the 'dirty shadow' of fast fashion

Facts & figures

- Australians are the world's second largest consumers of textiles, buying an average of 27 kilograms of clothing and other textiles per person each year.

- While Australia's textile consumption is behind that of the United States (at 37 kilograms per person per year), we consume twice the global average of just 13 kilograms per person per year.

- Historically, clothing was something we held onto for a long time, but with cheap clothing now abundantly available, we are beginning to view the things we wear as disposable.

- According to Livia Firth, the Creative Director of Eco-Age, disposable clothing stays in a woman's wardrobe for an average of just five weeks before being discarded.

- UK studies have indicated that almost one-third of clothing goes prematurely to landfill; the Australian experience is likely to be very similar.

- Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures show that 500,000 tonnes of leather and textiles are discarded each year, and only a fraction of that amount is recovered through charitable recycling.

- Further, donating second-hand clothing to charities has its limitations. According to sustainability consultant Jane Milburn of Textile Beat, only about 15% of donated clothing is actually sold again locally in op shops. The remaining clothes are used as industrial rags, sent to landfill, and around half of all donated clothes are sent to developing nations. 

- While the export of second-hand textiles to the world's poorest nations is frequently lauded as a good thing - providing an affordable basic necessity and creating jobs - make no mistake, it's a commercially profitable enterprise for the businesses involved and also has some less than positive impacts, including killing off local clothing production (and the associated skills and essentially exporting our waste to be ultimately dealt with by the world's poorest economies. It's also spreading the 'disposable clothing' mindset and thus perpetuating the underlying problem. 

- Christina Dean, CEO of human rights organisation Redress, describes clothing and other textiles as the 'dirty shadow' of the fast fashion industry, opining that 'You can't deny that the fast fashion industry is having a massive [negative] impact in developing countries'. 

- In The True Cost documentary, upcycling designer Catherine Charlot described the influx of second-hand textiles into her native Haiti as 'a disease' and 'a huge problem'. 

- Two-thirds of new clothing is made from man-made fibres, hence most discarded textiles are non-biodegradable, meaning they sit in landfills for 200 years or more, releasing harmful gases into the air. 

The role of charitable recycling

According to the National Association of Charitable Recycling Organisations (NACRO), the peak body representing charitable collection, sorting, reuse and recycling organisations throughout Australia, the global trade in second-hand clothing is now a multi-million dollar industry, its value having more than doubled between 1991. and 2004. 

In its submission to the 2013 National Waste Report, NACRO stated: 

- More than 70,000 tonnes of second-hand clothing was exported from Australia in 2012, predominantly to the UAE, Malaysia and Pakistan. 

- The value of that business was estimated to be more than $70 million, and is resulting in schemes by some commercial operators to divert donations away from bona fide charities. 

- Historically, charitable recyclers would sort clothing donations, retaining good quality items for material aid or for selling in their op shops. Lesser grade goods would be sold to rag merchants. 

- In recent years rag merchants have increased their presence with their own clothing recycling bins replacing those of charity recyclers as they strive to collect tradable stock for export. 

- Another scheme to solicit second-hand clothing is through the distribution of branded clothing recycling bags, many of which are fraudulently labelled. 

- NACRO members commit to a code of practice for the operation of clothing donation bins to ensure safe and appropriate siting and clear identification and contact information. 

- A 2012 NACRO study of seven Victorian metropolitan municipalities found that of more than 448 clothing collection bins, only 18% belonged to legitimate charity recyclers. The rest belonged to commercial clothing merchants. 

- The aggressive placement of clothing recycling bins by commercial clothing recyclers diverts donations away from charitable recyclers. This diversion greatly reduces the stock available for material aid and diminishes the charities' ability to raise funds to support their community work. 

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