You're a responsible citizen, who believes in keeping your old stuff out of landfill where you can. You recycle your bottles and cans, and when it comes to those old clothes cluttering up the back of the wardrobe, you donate them to charity. But where do those old clothes go? The general assumption is that they pop up nationwide, in Oxfam, Helen Douglas or National Heart Foundation shops.
You'd be wrong. The majority of donated clothes in this country are shipped abroad, as part of a £2.8billion worldwide trade in second-hand garments. The good news is that as our consumption of clothes rises, the amount of clothes sent to landfill is actually starting to drop. Nearly half of the garments we throw out are going to charity instead of incineration plants or the tip. But the assumption that those clothes are going to charity shops is, sadly, mistaken. Over 70% of clothing donations are sent overseas, where they will be sold for profit.
Over 350 million tonnes of British clothing was sent abroad last year, a haul that's worth more than £380 million. Key destinations include Poland, Ukraine, Ghana and Pakistan. The clothes, which are highly prized by foreign markets, are graded for quality and sent off to market by textile merchants who, in some instances, have been doing this for decades. Author and lecturer in developmental geography at King's College London Dr Andrew Brooks puts it succinctly:
"There's a moment of magic where a gift turns into a commodity. Like many used items, on the surface second-hand clothes may appear to have very little value, but through processes of sorting and transporting - turning disorderly objects into an ordered commodity - they are reproduced as retailable assets."Is this such a bad thing? Does it really matter where our clothes end up, as long as they're doing some good somewhere on the planet? It's a tricky subject. Brooks argues that cheap foreign imports are stifling local production in developing countries that need it the most. In Uganda, over 80% of clothes sold at market are second-hand. In Nigeria, the textile workforce has effectively disappeared: that's 200, 000 people forced out of work. But many charities, including those are set up to help the deprived in these countries, depend on the cash they get from sales of donated clothing to continue their good work. Talk about a vicious circle...
In response to the problem, some organisations are cutting out the middlemen and starting up their own recycling schemes. For example, Oxfam now has its own recycling plant in West Yorkshire, which allows much more control over where donations end up, and has set up a scheme in Senegal employing locals to sort and re-distribute exports at fair prices back to the local economy. It's a drop in the bucket, admittedly, and no-one's naive enough to claim that this will end the trade overnight. It's also worth bearing in mind that the trade in second-hand garments has benefits up and down the supply chain, providing employment and, of course, keeping these valuable resources out of landfill.
But awareness of where your clothes go after they go into the chute of the hopper outside your local Tesco has to be knowledge worth having. The truth is that your old shirts and coats are much more likely to end up in a street market in Uganda than an Oxfam in Uxbridge.