The Block

Art & Culture — 1 year ago

Fast Fashion Brands Are Distorting Charity Shops

Sophie Benson on the complicated relationship between fast fashion brands and charity shops.  


For anyone who has stuffed their unwanted belongings into charity bags in pursuit of that streamlined, idealised January self, it might come as a surprise that many brands do much the same. Throwing visual merchandising to the wind, they stuff rail upon rail with unsold stock that they’re simply dying to get rid of so there’s enough space for the seasons ahead. How embarrassing that they’d ever sold ditsy polyester dresses when S/S is strictly utilitarian. Best get rid.


Not too long ago, seasonal sales (and the odd bout of incineration thrown in here and there, of course) did the trick to clear space, but the fast fashion model has transformed. Brands now rely on small, regular orders to test the waters for new trends and styles. With new products added daily, the tests which fail to sell soon pile up. But not for long because, just like us, fast fashion brands like Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing (PLT) have discovered the joy of unloading upon local charity shops. Logically most of us now probably understand charity shops are doing us more of a favour than we’re doing them – giving us much-needed space to fill back up with yet more clothes which we’ll donate in future – but in ramming the rails with day-glo polyester, fast fashion brands have decided they are ‘Giving Back’.

Sophie Benson
Imagery by Aria Shamar

Boohoo donates over 100,000 samples per year to local charities, while PLT says it has “saved over 100 tonnes of clothing, shoes and accessories from going to landfill” by donating to its charity partner the British Heart Foundation (BHF). UK charity Go Dharmic confirms brands are entitled to tax relief for donating these items but, unsurprisingly, this is never mentioned during brands’ lengthy spiels about doing their bit. 

Once a hotbed for affordable quality clothing, rare finds and cheap fun vintage, charity shops are now stuffed to the rafters with the same generic, trend-led products you’re faced with online and in every other high street shop. 

The fast fashion model has transformed

“The rate at which [fast fashion clothes] feature on charity shop rails and the quantity has definitely changed my shopping experience. Particularly with the speed of ultra-fast fashion brands, the quality has gone down,” says Selorm Mensah, who’s been charity shopping for 12 years, accumulating a vintage collection she could “talk about forever”.

“As well as the staples like jeans, trousers and tops, charity shops have given me things like my vintage wool Aquascutum coat – bought when I was a teenager and still going strong now I’m 27. Of course, it’s still possible to find a gem but I just find it a bit depressing now. There’s Boohoo everywhere you look in basically every charity shop,” says fellow charity shopper Lily.

Not everyone is mad about rails chock full of Boohoo, PLT, Zara, and Primark though. My local BHF branch in Manchester Piccadilly, which is around 50-60% PLT, is a huge draw for younger shoppers who swerve the (brilliantly curated) vintage and go straight for the lime green pleather. And there are plenty of people excitedly sharing their fast fashion charity shop finds on social media too.

But is a willing consumer base enough of a reason to give these ‘donations’ a green light? Not only do they further erode the perception of how much new clothes should cost (they’re somewhere between 30 and 50% cheaper than RRP in the charity shops), but they are completely altering the perception of how clothes should look, feel, and perform. As Lily pointed out, charity shops have long been known as a place where you could have access to well made, good quality pieces at prices you couldn’t afford if buying new, but now that quality is being displaced in favour of flimsy microtrends. In the aptly titled Vox article, “Your stuff is actually worse now”, Izzie Ramirez writes that “design has shifted more towards manufacturability and appearance than functionality, when it should be a balance of all three.” When low prices and aesthetics reign, subtle but essential factors like linings, generous seam allowances, ease, drape, and proper size grading go out the window and you’re left with a garment that might look OK in a photo with the right lighting, but which just isn’t created for life.

It’s a funnel towards landfill

“It’s really sad that younger consumers have been bombarded with really poorly made clothes. I think they’re being taken advantage of… they’re being sold something that’s aspirational for an accessible price but it’s like throwing your money away, because these pieces are not going to last,” says Danielle Vermeer, co-founder of startup Teleport and writer of secondhand newsletter Goodwill Hunting. “I’m suspicious that newly made fast fashion cannot be circularised for many turns. It’s a funnel towards landfill. They’re delaying the eventual journey to landfill but by how long?”

While PLT asserts its donations have saved a whopping 100 tonnes of clothing saved from landfill, it fails to mention the sole reason these clothes exist is its own overproduction and failure to forecast demand. “If something is going to be donated new with tags, it didn’t need to be created in the first place,” says author and consultant Aja Barber, who has been tracking the rising presence of new fast fashion in charity shops on her social media channels for some time. “That’s cotton that didn’t need to be grown, that’s polyester that didn’t need to be produced. It’s waste, that’s what it is.” And that waste, Barber adds, is likely heading to the Global South. Figures from Oxfam show that more than 70% of clothes donated globally end up in Africa. “We would ban fast fashion if our beaches looked like Ghana’s beaches. The only reason we allow this system to prevail is because it’s not our beaches, it’s not our national trust sites”, she says, in reference to the mountains of clothing which are sprawled across shores in Accra, Ghana.

In a comment on BHF’s relationship with PLT, senior regional director Jane Flannery said, “Donations from Pretty Little Thing have now raised over £1 million for the BHF and… we couldn’t be more grateful. The BHF shop in Manchester Piccadilly is incredibly popular with younger shoppers looking for trend driven products. We know shoppers are increasingly conscious of their spending and where their money goes, and by shopping with the BHF, they’re helping to fund our vital research.”

That the sale of new fast fashion funds vital research and work does make it tricky to be critical. But is funding charity in one sector reason enough to promote the necessity of yet more charity to clear up the mess further down the line? Donating overproduced garments doesn’t cancel out the impact of the initial overproduction. It doesn’t clear up clothes dumped in the desert, or in the street, or the 15 million garments which arrive at Kantamanto Market, Ghana each week. The founders of many of these fast fashion brands are billionaires. It would be much more effective if they were to donate their excess money rather than their excess stock.

Donating overproduced garments doesn’t cancel out the impact

The problem is donating money directly doesn’t provide the necessary quick fix for a systemic issue, and that’s what this is really about. “If they’re using a donation channel as the solution for their overproduction problem, that is a big signal that their business model is broken,” says Vermeer. Every willing recipient of overproduced goods is instrumental in upholding that broken model; a hand passing the problem down the chain to its inevitable resting place thousands of miles away from the original, intended audience. It’s someone else’s problem now. 

What we need is for people everywhere to turn off their phones, close their eyes, and imagine that clothing waste has taken over their backyard or that their favourite beach is covered in fast fashion tentacles,” says Liz Ricketts, co-founder of The Or Foundation, based at Kantamanto. “Then we need people to open their eyes and act as if this is their reality.” Does this donation cycle exist in that reality? Of course it doesn’t, we’d burn the whole system down and start again.

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