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The charity shop, thrift store, kilo market; call them what you will, second-hand retailers in all shapes and sizes have been a permanent fixture on our local high streets for decades.

By saving your wardrobe rejects from landfill and bringing them to new and loving owners, they prolong the life of clothes and the materials they are made of.

The role of charity shops in promoting reuse is obvious, and valuable. This kind of high-value recycling is one of the last steps needed to bring about a circular system.

First, we can find ways to reduce consumption: reuse clothes that have already been produced, repair garments, upcycle garments into new fashionable pieces. Then, finally, the materials can be recycled into new high value fibers and fabrics.

Buying second-hand clothes is one of the most efficient ways to promote circularity, introducing no new raw materials into the system, while often supporting charitable causes in the process.

While essential, and much loved by consumers, charity shops face numerous pressures. The volumes of quality donated clothing available for re-sale in-store is diminishing rapidly.

Fast fashion perpetuates a Take-Make-Waste system of cheap and disposable garments, creating an influx of low-quality clothing. A rising proportion of donated low-quality used clothing ends up in the pile of textiles for recycling.

One leading charity retailer, Oxfam, has reported that donations to clothing bins in Ireland increased by 2% in 2017. However, only about 10% of these donations were of sufficient quality for resale in stores. The balance of about 90% of donated garments (through clothing bins) need to find an alternative end market, because they are not fit for in-store resale.

In response to these trends, second-hand shops and their associated charities are searching for innovative ways to adapt to such pressures. This report considers steps taken by Oxfam, the UK’s oldest charity retailer founded in 1947, to build on this legacy by promoting the reuse of materials within the textiles industry.

2. HOW IS OXFAM ADAPTING TO THESE QUALITY ISSUES?

Those with their finger on fashion’s pulse won’t have missed the headlines in recent months that put fashion brands under the spotlight for incinerating unsold stock. It is a complex problem, which often stems from the desire to keep brand names exclusive. While exact data on pre-consumer waste is largely unavailable (or that which is available, is questionable) it seems that the problem is widespread, and incineration or mutilation is unfortunately also a common practice.  Undoubtedly proactive solutions are necessary, which design out any risk of overproduction. However, more immediately, we must find ways to halt this wasteful destruction of perfectly good product.

With overproduction an unnecessary, but nonetheless persistent evil, Oxfam Ireland has taken a radical approach in responding to the problem. For the past one and a half years, they have been running a pilot scheme , selling unsold stock in the form of jewellery and accessories. That stock has been provided by German company Beeline (a long established partner of Oxfam Ireland), which has a jewellery brand, Six. Oxfam Ireland has joined forces with Six, to create the high street store: Six4Good.

Under the partnership, Oxfam sells unsold stock, defects and samples in Six4Good stores in Ireland. These are donated entirely free of charge by the Beeline company. Funds raised by the sale of these accessories help finance Oxfam’s vital international projects, in particular in the area of women’s rights and gender equality. Volunteers, as well as the stores to sell the products in, are provided by Oxfam. While shopping, customers are updated on the work of the charity, and how their purchases contribute to that work.

Operating non-Oxfam branded stores represents a new direction not only for Oxfam Ireland but for charity retailing in general and the pilot is proving a resounding success. Of a total 7 million euros income from Oxfam Ireland’s 50 stores in the last year, 1.3 million was provided by Beeline donations.  Oxfam Ireland currently operate four Six4Good stand-alone stores and one concession store.

Oxfam are now collaborating with a number of retailers with a view to finding an ethical means of dealing with excess stock. While encouraging, this widespread interest raises issues also. Oxfam is only too aware of its own stance regarding sustainability and possible contradictions working with brands it has previously taken a public stance against. Providing a convenient and clever solution should not deter brands from taking a critical look at their overproduction. As a result Oxfam Ireland is careful to collaborate only with retailers who see fashion reuse as part of a broader culture of waste reduction, supply chain sustainability and accountability.

That’s why Beeline, who apply a strict code of conduct throughout their entire production chain and achieved carbon neutrality in 2017, were a suitable partner for Oxfam Ireland.

Recognising this, Harald Steber, Sustainability Manager at Beeline Group, informed us:

“Yet fashion is a ‘tricky business’ and some goods – however carefully selected and beautifully presented on time – cannot be sold. The cooperation with Oxfam [Ireland] gives us the opportunity to provide these goods to interested customers which we were not able to sell before and support this great organisation at the same time.”

Does this represent a new business model for charity shops? By creating an outlet to sell brands’ unsold stock Oxfam is able to generate another revenue stream while decreasing waste in the industry; necessary in a time when the quality of post-consumer textiles, and related profit margins are decreasing in the second-hand clothing industry and the environmental pressures of the industry continue to grow.

3. Conclusion – WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR SECOND-HAND STORES?

As the quality of post-consumer decreases, the portion of non-rewearable clothes grows, requiring solutions to find value in these textiles that have reached the end of their life. This has led some to recognise that the future of apparel industry may lie in “closing the clothing loop”; figuring out a way to fully recycle clothes into fibers that can be re-spun and made into new garments.

While Oxfam Ireland plays an important role in extending the life cycle of clothes by reselling pre and post-consumer goods, they are waiting for recycling technologies that will complement their business in their ability to valorise non-rewearable clothing. With ambitions for collaborations with recyclers in the future, post-consumer recycling will reduce Oxfam Ireland’s reliance on exporting collected clothes and maintain the value of fiber materials already in circulation.

Oxfam Ireland is involved in many projects that make closing the material loop an approaching reality, there are also several steps you can take as an individual to help charities like Oxfam, and promote more efficient recycling processes:

  • Think twice before buying new and buy second-hand instead— there are plenty of clothes already in circulation.
  • Donate clothes you no longer wear, no matter what the quality — if they cannot be reworn, the collector/sorters and charity shops will recycle them when possible.
  • Make sure all donated clothes are clean and bagged so they stay dry. Wet and dirty clothes increase the chance materials will end up in landfill/incineration!
  • Make your retailers and fashion brands accountable. Ask “who made my clothes?” Insist the clothes you wear are ethically sourced.

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