Sophie Donaldson: ‘I’m glad I’m a second-hand Rose’
If charity begins at home, helping to save the planet begins in the charity shop, writes Sophie Donaldson
David Attenborough’s measured, soothing delivery is recognised around the world. So it was fitting, then, that he was chosen as the voice of the world’s people at last week’s UN climate change summit in Poland. His message, however, was far from soothing.
“Right now we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change,” he said, adding that the collapse of civilisation was “on the horizon”.
However, we haven’t done much about it. The more urgent the warnings, the more likely we are to pull a duvet over our heads. The problem seems so vast, so terrifying that we feel helpless.
When you hear that whole nations will be swallowed by rising sea levels while catastrophic weather events, like the wildfires that destroyed swathes of California, are only set to get worse, ensuring we take the cap off the milk carton before it goes into the recycling seems futile.
While we may not be in a position to comb beaches looking for marine mammals and birds tangled in plastic, we can buy less.
At this time of year, rampant consumerism is encouraged. Along with donning a silly jumper and drinking too much, panic-buying is now seen as unavoidable. Not only do we need to purchase new items to make ourselves ‘party ready’ but there’s also the questionable business of buying gifts for others they probably don’t want or need.
It’s unlikely that we are all going to stop buying Christmas gifts. But how about buying more mindfully; that means buying less, buying better quality and buying from charity shops. It’s not just bobbly cardigans and dog-eared books you’ll find; many charity shops stock new items, like sunglasses, earrings and bags, all ideal stocking fillers or even Kris Kindle gifts. Oxfam shops stock a range of Fair Trade products, such as chocolate coins, mulled wine and spiced cider, retro games and novelty socks plus cards and gift-wrap paper.
A stigma still surrounds charity shops, possibly due to their jumble-sale appearance. For charity-shop lovers, however, this needle-in-a-haystack aesthetic is exactly why they keep coming back. At this point, I should introduce myself: my name is Sophie, and I am a charity shop addict.
I became an avid shopper of second-hand fashion in my early twenties when I was cash-strapped. Now I’m a little more flush but I still prefer charity shops to the high street. Yes, I comb those overstuffed rails because I love the thrill of finding a gem among the dross, but perhaps charity-shopping is my subconscious way of reconciling my love of fashion with that niggling feeling that I don’t need any of this stuff.
That said, I have found some absolute treasures. Most recently, it was a fuchsia mohair cardigan and a wool/cashmere overcoat in mint condition. There have been Salvatore Ferragamo blouses and box fresh handbags from the 1980s. I have spotted Versace jeans and a Max Mara camel coat, both too big, which still haunt my dreams.
It also salves my conscience because fashion, my great love, is an environmental disaster. It is estimated that the global fashion industry is now producing up to 100bn new garments a year, while only 1pc of clothing is fully recycled. The greenhouse gases from the industry are cited as a major contributor to climate change. Hundreds of millions of garments end up in landfill each year; the collateral damage of producing cheap goods is stark.
It can take more than 2,000 litres of water to produce the cotton for one T-shirt, the fibres in many synthetic fabrics are difficult to recycle and it’s estimated that half a million tonnes of microfibres a year enter the ocean.
It’s damning, and that doesn’t include the human impact; the cheap labour behind this multi-billion euro industry.
Our attitude to fashion has also changed with the influx of cheap clothing. The clothes on your back are now as disposable as that used milk carton. Although it may be too late for some, the fast fashion industry may be facing a reckoning.
Two weeks ago, representatives from brands like Primark, Asos and Boohoo were brought before the UK’s House of Commons. The Environmental Audit Committee is investigating the impact fast fashion has on the environment, its labour force and the climate.
Even my beloved charity shops are suffering from all that cheap clothing. Mary Creagh, Labour MP and chair of the committee, said charity shops now turn away donations due to poor quality.
“If we were to turn our backs on fast fashion, what would happen to it? It would go to landfill,” says Dermot McGilloway, St Vincent de Paul Ireland’s national retail development manager.
“We are very aware of the environmental and social issues that arise from the industry, but the fact remains it is consumer driven. People want more fashion, cheap, and retailers are simply responding.”
So, perhaps the onus is on us. Until our penchant for fast fashion dwindles, the best thing we can do with the clothes once we no longer want them is to donate them.
“We are committed to the circular economy,” says McGilloway, adding that “97pc of what we receive stays out of landfill”.
“We don’t have a surplus of goods,” adds Alice Dawson-Lyons from Oxfam Ireland.
“We are open to accepting nearly everything. What we can’t resell we can recycle. Our shops are part of ethical consumerism. We would much rather receive these goods and recycle them, than them going in the bin.”
So, as December gets into full swing perhaps you’ll reconsider your shopping strategy this Christmas. Rather than giving into the mania, look at the alternatives. Shop ethically, shop mindfully, and try to shop a bit less.
You might even see me, elbow deep in the knitwear rail of your local charity shop, helping save the planet one second-hand jumper at a time.