WHAT HAPPENS TO THE CLOTHES YOU DONATE?
You're bored of that little dress from last summer, and that sweater has pilled. Did that shirt shrink or have you put on weight? And oh God, those shorts! Note to self: never again drink and shop. Slightly embarrassed that they've still got the tags on, you bundle them up with the other stuff and hide it in the boot of your car. Marie Kondo was right, this stuff does not spark joy, and it's better off out of your life. Not in the bin though, obvs. No landfill for you! You are responsible citizen. You will do the right thing: you will take these fashion fails down to the charity shop.
Problem is, that sweater may well end up in landfill even so. Those shorts should make it to the shop floor, since they've never been worn, but when their next owner realises they make her look a Battenberg cake, they might be off to landfill too. Where they will stay. For up to 200 years, being polyester, which is essentially plastic and non-biodegradable.
Even if they were made of natural fibres which would more easily break down, warns sustainable textiles whiz Clara Vuletich, landfill is not some lovely composting situation.
"Conditions aren't right for the efficient breakdown of even those textiles marketed as sustainable and biodegradable," she says. "Basically, you don't want to send clothing to landfill."
Yet that's exactly what we do. Australians are the second largest consumers of new textiles after north America. We buy on average 27 kilograms per capita each year. We can't fit it all in our bulging wardrobes. According to ABS stats for 2009/10, Australians send 500,000 of tonnes leather and textiles waste to landfill yearly. Chances are that figure is higher now.
Our fashion habit is out of control. We're buying more and more clothes, at cheaper and cheaper prices, and it's unsustainable.
On Monday night Vuletich and I appeared on Lateline to discuss a report on the problem of low-quality clothing donations made to op shops. "It's kind of absurd," said Zachary Moore-Boyle, who works in the Vinnies store in Newtown, "the rate at which people are consuming clothes, many of which can only have been worn once before they start disintegrating."
Fast fashion giants like Forever 21, Topshop, H&M, Zara are central to conversations about the over-production and consumption of clothing, but it's not just them. Less obviously trend driven stores like Rivers, Lowes, Target and K-mart are also spewing out cheap garments no one expects to last for years. Sometimes it's more expensive to dryclean a dress than to buy a replacement. Right now Rivers is on sale, for example, and womenswear prices start at $5.
Many of our clothing cast-offs are of such poor quality that they cannot be on-sold, either through opshops to thrifty fashionistas or to companies that dispatch garments by the kilo to Africa.
Such items "don't last in laundering," Megan Wood, manager of Vinnies Newtown, told Lateline. "They don't last in wearing. They don't keep their shape."
It's the same story at Salvos. "We are always inundated with donations," says Salvo's "eco-stylist" Faye Delanty, who brings her stylist's eye to the shopfloor to make second-hand chic more accessible. "We do get a good mix, and I obviously look out for the good quality, more desirable pieces - I just found a brand new Calvin Klein jacket, for instance - but I am also seeing a lot more disposable fashion."
According to Salvos Stores CEO Neville Barrett, "Generally speaking donations are slightly up on previous years, by perhaps one or two per cent. The quality of donations, however, has reduced a lot."
He explains that damaged cotton garments can be sold for industrial rags, "suitable garments can be on-sold internationally" by third parties (although the revenue generated is minimal) but "if it's not good enough for either of those outcomes, unfortunately we must send it to the tip.
"Nationally, our annual waste collection and disposal bill is somewhere between $5millon and $6 million." Read that again. SIX MILLION BUCKS. Now, that's not all clothing of course, it's household junk and all sorts, but is it not to our very great shame, as a society, that we use charity shops as rubbish dumps?
And yet these guys carry on regardless, doing their wonderful community work, and paying their "sorters" to comb through our old junk to find the gems that are worth something.
"We are very happy to receive donations," says De Lanty. "I'm always so blown away by people's generosity. I think it's about education more than anything else. If people understand how we do what we do, it's easier to figure out what to bring. So donate items you would feel comfortable giving to a mate, or that you would still wear yourself but aren't getting use out of for whatever reason. Don't donate items that are covered in holes or stains."
Vivienne Westwood has the right idea with her favourite saying: choose well, buy less.