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Environment

Can giant charity shops stop fast fashion in its tracks?

A trend that never goes out of style? Saving the planet. Meet the organisations providing an alternative to massively wasteful fast fashion

Earth Day

Illustration by Mateusz Napieralski

Shoppers are ravenous for more: more clothes, more shoes, more bags, more things. Sensing their weakness and hungry for cash, the fast fashion industry will stop at nothing to keep up with their consumption. And so underpaid and often exploited workers churn out garment after garment, and billions of tonnes of clothes are shipped from factories to warehouses and high street stores.

But people are fickle and fashion is fickler. Some items never make it beyond the stockroom before trends have moved on, while barely worn items hang at the back of dusty wardrobes. The worst case: clothes end up on landfill heaps, incinerated or shipped to developing countries.

The fashion industry is to blame for a tenth of worldwide climate emissions. Around 92 million tonnes of textiles waste are produced each year, the equivalent of a rubbish truck of clothes wasted every second. So, what if we could stop those trucks in their tracks?

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Secondhand is tempting the masses, driven by climate conscious Gen Z and millennial shoppers. Vinted, an app for reselling clothes, has been downloaded by 75 million people across Europe, the United States and Canada. Its UK-based rival Depop has more than 30 million users. And in a sign reselling has really gone mainstream, eBay sponsored ITV’s hit Love Island again this year.

But what does this mean for the humble charity shop? Phenomenal competition. “Charity retail is in a state of flux,” says Maria Chenoweth, the chief executive of sustainable clothing charity TRAID. “Are we the alternatives to sustainable fashion? Are we fundraisers?

“Everybody seemed to start selling secondhand and using it as a greenwashing exercise, taking up all the publicity. That was a concern. How do you get charity retailers into a position of raising mega-bucks for amazing causes, seen to be mainstream and the best thing on the high street?”

Chenoweth launched Charity Super.Mkt, Britain’s first ever mega charity store, alongside Wayne Hemingway, the founder of iconic fashion brand Red or Dead and Hemingway Designs. It had a six week stint in the former Topshop in Brent Cross in January, and it has now moved onto the old Topshop in Reading where it will live until May 21. 

“We wanted to make a stir, make noise, change opinions and change hearts and minds positively,” Hemingway, who started selling secondhand clothes in Camden when he was 18, says. “We know it works as a concept but the scale of it has taken even us by surprise.”

There are DJs and bright pops of colour, and every pound goes towards social good. In its first six weeks Charity Super.Mkt sold nearly 40,000 items and brought in £380,000 for brilliant causes. Its charity partners include Marie Curie, Shelter and Barnado’s. 

The profits will pay for 96 days of cancer nurses through Cancer Research, 1,000 online housing advice calls from Shelter, 300 home visits from community nurses at North London Hospice and vocational training for the children of litter pickers in Dhaka through TRAID. 

“Everything has this extra mile. It is so much more than just selling fashion,” Chenoweth says. “Then there was the ironic and iconic of being in a Topshop with all its fixtures and fittings left behind. I call it the graveyard of Philip Green. This thing that did bad is now doing good and still selling fashion.”

Charity Super.Mkt is joining other innovative projects blazing a trail to tackle the fast fashion industry. There is SUAY in Los Angeles, a shop which upcycles old clothing and sells it on, which holds a community dye bath every month where people can give old clothes a makeover. 

The Fashion Foundation in New York is a charity that brands donate clothes to, and these are resold with all profits going towards school supplies like clean uniforms, new backpacks and arts supplies. There are clothing repair events across the world, like those organised by Repair Café Wales. And there are mass clothes swaps such as the Leeds Community Clothes Exchange. 

“We love seeing concepts like the Charity Super.Mkt pop up,” says Katrina Caspelich, chief marketing officer at global advocacy organisation Remake. “Bringing in experiences like Charity Super.Mkt not only helps keep clothing out of landfills but continues to make secondhand shopping mainstream.”

But Caspelich points out that secondhand shopping is not inherently sustainable – there are still some environmental costs like shipping items and running warehouses to store and clean items. There are also fears that the rise of thrifting is fuelling overconsumption. 

“We are starting to see thrift haulers,” Kelly Drennan, from non-profit Fashion Takes Action, adds. “While ‘hauling’ videos were originally made by those who found fast fashion deals, there are now vintage and thrift haulers who, in the same vein, buy far more than they need.

“This is still overconsumption, even though the clothes are secondhand. Simply put, we buy too much stuff, and this approach to shopping only reinforces the endorphin or dopamine hit experienced with shopping for clothes. What we want to see is people slowing down and buying less.”

Caspelich agrees, adding: “The best way consumers can take part in the sustainable fashion movement is to lower their consumption of new apparel and remember that trends don’t matter. It’s best to take stock of what you own and practice sustainability by shopping your closet, renting, or repurposing your clothes before turning to secondhand.”

Remake has a #NoNewClothes pledge, where people stop purchasing new garments for three months out of the year. “The pledge allows for anyone taking it to analyse their own relationship to capitalism and consumer culture,” Caspelich says.

Last year, 1,316 people took part in the pledge and preserved over 12 million litres of blue water, prevented more than 270 tonnes of CO2 emissions and saved 12 tonnes of clothes waste. 

“Once a person has reassessed their relationship with consumerism,” Caspelich remarks, “they become more conscious in their approach to garments and feel more confident taking active steps that can lead to real political change, such as advocating for legal reform within the fashion industry.”

Charity Super.Mkt may not be creating systemic change yet, but it is doing its bit to help shake up the system. In a world of ravenous shoppers obsessed with shiny new outfits and big companies generating huge profits, it is near enough a rebellion.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. And we want to share your views with more people. Get in touch and tell us more.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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