giving clothes to charity might make you feel good, but does it actually do any good?

When the West moves tonnes old clothing to developing countries, we take jobs away from local garment makers, crushing the growing textile industry.

by Naomi Russo
29 April 2016, 1:13am

Screen grab via

Earlier this month M.I.A released her track Rewear It—arguably the first banger about textile recycling. The song and video were part of a campaign for fast-fashion giant H&M. They were launching a recycling initiative, asking shoppers to return worn clothes which the company would then outsource for reuse and re-wear. They're hardly reinventing of the wheel, but at the very least, M.I.A's star power has re-invigorated a conversation about textile recycling.

Creating new textiles is a serious strain on key resources, like land, water and human labour. Dumping clothes in landfill creates huge environmental issues too: the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia report clothes are the fastest growing area of household waste. That's a serious problem, because as a NACRO study reported decomposing textile waste has the potential to contaminate groundwater and produce methane gas—a major cause of greenhouse gases.

The "three Rs" have long been touted by government campaigns, activists, brand and your year two teacher. H&M, despite their campaign, have failed to execute the classic phrase in full, as they excluding an important step—reduce. We're living an age where these isn't a social issue that hasn't been leveraged by a brand, and while they may campaign for a cause, they won't change for it. 

As the rate we buy and discard clothes continues to accelerate it's becoming increasingly clear we need a bigger revolution in textile recycling than brands are willing to provide.

M.I.A's track 'Rewear It' was released in collaboration with H&M's new recycling initiative.

In Australia, and around the western world, we recycle textiles primarily through "clothing recovery". Usually this means charities will collect clothes for their op shops from donation bins—though some for-profit collection companies do exist. Obviously, they're lauded as socially responsible. NACRO reports that this process diverts "approximately 75 percent of the pre-consumer textile waste", and it is through this method "the world's poorest are clothed." While any effort that reduces landfill waste is commendable, the idea that we're really helping the needy hides the complex economics of clothing donations.

The key argument against donation's is that when sending second-hand clothes overseas we disrupt local clothing markets. According to the 2013 National Waste Report, Australia exported 70,000 tonnes of second-hand clothing in 2012. 70,000 tonnes. That mountain threatens local clothing manufacture supply chains. When demand for clothing is satisfied by our second hand clothes, those making and selling garments locally lose their jobs. In some cases, our old clothes can contributing to an industry's total collapse.

Of course, jobs are created by the second-hand trade, but they don't come without their own problems. The system works in a fairly straightforward manner: Charities sell bales of clothes to local merchants in developing countries. These bales cannot be opened until the purchase is final. If an employee sorting clothes further up the chain here in Australia has been too lenient and included clothes that are damaged, the purchaser absorbs the cost. In essence, people are paying for clothes they can't even sell. It's not exactly fair.

By sending second-hand clothes overseas, we disrupt local clothing markets.

Because of these issues, African countries like Kenya have tried to outlaw the practice of receiving such donations. However, that type of legislation doesn't look like it will take off. As the West consumes and throws away more and more clothes, we push more clothing bales on countries trying to grow their local textile industries—and we're in danger of suffocating them. 

Some have tried to resolve the resource strain of manufacturing new clothes by using discarded resources. In 2014 Adidas and Patagonia experimented with producing garments from ocean plastic. Initially, it seemed a tidy response to a massive problem. Unfortunately while trying to solve one issues they created another: when synthetic clothing like this is washed, Microfibers (very fine synthetic fibres) are released. These tiny fibers are one of the biggest source of ocean plastic: how ironic. A report by ecologist Dr Mark Browne published in 2011 claimed that a sole synthetic garment could create over 1,900 microfibres per wash. Neither washing machines nor contaminant removal processes in sewage plants have the filters needed to trap such fibres.

So, what do we do when our consumer behaviour has changed so much that traditional methods of disposing of clothes fail? Head back to the lab. A commitment to research is what we need to move forward. The holy grail is a closed loop system, where brands require few (if any) new resources, because they're able to re-use and recycle old materials to create new garments. However, for H&M and its fast-fashion family it isn't likely anytime soon.  

Speaking to the Guardian, manager of H&M's sustainability team Cecilia Brannsten admitted, "It's not really possible to close the loop on textiles…that's why we want to fill this technology gap between what we want to do and what is actually possible to do today". Closing that gap is essential if we're to find a  way to recycle old textiles into new wearables.

What do we do when our consumer behaviour has changed so much our traditional methods of disposing of clothes are failing?

Currently, it is very difficult to recycle synthetic textiles—a big problem considering that's what the majority of our clothes are made from. A NACRO study into the limitations for textile recycling found multiple barriers to better textile recycling, including community awareness, financial limitations, lack of research and lack of supportive policies. It's arguable too, that while the choice to donate our clothes exists, the average consumer may see little imperative to improve textile recycling. 

Consuming less, donating thoughtfully and reusing where possible will all help decrease your personal footprint, but pushing for system change is the only way to really change the textile world. That begins with acknowledging our current system is not working, and rewarding brands that do the same. Charities continue to be our most viable option, but they cannot continue to be our only option. We've learnt to reuse and we've been told over and over to reduce. Now it's time to find ways to properly recycle.


Text Naomi Russo
Screen grab via