From where I sit (within a major clothing retailer), the trend for mass consumption doesn’t seem to be abating anytime soon. I like to think that as a passionate professional working in the field of sustainability I’ve (surely) changed my behaviour to play my small part in addressing this clearly alarming trend; but I confess, I still buy way too much stuff.
So, as I sit here feeling bad, surrounded by my new stuff (which I’ll admit, even with the guilt, makes me happy), I think about ‘end of life’ issues and how I could feel less bad about buying stuff without buying less of it…
It’s great that ever more companies are creating platforms for consumers to donate their unwanted products for re-sale, either indirectly through partnerships with charity shops (Oxfam and M&S, I:CO and H&M), or directly through their websites (Ikea, Patagonia).
In 2015 the BBC reported that almost half of the unwanted clothes in the UK go to a new home rather being buried in landfill or incinerated, and the UK initiative ‘WRAP’  note that this proportion is increasing. That’s good news (although it still means a lot of clothes are just thrown away).
However… disappointingly, it seems that the majority of unwanted clothes going to a new home will eventually be shipped off for recycling. Whilst that’s better than land-fill, it’s surely not better than re-use. In short, supply for unwanted clothes seems to outstrip demand.
As high-street clothing retailers relentlessly innovate their business models to keep consumers walking into their stores (nail bars, hairdressers, cupcake stalls, coffee shops, organic food and a free laundrette service in American Eagle’s flagship New York store), is there an opportunity here to help boost the demand side of the re-used clothing equation?
Could/should high street retailers introduce a re-used clothing section, ‘Born Again!’ (pop-up), into their stores? The sale of these items could be at charity shop prices, with all proceeds going to a named charity. Operational costs could be borne by CSR budgets. With their slick advertising and vlogging/blogging brand ambassadors, brands could help break taboos around buying old clothing (if they still exist given today’s financially struggling masses – although possibly so, as 38% of consumers interviewed by WRAP had never bought clothes in a charity shop). It would certainly bring new consumers to the market for re-used products and significantly raise the profile of a brand’s commitment to the circular economy. These pop-ups could also feature information about local government services and private initiatives geared towards those on a low income.
Or maybe a better model still is to franchise the pop-up to a high-street charity shop chain who would come in to run the operation; encouraging consumers to donate all unwanted clothes to the in-store charity shop concession, not just those from the brand.
However, this still leaves other concerns unsettled; the role of recycling ‘middle men’ who buy what charity shops can’t sell or what clothing retailers collect, and the implications of unwanted clothing ending up for sale in developing country markets. Definitely thorny issues for another blog…
Perhaps my biggest is concern is that this just fuels the root cause of mass-consumption; making us all feel better as we frantically scan the isles, buying too much stuff…