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?