Trade not donation – part 2

In 2015 – eight years ago – I wrote the following blog post

I received a couple of terse emails at the time, from Swedes who felt I was racist and that people needed clothes. I have never changed my stance though.

I come from a very corrupt country and clothing donations are often sold by middlemen in developing countries, pushing out local traders. What did work for me was going to a charity organisation (the now-defunct UFF which, it turned out later, was evading taxes) who let me choose clothes which they then vacuum packed and shipped abroad. I was able to choose what I knew that people would use, receive it at source and give it directly to people in need.

I am rather sceptical of all large charities where there are huge administrative costs and giant CEO salaries. Some of them employ aggressive cold-calling methods to elicit money from the vulnerable, while others overprice goods in their shops while benefiting from low rents and VAT relief offered to charities. In Sweden, at least three charities have come under fire for misappropriating funds and property donated to them.

A few weeks ago, a local newspaper, Aftonbladet,  ran a series of articles on H&M’s recycling initiative. Anyone can put clothes into donation bins in H&M stores, and receive a $10 voucher to spend in store. Turns out, H&M SELLS these clothes to recycling companies where they end up being sold in developing countries, or ending up as trash. Aftonbladet donated ten garments to H&M and tracked them via AirTags.

The full article is here, but here are the main points and one photograph from the article.

1. Each one of the ten garments that were equipped with Airtags are whole and clean, without stains or damage. Still, none of them has remained in Sweden. All have been transported by truck over 1 000 kilometers just for the first sorting, at three facilities in Germany.

2. H&M promises that all clothes collected are being taken care of in an environmentally friendly and responsible way. Nevertheless, three of the garments will be shipped to third world countries with large and known problems with textile dumping and waste.

3. One of the garments ends up in Benin, an African country that receives huge amounts of used clothes and where a large part of the imports are dumped and burned directly. The importer who bought the garment admits that it might later be smuggled into Nigeria, undermining the restrictions the country has imposed to protect itself against second-hand clothing.

4. Another garment ends up in the city of Panipat in India. Here, too, the problems with textile waste are great. In addition, child labour in the textile industry is widespread.

5. Two of the garments are shipped to Romania, after a total road and sea transport of 3 730 kilometers.

6. Two of the garments are ground down to fibers, despite H&M’s promise that clothes that can be worn again should be. One of these clothes, a grey sweater, was almost unused.

7. Together, the ten garments travel almost one and a half laps around the earth, using fossile fuel-dependent means of transport such as trucks and ships.

8. In Ghana in Africa, used clothes have created an unprecedented environmental disaster. H&M is one of the five most common garments that end up here.

9. By using customs data, we can reveal that H&M’s three German sorting partners have shipped at least one million garments to Ghana since January 1 2023.

This was a brilliant investigation. Turns out that numerous other companies do more or less the same thing, although Zara, to their credit, has a list of countries they will not send clothes to due to the environmental impact. H&M’s CEO made a very weak defence of their policy citing ‘Det finns ju också ett behov. Människor behöver kläder/there is also a need. People need clothes’. That made me furious – Africa and India do not need Moonboots and down jackets (which were shown in the investigation). These countries have basically become a garbage tip for overproduction from the west.

I think the two main issues are that ‘fast fashion’ companies produce too much, and that we buy too many ‘disposable’ fashion items. Over the past two years I have been buying pre-loved, and selling what I don’t wear. My wardrobe is much smaller, but I still have too many items, albeit all bought in the circular economy. I am within the circular economy in that I almost never buy new items, but I also need to be mindful of making do with less.

On a similar note, the hotel we stayed in a few weeks ago had an initiative promising that if they didn’t have to clean the rooms, they would put the money saved in to environmental measures. You could put a tag on the doorknob saying they did not have to service the room. Call me cynical but it sounded like they were just wanting to save money. I never request new towels daily because I understand that washing  them uses a lot of water. But honestly, emptying a wastebasket  is going to save them so much money they can invest in the environment?

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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