A well-heeled colleague once admired the Max Mara jacket I wore to work. Was it, she asked, from the latest collection? ‘No,’ I said. ‘Oxfam.’ She blurted out that she donated her casts-off to Oxfam. ‘Next time, cut out the middleman and give them to me,’ I replied.
Charity shops help me to afford the quality clothes I lust after, especially Italian jackets. Once, in a gluttonous afternoon orgy, I ‘did’ 11 shops in the Stockbridge district of Edinburgh. I’d have done 12, but one was closed. They included a British Red Cross store dedicated to wedding attire – well, at least the brides’ dresses have only been used once, probably.
Buying second-hand has become acceptable, even commendable. Treasure hunters assuage pangs of guilt about snatching VAT-free bargains from under the noses of needier customers. After all, their spending goes to charity and they are doing their bit for sustainability.
Charity stores also give volunteers purpose and the chance to develop job skills, and even offer a little paid employment. Some are community hubs, providing links to local services. Shoppers leave with purchases in hand and warm feelings in their hearts.
Mainstream retailers may cry unfair competition, especially when some charity shops sell new stuff, since charities have business rate relief, low or no rents, low staffing costs and free stock. However, without charity shops many high streets would be dead zones, victims first of shopping centres, and now of e-commerce.
They are far from perfect, but critics often underestimate the complex financial issues they face and overestimate the Government help they get. And it’s right that they receive Gift Aid on donations, especially now HM Customs and Excise are properly policing this – tax shouldn’t be paid twice on gifts for the public good.
But there is something that needs close scrutiny: the fate of donated clothes.
Charity shops are so ubiquitous that many donors wrongly assume their cast-offs find their way into one. And most charities don’t go out of their way to bust that myth.
Donors feel they are being responsible citizens by answering calls to deposit in clothes banks and give to doorstep collections. But many are unaware that most charities sell clothes to commercial exporters, or have partnerships with businesses using their logos when collecting (a few bigger charities, such as Oxfam and the Salvation Army, have their own processing operations and tend to sell directly to foreign importers, allowing them to raise more funds for their causes).
People might be disturbed to know they may be contributing to persistent poverty elsewhere in the world. The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.
Charitable donations are the largest source of UK used-clothing exports, believes Dr Andrew Brooks, Lecturer in Development Geography at King’s College, London and author of the 2015 book Clothing Poverty. That market was worth a whopping £380 million in 2013, according to the United Nations. Top destinations for UK clothes are Poland, Ghana, Pakistan and Ukraine.
We’re the second largest exporter, after the US. Our gifts are part of a £2.8 billion global second-hand garment trade, sometimes called ‘the bend-down market’ because customers inspect clothes strewn on floors. This is boom time for second-hand markets as people clear out closets after the holidays.
You might not mind your clothes becoming tradable assets, nor where they end up. But for recipients your donations are a mixed blessing.
Short-term, better your old coat covers someone on a freezing Polish night where, as you read this, people are dying of hyperthermia, than languishing in landfill.
But dumping mountains of cheap clothing in poorer countries stifles their textile industries – which can’t compete on price.
Jobs created by the used clothes market are few and more precarious compared to what a textile industry could provide. And a thriving textile industry can be an early step towards economic growth. It’s labour intensive, generates national revenues through taxes and, ultimately, help cut dependency on aid. Understandably, some African countries are clamping down on second-hand imports.
If you want your clothing to be reused in Britain, consider giving directly to a charity store.The Charity Retail Association says just over 90 per cent of clothes given this way to its members’ 8,500 shops are sold in UK stores.
Charities should have a rethink to stop their image tarnishing. Ethics and transparency matter as much as being businesslike.
We too should examine our attitude to clothes. It’s our appetite for fast, disposable fashion, fuelled by the ready supply of cheap garments made in China and elsewhere, that has tempted charity shops into the exporting business.
Let’s buy less and pay a little more, if we can, and use stuff longer. I wear my clothes out rather than give them away. That Max Mara jacket was a wardrobe staple for 10 years. Sometimes I imagine it waiting for me on a hanger in heaven.
Lynne Bateson is a freelance writer and journalist. She was a national newspaper financial editor and consumer columnist.