Much of the clothing given to Lancaster charity shops ends up in landfill

2-part image: on the left Eve smiles to the camera wearing graduation gown and mortarboard; right is an image of a pile of clothes in a industrial historical industrial setting including Sewing Café Lancaster's logo

Lancaster district residents generate more than a million kilograms of clothing waste each year, which is often shipped abroad for disposal, according to a prizewinning graduate.

Eve Parr has long been fascinated by fast fashion and specialised in the phenomenon of waste while studying for a Geography degree at Lancaster University.

So, when she was looking for a topic for her final dissertation, she was excited to learn about a research project investigating clothing waste in Lancaster.

“I realised that we don’t really know where the clothes we give to charity shops end up and I really wanted to trace where they went,” said Eve, who has just graduated with first-class honours, winning three prizes for her work.

“The social and environmental impacts of fast fashion are becoming well known, but it’s quite hard to picture the impact on a local scale. By looking at this issue on a city level, it becomes more comprehendible for individuals and easier for them to know where they can make useful changes.”

The dissertation project was the idea of Sewing Café Lancaster – a grassroots organisation that campaigns for an ethical textile industry and encourages local people to make and mend, rather than throw clothes away. It was one of the Lancaster Environment Centre’s partnership dissertations, where a business or organisation comes up with a piece of research it wants carried out and partners with a student needing a research project.

“Sewing Café Lancaster wanted to be able to put a figure on how much clothing gets wasted locally. It was really nice that I was able to give them a piece of work they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do,” said Eve.

But it wasn’t an easy task.

Eve based her research area on the Lancaster Loves Clothes Map produced by Sewing Café Lancaster, which highlights where residents can get their clothes fixed, buy supplies to mend clothes themselves, or purchase second hand clothing.

Initially Eve started cold calling charity shops in Lancaster City Centre asking what proportion of the clothes donated are resold, and where the rest end up.

She discovered that 83% of charity shops sell clothing that is “not fit to be sold” to textile recycling merchants.

“I really wanted to trace where the clothes went after getting to the recycling merchants, but that’s when I hit a brick wall.”

Everyone she spoke to in charity shops was really helpful and aware of the clothing overproduction crisis, but they had little knowledge of what happened to the clothes that didn’t get sold. No-one at the recycling merchants was willing to answer Eve’s questions. Some charities, like Oxfam, have their own clothes recycling arm – but even Oxfam wouldn’t cooperate with her study.

Encouraged by her supervisor, Dr Beccy Whittle, she started looking elsewhere for answers. She contacted the local tip asking questions about how much clothing waste they received and what happened to it. She tracked down whatever information was publicly available online. It soon became clear that a lot of the clothes end up abroad, particularly in Africa, where it mostly ends up in landfill. In some countries, like Ghana, clothing waste is creating major environmental problems.

Using the data gathered, Eve estimated that more than a million kilograms of clothing waste is generated by Lancaster residents each year, half of it passing through charity shops.

“Far from reducing clothes waste, charity shops have unwittingly become part of the unsustainable fast fashion system.”

Donating to charity shops make people feel better about continuing to buy and consume more clothes because they think their donated clothes will be used by someone else.

“But giving clothes away is never the end, you are just offloading your waste onto someone else who has to deal with it down the line,” said Eve. “What is really needed is a mindset change.”

Eve also discovered that charity shops are no longer just selling second- hand clothing.

“Lots of clothing producers overproduce and then give brand new items to charity shops, so they end up almost like outlet shops selling unworn brand-new clothing.”

Last November, Eve got the chance to present her interim findings at a public event, part of the Environmental and Social Research Council Festival of Science, getting useful feedback from the audience.

Doing the research project has changed Eve’s approach to how she clothes herself. “It definitely makes me think more about the clothes I am wearing and being more responsible for what clothing I consume. I now understand that there is always a consequence of throwing our clothing ‘away’, and it’s likely that we won’t suffer it, but others, elsewhere, will”

Eve now encourages her friends and family to upcycle clothes more or to do clothes swaps with friends. Buying new clothes should be a last resort, she believes. She has created a series of postcards about clothing waste in Lancaster to be used in Sew and Sow Free Libraries produced by Sewing Café Lancaster and Food Futures, so she hopes the research will have a real impact.

Her A+ graded dissertation has helped Eve to win three Lancaster Environment Centre prizes: the prize for Best Overall BA Hons Performance; the Innovation Prize for the student who engaged best with business and partnerships; and the John Vincent Prize for the year’s best Geography graduate. Her dissertation has also been entered into the national RGS-IBG Social and Cultural Geography Research Group (SCGRG) Dissertation Prize 2022 competition.

Dr Beccy Whittle, Eve’s supervisor, said: “This research is absolutely not about demonising charity shops which do really important work in so many ways. However, expecting charity shops to take up the slack from a system that is invested in chronically overproducing clothing just to keep producing profit for shareholders is not fair – it’s like opening the plug hole in the bath instead of focusing on the real problem of the tap that’s still flowing at full force. Eve’s project did a fantastic job of highlighting that and calling for more systemic and integrated solutions to tackling textile waste at source.”

Victoria Frausin, from Sewing Café Lancaster, said: "At Sewing Cafe Lancaster we are aware that the number of times the average piece of clothing is worn has been decreasing drastically while fibre production has more than doubled in the last 20 years, with all sorts of problematic issues along the whole supply chain. We are even more worried seeing ‘solutions’ such as charity shops, that in principle are great ideas, being used for greenwashing, as permission to buy more. Working with Eve gave us the opportunity to broaden our local research, complementing our research program on textile dynamics."

Eve is now working as Engagement Manager at Support the Goals, an organisation located at the Lancaster Environment Centre which is an initiative to reward businesses for supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“In general, businesses don’t know what the SDGs are and, even if they do, it’s hard for them to know what to do to deliver them. Support the Goals uses volunteer researchers to research if businesses are supporting the goals, how they are doing this and helps them do better. We focus on researching supply chains, because 90% of a business’s social and environmental impact comes from its supply chain, so that’s where the greatest change can take place.”

Eve’s job is to help appoint, engage and manage the volunteers, including making sure that their research is accurate.

Eve started volunteering with Support the Goals in her first year at Lancaster, as part of the Lancaster Environment Centre Skills Development Programme, which encourages students to experience new opportunities and increase their employability.

The following year Eve was awarded a paid internship as a Research Team leader and, last year, she became Engagement Manager, the role she now has fulltime.

Eve’s dissertation - Beyond the throwaway culture: Exploring the geographies of Lancaster’s clothing waste through charity shop research – can be accessed here.

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