Waste & The World Of Second Hand Clothing

By Natalia Anninos

Every purchase we make is a vote. We show our support for a company when spending money on its goods and services. In the same vein, we show our support for a charity shop by donating valuable items for resale or donating money to the charity. 

Sitting alongside the questions of ‘how’, ‘where’ and ‘who’ has made something, we can ask ‘how will it be disposed of’. Retail waste is largely ignored, passed on to consumers to shamefully throw away goods in a seasonal clearout. But is our waste not the most telling vote? After all, it is a timeline of our spending, and how we choose to dispose of it affects the environment and people too. 

High street giants like Inditex and H&M group are positioning themselves as ‘transparent’, showing the factories in their supply chain. But what happens to their waste? Recycling initiatives might be a step in the right direction, but they do little to distract from the fact that these businesses rely on mass consumption at an unsustainable rate.

Does the existence of the second-hand market soften the blow? One could argue that the high-street giants are benefiting from having an exit strategy. The option to resell clothing might make the consumer more willing to buy something on a whim, knowing they can get a fraction of the spend back for it later. 

Depop, the peer-to-peer shopping app, is thriving. Having just sold to Etsy for £1.1bn, the app that has created a new wave of Gen Z influencers has also provided a new form of employment for many and a place to repurpose unwanted items. Sit at home, post pictures of old clothes, and suddenly have cash in hand to spend elsewhere. Or for some, trawl charity shops, hit car boot sales or buy in value bundles, to then rework and sell on. 

Meanwhile, many charities have had one of the most difficult years in history. In March 2020 it was reported that charities were set to lose £4bn as a consequence of the pandemic, with later statistics putting this figure at £6.4bn and similar reports suggesting that 1 in 10 charities would close by the end of 2020.

Charity Retail estimates that UK charity shops save 339,000 tonnes of textiles a year from landfill or incineration, while contributing £331m to parent charities (2018/9). Last summer I found myself collecting bags of unwanted clothing to go to a charity shop donation area, while trying to sell a few expensive items on Depop. This came with a twofold realisation: firstly, that Depop has no option to donate to charity, and secondly, that there was clearly a disparity in my perception of charity shops vs Depop. Why was I inclined to try to sell the nice things first, and then if they didn’t sell, take them to a charity shop? I subsequently wrote to Depop, suggesting that a charity feature be added to seller profiles, enabling the money made to be transferred automatically and displayed to other users. But this doesn’t get down to the crux of the issue, which was that I was viewing charity shops as a sort of dumping ground, inadvertently understanding that they couldn’t sell something I was planning to give them.

We use something, then when we stop finding it useful or attractive, we either store it away, donate or sell it. Having volunteered in a charity shop in North London, I understand that some charity shops get the occasional good piece, but a significant majority of what is donated is unsold or deemed unsellable. The challenge of sorting and cleaning items that have been donated to make them look desirable is large, particularly in comparison to a Depop seller who has more autonomy over what they sell. 

This doesn’t even touch on our other disposal system, of sending unwanted goods abroad to, albeit unintentionally, disrupt local markets. For example, The Sunday Times reported on UK textile exports to Ghana that led to piles of garments that are too damaged to sell. The news of Amazon’s landfill disposal system brings further into focus how far we are from achieving a circular economy.

Image Credit:

Is the only way to be sustainable to simply stop consuming? Or at least to consume from the landfill pile? Or is it about our perception of the second hand? Big brands have insight into consumer desires through data analytics with every search tracked and analysed so companies can quickly react to shopping habits. Our spending, or voting, influences their production. The second-hand market does not have the best understanding of consumer desires, so trends are more difficult to take advantage of. Charities with online websites can learn a thing or two about how to sell from Depop, but that seems to require an army of stylists, which most charity shop volunteers would not fall into. 

In the race for brands to position themselves as sustainable, ethical, zero waste, and circular, we should acknowledge our limited recycling and upcycling capabilities, and consider how and where our waste can go.  How can we change our perceptions of charity shops to allow them to compete? With gifting, the new rental craze, and the vast waste created by returns that cannot be resold, do charities have a place in these markets? How can we view charity items as new, cool and fresh, rather than unwanted rejects fished out from the back of the cupboard? Can we really be ethical and sustainable without fully understanding our waste?

Natalia Anninos

Natalia is an associate at Time Partners focusing on Impact, ESG and Climate-related metrics. She previously held roles at climate-data provider, Urgentem, and Arup.