ULTIMATELY HAVE THE SAME OBJECTIVE: FILLING STORES WITH A NEVERENDING SUPPLY OF LOW-COST CLOTHES.

    ACHIEVING THIS OBJECTIVE CALLS FOR TWO INGREDIENTS: A GLOBAL SUPPLY CHAIN THAT’S NIMBLE ENOUGH TO ADAPT TO CHANGING TRENDS AND THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF ECONOMIES OF SCALE. IT’S ONLY BY PRODUCING A HUGE VOLUME OF CLOTHES THAT FAST FASHION BRANDS CAN MINIMIZE LABOR AND RESOURCE COSTS (“HUGE VOLUME,” INCIDENTALLY, OFTEN MEANS 40,000 GARMENTS OR MORE A MONTH). EACH OF THESE ITEMS, IN TURN, ARE CHEAP ENOUGH TO BE DISCARDED, GUILT-FREE, AFTER ONLY A FEW WEARS.

    THERE IS, HOWEVER, AN ALTERNATIVE TO THIS FASHION MACHINE: SLOW FASHION.

    IDEOLOGICALLY OPPOSED TO THE SYSTEM OF FAST AND CHEAP THAT THE WORLD HAS GROWN SO ACCUSTOMED TO, SLOW FASHION IS, AS SUSTAINABLE FASHION EXPERT KATE FLETCHER SAYS, ALL ABOUT “DESIGNING, PRODUCING, CONSUMING AND LIVING BETTER.” IT CALLS FOR AN AWARENESS OF “THE IMPACTS OF PRODUCTS ON WORKERS, COMMUNITIES AND ECOSYSTEMS.” ON A PRODUCT LEVEL, SLOW FASHION BRANDS VALUE QUALITY OVER QUANTITY. PIECES ARE MADE TO BE TIMELESS, TO LAST FROM SEASON TO SEASON, FROM YEAR TO YEAR.

    WHEN IT COMES TO PRODUCTION, SLOW FASHION BRANDS USE A MODEL THAT IS ALMOST THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF THEIR FAST FASHION COUNTERPARTS. SMALL WORKSHOPS POPULATED BY ONE TAILOR OR A SMALL TEAM ARE FAVORED OVER ASSEMBLY-LINE FACTORIES WITH HUNDREDS OR THOUSANDS OF EMPLOYEES.

    BUT WHILE FEWER HANDS MAKE FOR MORE INDIVIDUAL CARE, THEY CAN’T MAKE TOO MANY GARMENTS. ON AVERAGE, THESE COMPANIES CRAFT ABOUT 500 PIECES A MONTH. OR ABOUT 1/80TH THE VOLUME OF A BRAND LIKE GAP. AS A RESULT, EACH PIECE TENDS TO BE FAR MORE EXPENSIVE, BUT THEY ALSO TEND TO CARRY NONE OR FAR LESS OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL AND SOCIAL COSTS THAT ARE HIDDEN IN THE LOW PRICE TAGS OF FAST FASHION GARMENTS.” …… for more info http://shop.sweetlyinked.com/blogs/kiitc/10716161-the-ethics-of-slow-fashion-why-fast-and-cheap-is-not-always-better

    CLs Sts from New York, NY, United States
  11. this a great article! good to see a major fashion media challenges the fast fashion model, in fact even at the top end of luxury market, everything becomes ‘fast fashion’ nowadays. but the burning question is – how can consumerism moving backwards? with the emerging markets, the world has gone more and more materialistic.

    Sindy Liu from London, London, United Kingdom
  12. Love this article! What an interesting and relevant point. Fast fashion is just another word for overconsumption (harsh but fair). We definitely should be building an identity (or expressing our identity, I should say) rather than constantly using and abusing – not that there is anything wrong with getting “the latest styles for half the price!” but we should be considerate and deliberate shoppers so there is no question of compromise both in our pockets and others.

    Mags Sowah from Doonside, New South Wales, Australia