Unwanted clothing: addressing a fashion crisis

Over the last decade, clothing has become the fastest growing stream of waste in the UK, where it now represents the fifth biggest environmental footprint of any industry.

According to the European Recycling Company, around 2,000 tonnes of unwanted clothing and shoes are sent to landfill every day in the UK, which is roughly equivalent to one football pitch buried in 6 feet of ‘fast fashion’ every 12 hours.

However, as much as 95% of discarded clothing can be reworn, upcycled, or recycled. If everyone made a few small changes we could limit the impact the fashion industry has on the environment and slow down the use of the earth’s valuable natural resources.

Many of us are already doing our bit by donating our unwanted clothes to charity. However, our second-hand clothing is the source of much debate regarding some countries in the developing world.

UK charity WRAP estimates that around 70% of all UK reused clothing is exported overseas. Charities sell this surplus stock to traders for resale, largely to Ghana, Pakistan, Poland, Ukraine, Benin and Kenya, offering a cheaper alternative to new clothes, and creating jobs. However, the second-hand clothing industry, particularly in African countries, has been blamed for the decline of many once-booming homegrown textile industries.

We should definitely still support charity shops, but before overwhelming them with regular bagfuls of our easily discarded clothing, we should be aware of the effect that our wastefulness is having on other people and the planet.

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What can I do?

The first step you can take is by reducing the amount of clothing you buy in the first place, and to buy second-hand whenever possible – whether that’s via charity shops, online sellers, car boots, or vintage boutiques.

In Surrey, the Farnham Maltings hold a Vintage Fashion Fair every two months, and Guildford Cathedral regularly hosts Preloved Vintage Kilo, where you can buy second-hand clothing and accessories by weight.

Also, if you have a special occasion coming up and are only planning to wear the outfit once, consider hiring instead of buying.

Next, take a look at the clothes you already have. Even if you can’t see yourself wearing something again, then someone else will. ‘Swap parties’ with friends and family or ‘swishing’ – organised events where you bring your unloved garments and go home with someone else’s – are great ways to refresh your wardrobe for free.

Of course, there is always money to be made from your unwanted clothes if you’ve got the time to spend on selling them. You can list clothing for sale on websites such as eBay, Gumtree, Preloved and Facebook, or spend a morning selling them at a car boot sale.

If you’re just a bit bored with some of the items in your wardrobe, upcycling can breathe new life into your unloved garments. Jeans can become shorts, men’s shirts can become women’s tops, dresses can become separates…

It could be as simple as adding an embroidered patch or sewing on different coloured buttons, and you’ve not only got a ‘new’ item of clothing but a totally unique one.

You don’t necessarily need sewing skills or a sewing machine to refashion a garment but if you’re lacking the expertise or equipment that you need, many sewing experts and craft shops run workshops where you can also have use of their machines. The Sewing Directory online is a good starting place to find a course near you.

Perhaps you have some much-loved items that are just in need of repair? Guildford and Farnham both have a repair café scheme running once a month where volunteer repair experts will teach you how to fix items yourself, including clothing, free of charge.

Once you’ve exhausted all other options for clothing that is still wearable, you can donate it to charity. Rather than indiscriminately bombarding a charity shop with a range of items that may or may not sell, look out for local clothing drives that are requesting specific items – to help the homeless, refugees, or people in crisis for example. That way you know your donation is going directly to someone who needs it. Stripey Stork in Redhill collect donations of clothes and other items for babies and children and pass them on to families in Surrey experiencing hardship; and the York Road Project put out requests for clothing needs for those experiencing homelessness in Woking. Check the websites for their current requirements.

If you can’t swap, sell, upcycle, repair or donate your unwanted items, they can still go into a textile recycling bank. This is the best option for items that are beyond repair, as wearable items are likely to be exported. A handful of high street shops, such as Marks & Spencer, Zara and H&M now have drop boxes at select branches for used clothing and textiles (from any shop).

The system here is the same as charity donations: clothing that can be worn again is sold on, second-hand; while unwearable clothes and textiles are turned into other products such as cleaning cloths, or broken down into textile fibres to make new material for things like insulation, mattress filling, carpet underlay, and so on.

There are also textile banks dotted around towns and villages, at supermarkets and car parks or at your local Household Waste and Recycling Centre. Find your nearest textile bank at Recycle Now.

Textile recycling facilities are leading the way when it comes to preventing waste. Buttons, zips and rivets can be removed and sent for recycling. Some facilities generate solar power, with surplus power fed back into the local grid, and even the dust generated in the process can be compressed into blocks and used again in the manufacture of paper, concrete production, or used as energy.

However, it’s up to each of us to make sure that we create as little waste ourselves to start with.

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2 thoughts on “Unwanted clothing: addressing a fashion crisis

  1. Dan says:

    A massive change in attitude is needed towards recycling in general but especially to recycling textiles. We’ve all been guilty of throwing something completely wearable away or just letting things that never get worn sit in our wardrobes and drawers. Until I read an article similar to yours Karen I didn’t realise the scale in which we are throwing perfectly reusable textiles into landfill. I have recently been making a huge effort to use the services of organisation like http://www.LMB-Supplies.co.uk to recycle textiles, they don’t even need to be usable as those that aren’t get turned into rags and wipers. This video showcases the gist of their operation which is great https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KY4k64o4Yto.

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