Event: Everything Must Go, Oxo Tower London

20-22 January 2012, OXO Tower, London

Last weekend saw the short but powerful exhibition, Everything Must Go, which followed our unwanted clothes on its journey around the world, sold for use in the second hand clothing trade.
Curated by Lucy Norris and Clare Patey, Everything Must Go was both visually simulating and interactive with screened documentaries, workshops set up in collaboration with ReMade and the various talks and panel discussions taken by academics, journalists and industry folk all of whom specialise in this field.

The truth is not many off us actually know the second life most of our donated clothing will really take.
From our charitable clothing donations only 10-20% will actually be sold in UK charity shops, making the image of a young fashionista finding a bargain in something you donated highly unlikely! In fact our clothes will take on 1 of 2 destiny's, being sold in Africa and other third world nations as salaula (Southern African term for second hand clothing) or taken to shoddy factories in India where its returned into a raw material, re-spun and remade into blankets which are sold in the third world.

Clothing Bales

One of the interesting processes in this journey for me is the process of sorting through our second hand clothing, which is done more then just once.  For the charities that have collected the donations, they will need to identify what is resellable to the UK market, with the rest heading to their sorting factories to be prepared for international trade. 
A sorting factory processes the want not's by type and fibre content I.E:- men's shirts, cotton t-shirts and wool items.  Its important to point out that due to the nature of working with a variety of textiles the sorting process needs to be done by hand, and unprotected (as in no gloves) I might add, as the staff will require a good knowledge and feel of the fabrics to identify particular fibres. These are then wrapped into bales, sold by weight then shipped overseas.
You may i'm sure be coming to the conclusion that the handling of our second hand clothing is big business and you couldn't be more right, the global  import export trade of second hand clothing is worth over $2billion. Which explains why this industry like most others suffer from rouge trader who will trick you with fake leaflets, charity ID's and break into charity donation bins to steal our donations to gain a slice of this business!!
This is a big problem all charities face, with it estimated that charities are potentially losing out on up two thirds of their profit from the theft of their donations by rogue traders.  This is apparently being addressed by the UK government and new legislation is expected to make rouge trading in second hand clothing punishable by law.

Waste, too much of our donated clothes are still in good condition

The exhibition was quite clever in its approach in exploring the journey our donated clothing take and I especially liked that they used a child's little red coat to personify the journey. The exhibition offered up lots of interesting fact and figures, interactive workshop teaching you how to give old clothes a new lease of life and a really good short documentary on the Indian shoddy industry, where factory workers where shown going through their daily processes and expressing their perceptions of western life and women from handling their barely worn cast offs.

The concept of clothing and textile waste being an issue was addressed subtly by the exhibition itself, though with the available talks held over the weekend this was the key issue discussed.  The problem is we are consuming clothing at a alarming rate and recycling only a small percentage of it, meaning that most of our unwanted clothing and textiles (ie. curtains, bedding, etc) are ending up in landfills.
Clothing that end up in landfills are unable to biodegrade properly talking longer then it should to return to the earth, though for man made fibres like polyester and viscose the process takes even longer then natural fibres such as cotton and wool.

With it being assumed that the average life span of an item of clothing in our wardrobe could be a lot less then the 3 year previously estimated by Waste Online in 2006, there are calls on the fashion industry to try and counteract the environmental damage caused by producing new clothes and the disposing of our unwanted clothes. Though all solutions at presents are small scale such as biodegradable footwear and fashion upcycling (using old clothing/textiles to create new clothes) the fact is the idea of a sustainable fashion is in the pipeline.

Until then the responsibility befalls on us to soften the blows to the environment caused by our frequent shopping habits.  Obviously shopping less would be the quickest and easiest option but also the least likely option (and a little dangerous for the economy!), though it wouldn't hurt to dabble in upcycling once and awhile and transform say an old plain t-shirt by sewing on badges or ironing on transfer prints to save it from the bin and needed to buy a new one.
Instead of buying something new it could also be an option to shop secondhand or maybe try a clothe swap, this would help clear your wardrobe at the same time! If like me the thought of wearing a strangers clothes doesn't appeal to you why not swap clothes among your friends and family?

However you choose to manage your wardrobe, the important thing is that you hand in your textile waste to a charity or an official collector regardless of its condition as this averts it from ending up in landfalls and gives it the chance to made into a shoddy blanket that will have a practical use.
Also ladies, donating your old bras is very much welcomed, with Oxfam not so long ago making a public appeal for our bras.  These go to women in the third world whom (pardon the pun) could use our support!

Further Info:
Oxfam Frip Ethique, Oxfam.org.uk
LMB Textile Recycling

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