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We used to call it the 'rag trade' - Denis the Dustcart Blog

Published: 3 August 2023

It used to be called the ‘rag trade’ It used to be called the ‘rag trade’

In his regular feature, Denis the Dustcart talks about waste textiles and what we should be doing with them.

You can follow Denis on his Facebook page to keep up with information about Recycling issues.

It used to be called the ‘rag trade’.

But the countries with which the UK ‘traded’ its waste textiles no longer want them – understandably enough. Why would they want to have to buy back the rags of the fast fashion our ‘way of life’ demanded they produce for us?

This is a real problem for the charity retail sector.

A lot of what charity shops receive in donations can only really be classed as scrap, good for turning into cleaning wipes and carpet underlay and nothing much else. They might once have been able to move it on through the export markets to those ends, but not now.

And let’s be clear: dumping unwearable clothes outside a charity shop or by a charity clothes bank isn’t taking responsibility for moving them on; it’s just unloading the burden of responsibility for disposal onto charity shops, who have to pay to get rid of anything they can’t sell.

Clearing dumped waste off the floor around clothes banks will end up costing the local council, too.

We can’t treat charity shops and clothes banks as dumps for the worn-out clothes we don’t want cluttering up our homes. Those who treat them as guilt-free solutions are just not thinking hard enough.

The difficulty is, of course, that we are living through times when everything is so much more expensive and cheap clothes – despite being a false-economy in the longer term – are what many people can afford in the short-term.

There isn’t a widely accessible industrial solution within the UK for textile waste beyond burning it to make electricity. There is only what individuals and community groups manage: upcycling, renewing, repairing.

Should we be demanding more recycling infrastructure? Even if we do, this is just treating the symptom when we should be treating the cause – namely our demand for fast fashion.

The term basically just means ‘fast turnover’: clothes that aren’t designed to last, in order that we keep buying more. It’s the very definition of ‘short-termism’, or maximum profit by means of reduced product lifespan and sustainability.

The garments are made from micro-plastic-shedding synthetics or from cotton grown in environmentally-harmful plantations, and produced by people who more often than not don’t even receive the living wage in their country, making food, healthcare and education a lot harder for them to afford.

Not only will these people be hit hardest economically should we stop consuming fast fashion, but they will be hit first and hardest by climate breakdown brought about largely by our consumption in the industrialised north. It only appears to be Catch-22 because our system relies on cheap labour and materials – because it precludes the provision of viable, sustainable solutions to the poverty experienced by the people elsewhere whose lives are affected so much by our way of life here.

Therefore 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.

The problem is, as I said, that not so very much is affordable here anymore. A cheap item of clothing may well last just a fraction of a quarter of the wear-time of an item that costs three times as much and will therefore end up costing the consumer more in the long-term, but it is cheaper in the short-term – and a higher initial investment isn’t a luxury many can afford.

This is why fast fashion is often referred to in marketing terms as ‘affordable fashion’ – but the maths (for those seeking to profit financially from this situation) are simple: rags = riches.

And this is where charity shopping comes in.

You can often find quality clothes in charity shops at similar or cheaper prices as those for which you’d be able to buy a new fast fashion equivalent, but we must support charities by giving them clothes they can actually sell – donations that will earn them a revenue rather than end up costing them money.

The message from the charity sector is clear: if you’re in doubt about the saleability of your worn clothes, ask the charity shop what they want before turning up with your donations. You could also take your donations along separated into ‘good’ and ‘not so good’ and ask the shop staff whether they still want your ‘not so good’ stuff. If they don’t, take it home again.

What have we got hanging in our wardrobes that we’ll never wear again? There will always be someone who actually wants to look like an extra from Howard’s Way, so why not check whether your local charity shop wants your still wearable, once tasteful outfit?

With cheaper clothes costing us the earth, surely it’s time for us to support our local charity shops more meaningfully.

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