Everyday Ethical: Are charity shops actually ethical?

Mar 27, 2020

In this episode of Everyday Ethical, I debate what is the most eco-friendly way to get rid of your clothes. From donating to selling, I lay out the best 4 options for you!

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What is the most eco-friendly way to get rid of clothes?


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What’s the most eco-friendly way to get rid of your clothes?

Episode Transcript:

Hello and welcome to Everyday Ethical, a podcast about all of the small ways that you can be more sustainable, without the pressure to be perfect. I’m your host, Bethany Austin, and I’m an ethical lifestyle blogger who talks about everything from slow styling to cruelty-free cleaning. 

Today we’re going to discuss an aspect of sustainable fashion that I feel often gets overlooked: If you’ve listened to pretty much any of my episodes or read any of my blog posts, you’ve probably heard me chat about where to buy clothes more sustainably and why fast fashion is so awful for the planet and for people, but what do you do with the clothes you already have?

I’m going to cover what to do with old clothes, whatever condition they’re in, if you’re wanting to be as eco-friendly as possible. So, let’s dive.  

[Intro music]

The most sustainable  way is to make your clothes last as long as long as possible,  but we’ll go over that in the next episode 

Did you know that 350,000 tonnes, or around £140 million worth, of used but still wearable clothing goes to landfill in the UK every year! That means that over 30% of our unwanted clothes currently end up in landfill. (source)

A huge proportion of this isn’t biodegradable, meaning that the textiles will stick around on the planet a lot longer than the person that used to wear them. And on top of that, clothing going in the bin is a monumental waste of the energy that it took to create it.

Ultimately, the most sustainable thing that you can do is to make your clothes last as long as possible and to simply buy less. And I will definitely be covering the former of those two in my next episode because I think it’s important that we learn how to get the most out of an item before eventually disposing of it.

However, if you already have a wardrobe full of stuff that you really don’t want, or you’ve already used an item to death, that’s not going to help you! So that’s where this episode comes in. I have four options for you, each way more sustainable than chucking your old clothes in the rubbish. I’m going to chat about the pros and cons of each so that you can decide what’s best for you and the unwanted pile of clothes that you don’t know what to do with. 


Probably the most obvious thing that you think of when it comes to getting rid of your clothes sustainably is to donate them! As one of the most accessible options out there, most people are more than happy to give their clothing to a charity shop, knowing that the item will be resold. 

Obviously there are a tonne benefits to doing this: Firstly, your clothes aren’t going to landfill. Instead, they’re getting a new lease of life with somebody else. Secondly, you could be helping someone to not support fast fashion.  As I’ve spoken about in a load of episodes, fast fashion is killing the planet through emissions, non-biodegradable waste and water pollution. You can find out more about that in Season One, episode 3, which I would highly recommend if you’re new to learning about sustainability and fashion.

Thirdly, you’re giving to a charity! Any profit made from an item of yours that is sold will go to a good cause, be it Cancer Research, Scope or Bernados.

There really is no denying that donating your clothes is a brilliant option. However, I do think it’s worth mentioning that it’s certainly not perfect. If you’ve watched the documentary The True Cost – another thing I would recommend if you’re just now learning about fast fashion – then you may already know about this.

Essentially, not all of the clothes that get donated are re-sold in actual charity shops. When you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense, because can you imagine how much stuff they get every year?! Anyway, only the nicest clothes and accessories are sold inside the shops, as these are what’s going to make the charity the most money. Again, that makes sense. However, what happens to the items that don’t get re-sold?

Well, Wrap “estimates that more than 70% of all UK reused clothing heads overseas – joining a global second-hand trade in which billions of old garments are bought and sold around the world every year.” (source) That’s right, the clothes that charity shops deem as not being saleable in the UK are sold to other countries, to be sold out there. This is usually done in huge batches, where clothes are wrapped up in big plastic bundles and shipped overseas. Yep, not the most sustainable practice. 

According to the UN figures, the UK is the second largest used clothing exporter after the US. (Source

However, it’s not necessarily the shipping and packing that bothers me in these cases, it’s more the impact that the secondhand clothing industry has on these countries and their economies. For example, in Ghana, textile and clothing employment fell by 80% between just 1975 and 2000. By introducing this new type of trade, selling used clothes from places like the UK and the US, a huge workforce are left predominantly without jobs.

That’s just one of those frustrating contradictions that come with trying to be more ethical and sustainable, I suppose.

However, I do see why charity shops continue this practice. After all, they are simply trying to find a way to make as much money as possible for their good cause, whilst also preventing textiles from going straight to landfill. So, yeah, I do get it, it’s just a tricky one to navigate. 

I’m not telling you this to put you off donating to a charity shop, because it is still far far better for the planet than just chucking items away. However, the industry is certainly not perfect and I think it’s still got some way to go for ensuring that it’s not hurting others in the process of trying to do something good. 

One company that I do think are brilliant and worth mentioning though is Smalls For All. I love them! You can send them your lightly worn bras and they will give them to people in need in the UK and in Africa, helping those in orphanages, slums, camps and schools, as well as internally displaced persons. It’s super easy, you just pack them up and post them off and they do the rest. So, I’ll be sure to leave a link to their website in the show notes. 

Clothing swap 

Another way to dispose of your clothes that is probably up there on the more sustainable ends of things, is to host a clothing swap. Or at least to get involved with some kind of clothing swap already exists.

Now, I’m not sure if this is a term that kind of just exists in the world of sustainability or if this is  something that a lot of people are aware of, but the name itself is pretty self-explanatory. A clothing swap is exactly how it sounds: it’s an event that you go to and you swap clothes with some of the other people there that are of a similar size and style to you. As I said you might have some of these already going on in your area so it’s worth checking local Facebook groups or local kind of event pages stuff like that to keep an eye out for them. However, if you don’t know of one near you at something that you’re interested in why not create one of your own?

I’m not telling you that you have to go out and create this massive and then and invite everybody in your town. But what I am saying, is that you can create an event that is as big or as small as you want. maybe it’s just between you and a couple of friends you meet up for a glass of wine you have some snacks you watch some TV at some point you have to all of the old clothes that you’ve got and see if there’s anything that you want to swap with each other. Or even just give to the other person because sometimes you’re not going to find a straight swap their.

This is a particularly great option in terms of sustainability for a few reasons. Firstly, it obviously means that your clothes aren’t going to landfill, but it also means, that you know exactly where your clothes are going. You are handing an item over to someone directly and you know that it’s ending up in their wardrobe, to be worn again and again and again.

One tip is to head to websites like Eventbrite and if you type in clothes swap it will automatically know your location and it can tell you have any that are going on in your area. If you’re not the kind of person who likes to leave the house (hello! Me too!), there are even clothes swapping apps like Swancy. I can’t vouch for that one myself as I’ve never tried it, but I’ll link it in the show notes if you want to check it out. 


And on the topic of apps – we obviously need to discuss selling as a way to get rid of unwanted clothes!

If you’re a fashion lover and you have a tonne of clothes that you don’t want anymore, or you’re a sustainability queen who accidentally bought a more pricey item with the intention of keeping it as long as possible, but that didn’t quite work out, selling your unwanted items can be a great option.

I mean, you give your clothes a new lease of life whilst also making a bit of extra cash. What’s not to love.

I’m personally a big Depop fan, because, frankly, I’m not here for all of the bidding and auctioning malarkey. However, I know a lot of people do love ebay. There are actually a tonne of different options out there, even sites like Poshmark which is created specifically for designer items.

According to ThredUp, 64% of Women Bought or Are Now Willing to Buy Secondhand Products (source). Whilst this still isn’t a high enough number, in my opinion,  it still goes to show that there’s a huge market for secondhand shopping and, with the convenience of doing it online and the safety net of things like Paypal, it’s never been easier.

Like with a clothes swap, you can be pretty certain that your clothes are going to a home that ones them. After all, you usually do have to actively search for an item on things like Depop to find it. That means that most of the users really do want what they’re buying and it hopefully get good use.

Plus, I’m guessing that if someone is likely to buy secondhand online, they’re likely to sell second hand online, too. When they’re done with what you’ve sold them, maybe they’ll re-sell it, if it’s in good enough condition. 

If you did want to give to a charity shop but some of the facts I told you earlier put you off a little bit, you could even look at selling your clothes online and donating the money directly to a charity of your choice. Then you can really polish your halo. 

Textiles recycling points

Obviously though, all of the methods I’ve mentioned before require your clothes to be in relatively good condition. Which, sometimes they’re not going to be! Maybe you’ve been super duper sustainable and had an item for years, it’s got holes in it and there’s no way it can be worn by someone else. Then what?

At this point I’d recommend donating your clothes at a textile recycling point. You’ve probably seen them knocking about, either outside of shopping centres, at tips or even inside of some shops now. These are a great option, as whilst the clothes usually won’t be used again as they are, the materials will be used wherever possible to be recycled and turned into new products. This can include things like the stuffing for cushions and furniture, for example.

Sometimes there is a bit less processing to it and actually quite often these materials will be cut up and used as industrial rags. So companies will huge bags of them and use them to clean up grease or whatever as they’re working. I’m kind of torn on this idea because, whilst I think it’s great that it means industries aren’t buying new fabrics to use as rags, I also know that after they’re done with them they most likely do end up in landfill. So it really does only add a few extra months of life to the items.

Obviously though, in these circumstances that still cuts down on the carbon emissions it would take to produce new fibres, and it means that your item is being reused in some way. If the path towards landfill is less direct, it’s always a positive. Even if it’s not perfect! 

And, let’s be honest, it’s rare to find the perfect solution. So, as a last resort, I think recycling points are a fab option, although I wouldn’t recommend using them for everything. 

Okay, so those are my four recommendations when it comes to disposing of clothes that you don’t want anymore or that are beyond repair. To re-cap, your options are:

  1. To donate them to charity 
  2. To swap clothes with friends or go to a dedicated clothing swap 
  3. To sell your clothes online 
  4. Finally, as a last resort, to drop them at a textile recycling facility.

As I mentioned earlier in this episode though, the ideal scenario is to be producing as little clothing waste as possible, meaning that you wouldn’t even have to think about any of these options all that often! That’s why in the next episode I’m going to cover how to make your clothes last as long as possible.

Until then though, I hope you’ve learnt something new in this episode and that you’ll never throw clothes away again! If you did enjoy it, please do share it with your pals online and off, as it means the absolute world to me. Plus, if you have any questions about this topic or literally anything related to eco-living, drop me a DM on Instagram. I’m @BethanyPaigeAustin. 

Speak to you next week!


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