Since the monotonous reality of lockdown here in the UK truly set in, I had a stark realisation– charity shopping is my only hobby. While others bake sourdough, learn to knit or slip on their running shoes, I find myself pining purely for those afternoons spent treasure hunting on overstuffed rails, chasing the thrill of a diamond in the rough. Will the joy of second-hand shopping ever feel the same again?
With swathes of wardrobe hoarders clearing out their closets and flocking to resale sites like Depop (who have been enjoying a 90% increase in traffic since April), it seems like second-hand clothing could be experiencing an unexpected image boost. Meanwhile, charity shops (thrift stores or op shops depending on your geography), are suffering.
Non-essential stores have been in shutdown worldwide for several months now, with many lacking the financial and human resources to pivot to digital. What’s more, the causes funded by charity shop sales are under more pressure than ever before to support vulnerable people in crisis, with an ever-shrinking budget.
On the consumer side, there are also hygiene issues when it comes to donating and purchasing preloved clothing, with several countries restricting imports of second-hand goods due to fears of contamination. Some scientific studies suggest that the COVID-19 virus could live on the surface of clothing fibres for 24-72 hours. So even as charity shops now begin to reopen around the world, a huge new logistical challenge is presented to an already vulnerable business sector.
The knock-on effects are numerous, beyond the simple and tragic reality of charities losing a major income source used to fund vital community work. In terms of individual donations, the new wave of wardrobe purges is producing sellable stock in all the wrong places. “Within the first couple of weeks of lockdown, everyone started clearing out their wardrobes. Charities were finding clothes piling up outside closed shops, when no one was there,” Hannah Carter, the campaign manager for Love Not Landfill tells me. “We think that people hope that the clothes will be recycled, but if it’s not inside the clothes bank, it’s flytipping, and it probably goes to landfill.”
On the other side of the pond, thrift shops have been overloaded with excess donations in warehouse storage, with no viable sales channels. Just like the unsold stock from fast fashion brands presenting a new wave of potential textile waste, these donations simply have nowhere to go.
As part of the ethical fashion bubble, it’s easy to forget just how vast the education gap really is. Surely people don’t think it’s really acceptable to dump their clothes into landfill, right? Just a few weeks ago, my ignorance was audible as I spotted the general waste bin in my building filled to the brim with perfectly wearable clothing and household textiles. People don’t know what the options are for offloading unwanted items during a pandemic, and they aren’t told what happens to those items after they’re donated or recycled, including at the third-tier level of exports to second-hand markets. Many of these textile marketplaces have been adversely affected by coronavirus too, with informal workers like Ghana’s kayayei suffering losses without a financial safety net.
Digital pioneers, however, are bountiful with creative solutions to the environmental and humanitarian impacts of the charity shop recession. By pivoting to online sales, many NGOs such as Salvation Army in Australia or Oxfam in the UK, have an opportunity to shift surplus inventory while supporting the charitable work at the core of the organisation. Other charities have mobilised to participate in online campaigns, like Love Not Landfill’s #LockdownDressup, a movement of fashion lovers getting dressed up at home to raise money for charity, in absence of brick-and-mortar retail. Innovative new business models are also stepping up to fill the gap, such as Thrift+, a digital second-hand selling service, and The Nu Wardrobe, a peer-to-peer clothes sharing app.
What about if you want to donate your clothes when charity shops reopen? According to Emily Stochl, the host of Pre-Loved Podcast, “The best way to safely donate your clothes is to check with your local charity shop’s policies before you donate. First, choose a charity shop whose mission you want to support – make a choice that aligns with your values. Then, make sure that the shop is accepting donations before you drop things off.” She recommends the book The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth Cline as a great resource for ‘donation etiquette’ to ensure you’re always helping the charity resell the best quality stock.
After the pandemic throwing the entire retail supply chain into flux, Stochl still believes second-hand shopping plays a vital role in building a more sustainable fashion industry. “I truly believe all we need to own has already been produced. If you don’t work in the fashion supply chain, your buying patterns are really your best leveraging chips in slowing things down. And buying second-hand is a great way to slow that demand.”
Extending the lifespan of a garment by just nine months could lead to a 20-30% reduction in its carbon footprint, so it’s more important than ever to consider shifting your shopping habits while supporting causes that align with your values. Whether tapping on your phone or socially distancing in a shop, I salute you if charity shopping is a hobby you’re not prepared to give up any time soon.
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