The Rag Trade
Published: 18 June 2020
In his regular feature, Denis the Dustcart talks about charity shops and how the worst thing that could happen to them is for the rag trade to close down.
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Someone I know in the charity sector said this: ‘The worst thing that could happen to charity shops is for the rag trade to close down.’
Well, it has – pretty much.
There is, according to the Charity Retail Association, ‘ongoing disruptions to the onward markets’ for many of the companies that were, before lockdown, buying unsold or unsaleable stock from charity shops.
In other words, the countries where the UK sent its waste textiles no longer want them.
The sheer volume of unwearable clothes charity shops receive as ‘donations’ makes this a real problem for the charity retail sector.
Before lockdown, charities would rotate their stock between their shops until something sold or didn’t. An item may have spent four weeks in one shop, then four weeks in another before being sold to merchants who would, in turn, sell it on as ‘rags’ on the export market.
These items were then sorted and batched in other countries like Bangladesh and the better quality stuff was exported yet again. But a lot of what charity shops receive in donations can only really be classed as scrap, good only for turning into cleaning wipes and carpet underlay. If charities don’t have a way of moving this scrap on through ‘onward markets’, getting rid of it will end up costing them a disposal fee.
Now charity shops are opening again, there is little doubt they’ll be flooded with donations. How much of it will be scrap?
We can no longer treat charity shops as a guilt-free solution for discarding the worn-out old (or not so old, depending on where they were bought) clothes we don’t want cluttering up our own spaces. With no money to be made from rags, all we’ll be doing is lumbering charities with the disposal fees for our scrap.
The message from the charity retail sector is this: if in doubt, ask the shop what they want before turning up with your donations. Or, take your donations along, separated into ‘good’ and ‘not so good’ and ask them whether they still want your ‘not so good’ stuff- and, if they don’t, take it home again.
And, it goes without saying, don’t leave clothes on the floor beside the clothes banks, because they’ll be treated as scrap and your local authority will have to foot the bill at a time of unprecedented public financial strain.
We must support charities by giving them clothes they can sell – donations that will earn them a revenue The problem is, of course, that there is so much junk clothing out there that simply doesn’t last and will never be good enough to pass on for reuse.
I’ve seen people demanding a UK industrial solution for scrap textiles, knowing that there isn’t one beyond burning it to make electricity. There is only what individuals and community groups manage: upcycling, renewing, repairing.
But even if there was a more widely accessible solution, this doesn’t address the core issue: the waste itself – how textiles come to be waste. Why look only at the symptom when we should be treating the cause, our demand to consume fashion?
To understand how textiles come to be waste, we have to understand how these textiles come into being in the first place.
Most of it is cheap, fast fashion – clothes that don’t last (that aren’t designed to last, in order that we keep buying more) and that are made from cotton grown in environmentally-harmful plantations. This is ‘affordable’ fashion, which may cost half as much as a better item, but which lasts a quarter of the wear-time – the very definition of ‘short-termism’, or maximum profit at the expense of sustainability of both the environment and of people’s personal economies.
Where are these items made? Many of them in the very countries that we want to send our scrap back to, like Bangladesh. The very countries that will be hit hardest economically should we abandon fast fashion without finding alternative, and yet who will be hit first and hardest by climate breakdown brought about, largely, by Western consumerism including – you guessed it – our habit of buying fast fashion.
It’s Catch-22, if we believe that the system of consuming is the system that will sustain us. But producing clothes that turn within weeks or months into scrap is never going to be sustainable: it will end up costing us the earth - literally. Rags don’t make riches, and the human cost of fast-fashion production in the countries that rely on our consumer habits is also significant.
And now our rags are no longer welcome. There are too many rags that can’t be sold on as clothes and too little value in what they can be made into. These countries don’t want to have to deal with them. If we choose to buy fast fashion, we should deal with the consequences ourselves.
A switch to ethical, more sustainable fashion must go hand-in-hand with better deals for countries that have relied on our fast fashion habit – but we do need to switch.
We need, also, to understand our need to keep replacing our clothes. If clothes are in good condition, why are we getting rid of them? Sure, fashions change, and while it’s easy to say our ego shouldn’t hold sway over our ethics, surely no-one wants to look like an audience member from Top of the Pops in 1987.
My point is, if it’s in good condition (and isn’t hideous), surely we should use it until it no longer serves its purpose as clothing.
That said, if it’s in decent condition yet spends all its time in your wardrobe, it would be better hanging on a rack in a charity shop. The better quality clothing we buy, the better the clothes that will be in charity shops and the less scrap they’ll have, making them less reliant on the rag trade.
We can’t simply treat the waste; we have to look at the causes of waste and, while consumers can’t be held fully accountable for this in a world geared towards making maximum profit, it does start with us, as individuals, making decisions about what we buy.