It is common practice in western countries, such as the UK and USA, to give our old garments to charity. Whilst this is an act of goodwill, it is causing a major environmental crisis because of the surplus amounts of garments charity shops receive. The culprit? Fast fashion.
Fast fashion is a movement where our garments have become perishable goods, that go out of style quickly and are cheap as chips because of the shortening seasons and poor manufacturing methods practiced in sweat shops. How many times have you heard conversations along the lines of "it's cheap enough that even if I only wore it for this Winter, it'd be worth it!" Whilst this cultural shift has financially benefited the fashion industry by increasing sales, it is making our blue planet ever-poorer.
So often, we justify wardrobe turnover by giving "old clothes" (i.e. not from the latest collection on the high street) to charity. The problem is that charity shops are only able to sell around 20 per cent of clothing they receive due to the excessive amounts and poor quality of these garments. So, where does the rest go?
Charity shops are left with approximately 80 per cent of unsellable clothing, which they send to outlet stores who are also unable to sell everything. The remaining clothing is shrink wrapped into large human-sized cubes that are sent to textile recyclers, eventually making their way to Africa. The flow of second hand clothing into Africa began in the 1980's and has since created an economical mess for three reasons. Firstly textile manufacturers, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, have suffered because second hand clothing from the west is cheaper yet believed to be of "higher quality" than garments manufactured in countries such as Uganda. Secondly, it has resulted in Africa forging a dependancy on the USA and the UK, and thirdly around 25 per cent of second hand clothing received by African countries is unsellable due to the poor quality. The remaining textiles can either be down-cycled into rags, eventually ending up in landfills, or dumped directly into landfills, causing significant environmental issues.
Landfills are filled with an increasing amount of textile scraps that, unlike vegetation waste, are unable to decompose cleanly because of the chemical treatments they have undergone. The textiles we wear have been bleached, dyed and printed on, causing them to leach chemicals into the air and ground water when they are incinerated or decomposed, respectively. In addition to water contamination, certain fabrics like wool have a large methane greenhouse gas emission during decomposition, and some synthetic materials can take up to thousands of years to decompose.
What is the solution?
Up-cycling of textiles involves repurposing old materials to make new garments. Up-cycling decreases the demand for genetically modified materials such as cotton, reduces the use of chemicals, and limits the need for more textile manufacturing in an already over burdened world. Maybe it's got a bad reputation until recent years but up cycling materials into new styles is finally having its moment - and we sure hope it lasts.
Alternatively, buying beautiful classic products that aren't stamped as "super on trend" today but "so not cool" next month is a way of minimising your landfill impact.
It's going to take an inspired effort from all of us to reshape this dangerous cycle from shop to wardrobe to landfill... it'll be baby steps with us each making small changes at a time - but we are confident that we can do it together.