Fast fashion: Lessons from a textiles sorter

After starting my Sustainability degree, I needed a part-time job and whilst I could have gone back to working for a supermarket, I wanted something a bit different that would complement my studies. That’s when I came across an opportunity for a Stock Sorter for a local charity and I got the job!

The job involved working in an enormous warehouse, where piles of sorted stock may be eight or ten meters high. Each day, I would sort through hundreds, if not thousands, of donated garments. Whilst some items are potentially very saleable and help to generate profit for charities, only 10% of clothing donations to charity shops end up being sold there.

Occasionally I would come across some valuable items including a pair of brand new Gucci fur boots and a vintage Diane von Furstenberg skirt but the overwhelming majority were of poor quality and from fast fashion brands. And if you’re wondering why shops can’t sell even the clothes that are in good condition and on-trend, answer this; Why would anyone pay £2 for a used Primark top when you can buy it new for the same price?

Whilst we like to think that these unsalable items ends up being recycled or given to the less fortunate, this is rarely the case. Textiles are notoriously difficult to recycle (currently only 1% of clothing is recycled) due to widespread use of mixed fibres and the sheer volume of fashion waste. As an example, it would take H&M 12 years to recycle what they produce in just a few hours! This would also consume unthinkable amounts of energy and other resources. For this reason, recycling is not the answer.

Instead, these items are ‘ragged’ and the majority is sold overseas. This however, is not so much of a solution; it just transfers the problem to someone else.

There is a false perception that people living in developing countries are unclothed and need our hand-me-downs from the West. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Countries that import our old clothes are drowning in them! Where it was once possible to make a decent living from selling “obroni wawu” (Ghanaian phrase meaning clothes of the dead white man), it is becoming ever-more challenging. Many of the stallholders in these second-hand markets are simply unable to shift the endless pile of poor quality garments and consequently many end up being burned or dumped.

My job as a Sorter was a huge learning curve for me. I have been aware of the issues associated with new clothing for some time but I had never really considered what happens to clothes at the end of their lives. The scale of waste generated by the fashion industry is immeasurable and addressing it will require significant systemic change. As individuals we can help by consuming less, buying second-hand or from more sustainable brands where possible, only buying clothes that we love and learning to repair them so that they last a life-time.

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