One of the biggest structural challenges facing a sustainable transformation of the fashion industry is the constant strive for increased growth and profits. During the past decade, fast-fashion brands have been subject to a particularly rapid growth and when media and customers are calling for environmental responsibility, many fast-fashion brands opt for clothing donations or recycling, in charity shops or in-stores, as a mean to demonstrate circularity in their businesses. So how could charity shops be supporting the fast-fashion industry?

Let’s start of with the basics. How does a company grow? In order to increase profits, you can either; increase your sales or decrease your costs. An increase in sales entail increased production, which implies a raise in the use and exploitation of resources from our planet – resources that will take thousands and thousands of years to be restored (if they ever will).

Photo by Justin Lim on Unsplash

So, if you choose not to increase sales, what about the other option, to cut costs? In a short-term perspective, thinking about your own wallet, saving, or cutting costs most often means giving up on something that you like, making your life just a little bit less comfortable. And surprise, surprise the same logic apply to the trillion-dollar fashion industry, the only difference is that cutting down on costs more often means making it less comfortable – for someone else. The cuts could be done by moving production to a country without unions and minimum wages and with no regulations of the use of chemicals and exploitation of the earth which then often result in cuts of workers’ salaries, and pollution of the local nature and water.

Sadly, cost-cutting or sales-boosting is still the day to day reality and ultimate goal for many fashion companies.

So, if fast-fashion brands gradually aim to increase sales year by year, they are supporting and encouraging a constant outflow of low quality garments from their stores – garments that eventually most likely will end up in landfill – or in charity shops. However, with a lingering climate threat, also the fast-fashion industry is under pressure to take action and communicate new strategies towards sustainability. A common way to respond to society’s pressure is to encourage customers to come back to the stores and the retailer will recycle the garments for you.

The catch to this initiative is that retailers often offer a 10-15 % discount voucher on their next purchase for recycling so that customers will return to the stores to recycle and in the meantime buy new clothes. Encouraging recycling might thus have a reversed effect and instead boost sales which contribute to an increase in the use of the planet’s resources. Take a look at one example here.

Besides this, fast-fashion garments normally holds lower quality (remember the costs-cutting) and might not even survive a second wearer as these clothes might not even make it through the assortment and quality screening in charity shops. The materials, such as cotton or polyester, often used in these garments, can only be recycled a couple of times and must often be mixed with virgin cotton in new textiles as recycled cotton has shorter fiber length than virgin cotton. In addition to that, if the a t-shirt consists of mixed materials such as cotton with acrylic, or the fabric has mixed colours, it can’t be commercially recycled at all.

So this takes us back to the charity shops. If encouraging and justifying a new purchase with a recycled garment rather is a bad excuse than a sustainable solution, can the same logic be applied on the concept of charity shops?

When donating to a charity shop, most people probably pat themselves on the shoulder and walk away feeling a little saint-like and a bit at ease because someone just took ownership of those old rags that they never wore and only used up space in their wardrobe. But just because you donated your clothes, it doesn’t automatically mean that they can be sold or used by someone else. There are so many low-quality garments produced and sold today that charity shops don’t even try to sell many of the donations they receive as many garments are made of “disposable quality” – which make them impossible to resell or rewear.

Are they parasitizing on the fast-fashion industry, and indirectly supporting the false image of a circular fashion-system, making customers believe that as long as you donate and recycle, you can feel good about yourself and keep shopping the new hot stuff?

– 2nd1stJournal

But as charity shops nurture on peoples’ laid off clothes, in fact, their whole survival is based on a constant outflow and inflow of clothes, aren’t charity shops doing almost the same thing as fast-fashion brands? Are they parasitizing on the fast-fashion industry, and indirectly supporting the false image of a circular fashion-system, making customers believe that as long as you donate and recycle, you can feel good about yourself and keep shopping the new hot stuff? Are charity shops in fact, slowing down the change (or the obliteration) of the fast-fashion industry, and so implicitly support this industry’s continued existence?

If customers would be better informed, acted rationally thereafter, and only bought quality garments that they actually need, and want to keep for a lifetime in the first place — charity shops could finally move away from being people’s trash cans and personal recycling assistants and serve their true purpose as an important player in a circular economy.

More on this topic: Watch this TED Talk by Leslie Johnston, Founder of Fashion for Good.