As the fashion obsessed exhaust their credit lines keeping up with the Kardashian-Jenners or aping their favorite Instagram influencers, thrift stores are struggling to stay on top of a constant slew of low-quality clothes, many of which they’re forced to turn away.
That’s just one of the revelations of an ongoing inquiry by the British Parliament into the social and environmental impacts of so-called “fast fashion”—which is to say, garments made cheaply, rapidly and often under appalling workplace conditions—in the United Kingdom.
“The whole industry is based on us buying more than we need, and not valuing an item of clothing when it comes to the end of its life,” said Mary Creagh, a minister of the British Parliament and chairwoman of the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons, which grilled executives from Asos, Boohoo, Burberry, Primark, Marks & Spencer and Topshop on the issue last week.
When T-shirts are sold for 2 pounds (90 cents) and dresses 5 pounds ($6.36) a piece, consumers start to treat them as disposable commodities that can be worn once then tossed into the landfill, Creagh said. Certainly, thrift stores—known as charity shops in the U.K.—have little use for them.
“Charity shops can’t be the dumping ground for the high street’s dirty little secret—much of what they take back they can’t sell because of the quality and it’s very difficult to recycle the fibers,” she told the Telegraph last week. “They are turning it away as they can’t sell it so fabric either goes to Europe or the developing world. It’s disrupting markets in other countries.”
Oxfam, a poverty-alleviating nonprofit that operates a line of thrift stores in the United Kingdom, has seen an increase in clothing donations over the past five years, “and this is probably due to fast fashion,” a spokeswoman said, while noting diplomatically how “lucky” it is to “receive all sorts of fashion including plenty of high-quality garments, too.”
Textile Reuse & International Development, a recycling social enterprise better known by the acronym TRAID, said eight in 10 Londoners donate their clothes to charity after a clear out, yet only a fraction of that is acceptable for redistribution.
Creagh has pilloried, in particular, “faster” fast fashion websites such as Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing and Missguided, which turn over new product in as little as two weeks and are immensely popular with cash-strapped but image-centric teens and young adults.
“If you buy an item of clothing for 5 pounds and wear it two or three times, it’s a bit more than a coffee, so they’re selling clothes at pocket-money prices, they are meant to be worn once or twice and then discarded,” Creagh said. “Because sending it back is such a hassle, and the clothes are so cheap, they are simply thrown away if they don’t fit.”
The minister has chastised the bosses of the U.K.’s leading retailers for not doing enough to curtail textile waste. She has also suggested that companies be penalized or incentivized by the government to ensure that they make clothes from recyclable fabric, and that any waste is properly disposed of.