Skip to content

From our wardrobes to market stalls in Africa

19 August, 2013

by Eleni Christou (one of our former Master of Applied Anthropology students at Macquarie University)

Our clothes are travelers. Born to factories in distant lands, most of our clothes have already travelled thousands of kilometers by air, land and sea before settling in our wardrobes. Consumers are fairly aware of where clothes originate, but the continuing journey of our used clothes is less publicised. The majority of Australians donate their old clothes to charity or textile recycling organizations. However, after undergoing a stringent selection process determining their future path, our used clothes begin new travels across suburbs, states, and to locations a far as market stalls in Africa.  Clothes are far from lonely when they travel. Sources vary, but approximately half of what is donated to charity organizations will journey to exotic destinations some of us can only dream of. With the popularity of low priced, rapidly produced and ostensibly cool Fast Fashion, the volume of clothing and distance they travel is set to increase. The redistribution of used clothing to people in need, to the wardrobes of ethically driven (and often fashion conscious) consumers or to textile recycling plants is imperative. The extensive travelling of our clothes owes not only to advances in manufacture and design, but a shift in consumer purchasing behavior. Use value and longevity of a garment is not the only criteria consumers assess, fashionable capital is also a quality on which we base our clothing decisions.

The following article will discuss the influx of clothing circulating in the marketplace, mainly due to the disposable nature of trendy fashion in the last decade. Arguing that the throwaway nature of Fast Fashion clothes creates challenges for textile recycling and redistribution, this article will discuss the charity store donation and sorting process. With a large proportion of used clothes exported to overseas, excessive fashion consumption is influencing a decline in indigenous and local textile industries of developing countries.

Fast Fashion Dies Young

Eighty billion garments are produced worldwide every single year (Siegle, 2011:74). As the production and design processes of the Fast Fashion industry evolve and progressively become more sophisticated, volume is set to increase year on year. Fast Fashion has revolutionized the clothing industry, accelerating the design and manufacturing stages of production. Expressed through low priced clothes mirroring current trends from catwalks and style setters around the world. Fast Fashion’s design and production model seeks to transform ‘high fashion’ style into common trend, convincing consumers that what is demonstrated on the catwalks actually represents popular fashion. With an emphasis on rrefurbishing looks on a weekly rather than seasonal basis, Fast Fashion brands render a limited life span on the garments they sell.

Fashion brands in Europe and the USA are world leaders in the Fast Fashion industry. In particular, Zara, Topshop, H&M and the low end store Primark, are labels all renowned for recreating and selling runway trends and cutting edge designs.  In order to respond to every single modification in popular trend, time to market, (the period in which clothes are designed, produced and couriered to the retail store) has been reduced from weeks to days. Topshop has cut their production time from nine to six weeks. H&M, launching fashion that was effectively disposable, cut its lead-time from design to rail in just 3 weeks (Siegle, 2011:21). Spanish fashion monopoliser, Zara dominates the Fast Fashion industry. Zara manufactures small quantities of each style, ensuring its collections are considered ‘exclusive’ and thus creating an anxiety among consumers that they may ‘miss out’. Zara stores receive new fashion pieces twice a week. Each style is only received once and Zara does not reproduce past designs. The limited range of Zara styles encourage consumers to visit stores frequently, and replace their wardrobes just as often.

Hidden workers and planned obsolescence: Fast Fashions bread and butter

Competition between retailers means that high fashion clothes and styles are being produced at affordable prices, making trendy clothes accessible for most budgets and tastes. However there is a human face behind rapid manufacture. Fashion brands go to great lengths to distance their product and the consumer from the people that actually make these clothes (and their skills which are often attained through heritage and traditions). Even though workers possess the unique craftsmanship to produce such clothes, it is most likely they will never be able to afford them, nor experience them displayed in department stores and boutiques across the world. Branding, labeling and trends tend to hide or eliminate any evidence of the lives and history of the workers.

This multimillion dollar fashion export industry is powered by an approximate forty million garment workers, working out of 250,000 garment export factories (Siegle, 2011:41). This army of workers covers the vital point of the production process where the clothes are actually made – the crucial element that makes the nature of these clothes both fast and cheap. Bangladesh produces 1.5 billion jeans every year, India manufactures 7 billion pieces of Western clothing annually and in China, by 2002, 20 billion garments were being manufactured each year (Siegle, 2011:39). Workers in garment factories, or sweatshops, are subject to dangerous working conditions, long hours, low pay and lack union representation. Additionally, clothing manufacture is often outsourced to ‘home workers’. This employment is often hard to trace back to a particular brand due to the employment of faceless middlemen and a complex production line created by the Fast Fashion industry.  Home workers represent the unseen, the isolated and the bottom rung of the global fashion industry, they are responsible for sewing, beading and embellishing many thousands of garments every month (Siegle, 2011:51).

Keeping Fast Fashion alive, the sweatshops churning and the home workers employed is the concept of ‘planned obsolescence’. This is the practice in by which goods are designed and produced to have a limited lifespan yet still need to be replaced regularly. The trend of throwaway fashion owes much to the increases in clothing purchase frequency and a real reduction in price levels (Birtwistle and Moore, 2007:211). The Fast Fashion industry excels in the implementation of planned obsolescence.  Minor embellishments and amendments to designs are made at ever increasing intervals, ensuring their time as ‘cool’ is limited; marking indelibly if a piece was purchased during an earlier fashion cycle. In fact, Fast Fashion retailers such as H&M, Topshop and Zara sell garments that are expected to be used less than ten times, at very competitive price points, further contributing to the disposal of garments that may have only been worn a few times (Birtwistle and Moore, 2007:211).

Charity stores and the redistribution process

This disposability of clothing has resulted in a number of challenges for charity and textile recycling organisations. Donations have increased in size and in frequency. But, while the volume is increasing, the quality of the donations is decreasing. Charity stores are now competing with the low prices of Fast Fashion clothing and struggling to sell excess stock. Based on my research among two Australian national charity organizations, the following section will provide a general description of the textile recycling process in Australia and the challenges disposal fashion has imposed on the industry.

Clothes and accessories available in charity stores are sourced in four ways: corporate donations, third party recycling firms and public donations. In an attempt to contribute to the overall appearance and profit of the store, some charity organizations also purchase heavily discounted new clothes and accessories from brands eager to rid themselves of slow sellers and inter-season stock. Products acquired, include shoes and handbags utilized to compliment current stock and trends. All donations, or purchased stock undergo a stringent grading process. Clothes are assessed for their resale value and thoroughly checked for rips and stains and sorted into three categories, A, B and C grade. A grade garments are in good condition or valuable, making them suitable for resale on the shop floor. B and C grade garments are those which are soiled, deemed too old or washed too many times. B and C grade garments are transferred to recycling centers where they are inspected and either reincarnated for industrial purposes (such as rags) or sold on to third parties specializing in exporting clothing worldwide.

The sorting stage is a lengthy process and most sources of stock come with their own set of challenges. Corporate donations, although they could be perceived as a gesture of goodwill and a contribution to the overall profit of the charity, are effectively a means of disposal for companies with excess or faulty stock. Corporate donations are often samples, end of season stock, or over runs (excess stock of a particular style). Conditions of corporate donations often require charity stores to remove the clothing brand tag before resale. The sourcing of clothing from third party is also a gamble. Stock is received in secure bags and charity stores are unable to view the contents prior to purchase, meaning clothes received could be damaged or unpopular.

Donations from the public reveal the impact of disposable fashion on charity stores. Firstly charity stores are receiving an increasing amount of poor quality items. A representative of an Australian charity organization found that, in the last 5-6 years, the quality of worn clothing is deteriorating as the life span of a garment is reduced.  The low prices of disposable fashion present strong competition for charity stores, challenging their position in the affordable fashion market. Fast Fashion clothing also has an environmental impact. Due to the nature of Fast Fashion material, much of what is donated is synthetic, difficult to recycle and products that are cotton based are hard to reuse (Britten, 2008). The receipt of unworn clothes with price tags still attached is increasingly commonplace for some charity organizations, suggesting consumers are tiring of clothes at a faster rate and before they are even worn. Although these may pieces may be valuable for resale within charity stores, such excessive consumption is sustaining demand for the Fast Fashion industry. Furthermore, as clothes enter and exit the fashion market rapidly, their belonging to a particular trend is easily identifiable.  Once clothes are donated, they may have long lost their appeal.

Exporting clothing

The proportion of donated clothes retailed through charity stores differs slightly, depending on the source. According to Siegle (2011:218), only 10% of UK donations are sold through stores, while 50% is exported to developing countries.  Lee (2006) states that 25% of what recycling companies buy from charities is used as a commodity in an international trading economy. Hansen, Transberg (2004:3) suggests that charitable organisations are the largest single source of the garments that fuel the international trade in second hand clothing, consisting of between 40 and 75% of trade. Distributed via export and shipping firms, the lowest quality clothing goes to Africa, the medium quality to Latin America, while Japan receives the highest proportion of top quality items (ibid).  A simple google search reveals the number of Australian companies that export used clothing and accessories to countries such as Africa and the Pacific Islands.

Shipping and exporting firms make serious profits from the international used clothing trade due to a demand for European style clothing and fashion in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Karen Transberg Hansens’ research: Second Hand Clothing Encounters in Zambia (1999) details the demand for Western clothes in developing countries. Second hand clothing is seen in Zambia as a very special commodity, in fact it has its own name, Salaula. The term specifically refers to the process of imported used clothing from the West and sold in local markets. This term also graphically captures the practice of consumers selecting garments to satisfy clothing desires and needs (Hansen, Transberg, 1999:343). In Zambia, this type of clothing is seen as exclusive and an important imported commodity. For the anthropologist, the clothing offers special exposure on the interaction between the local and the west and because of the way, as dress, it mediates both individual and collective identities and desires (Hansen, Transberg, 1999:343). However, in order for the process to be successful, the sorting of clothes must adhere to specific guidelines. Developing countries are increasingly faced with the issue of receiving clothing that does not suit their climate or style (Siegle, 2011: 220). For example, African countries receiving European winter clothes that do not suit the continent’s warmer climate.

However, there is an adverse effect exporting used clothing imports on the domestic textile and garment industries. Many African countries originally had fairly well developed indigenous markets for textiles and clothing, particularly for handcrafted or hand tailored clothes. Sadly, these markets have virtually disappeared in the last few decades (Lee, 2006). Due to the poor quality and high price of locally produced garments, Zambians from most walks of life have continued to shop from Salaula throughout the 1990s (Hansen, Transberg, 1999:350).  In order to prevent a decline in local textile industries, some countries have taken drastic measures to end the importation of used clothing. Many countries strictly forbid the import of used clothing, while others restrict the volume or limit it to charitable purposes rather than for resale. Used clothing imports are banned in Indonesia because of the threat they pose to local garment production (Hansen, Transberg 2004:4). Mali charges import tariffs on second hand clothing, seeking to reduce its volume, with the aim of protecting the domestic textile industry (Hansen, Transberg 1999:348). However, these measures have birthed an illegal second hand clothes trade and exporters now attempt to smuggle used clothes countries with restrictions. The Nigerian customs service has seized numerous containers of prohibited goods, including used clothes entering with false customs declarations (Hansen, Transberg 2004:4). The impact of disposable fashion is evident when countries treat the illegal ferrying of used clothes in the same manner they would view the importation of illicit substances or arms.

Regulating Fashion

The allure of Fast Fashion is increasingly evident in our everyday lives. In January 2011, Kmart launched a low budget line of jeans priced at $10. By August 2011, Kmart had already sold almost half a million pairs (Collier and Winslow, 2011). Similarly, retail grocery giant Coles, launched a budget clothing line in August, 2011, with the majority of clothes priced below $25 (Baker, 2011).  Although these jeans may pass Australian quality standards, do they meet ethical standards? Kmart’s $10 jeans were produced and manufactured in China and Bangladesh (Collier and Winslow, 2011). Incidents such as the recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, killing almost 1000 workers suggests the manufacturing process remains largely unregulated.

There are some brands taking measures to gain accreditation from ethical fashion industry bodies, claiming transparency within their production processes, such as the fashion industry advocacy body Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA). Ginger & Smart, Collette Dinnigan and Cue are among companies involved in long term ECA efforts to encourage fashion companies to become transparent with their production processes.  Additionally, the ECA also requires companies to become compliant with its accreditation and labeling systems (Safe, 2011). Accredited brands are able to display an ECA trademark on Australian-made products, providing consumers with a way to identify and support ethically manufactured garments. On an international scale, clothing companies have taken similar steps in the last few years to become more transparent. Major brands such as Nike, adamant they have applied enough pressure on issues such as child labour, insist it is in decline in the garment industry (Siegle, 2011:60). To the merit of morally conscious consumers and advocacy groups, there are numerous movements dedicated to the eradication of sweatshop culture and the slowing down of consumerism. Some examples include; War on Want, Labour Behind The Label, Buy Nothing New and No Sweat.

Pledges to regulate the garment manufacture industry are integral to the workers employed, ensuring safety at work, ample payment and regular working hours. However, excessive consumption sustains the disposable clothing industry. Fast Fashion has created a new formula for how fashion is manufactured and available, perpetuating an expectation among consumers; for clothes to be low priced and delivered quickly. Reassessing our purchasing behavior, and buying clothes, when they are necessarily, ensuring they are durable and made to ethical standards could slow down Fast Fashion. But, while demand exists, our clothes will continue their extensive travelling, with their redistribution directing their journey, often passing by or settling in the regions they originated from.


Baker, Michael. 2011. Coles: a wolf in cheap clothing? The Age: 26.08.2011

Birtwistle, G and C.M. Moore. 2007. Fashion Clothing – Where Does It All End Up? International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management 35(3):210-216.

Britten, Fleur. 2008. Is Recycling Your Old Clothes Worth It? Times Online: 25.05.2008

Collier, Karen and Elouise Winslow. 2011. Discount Denims fool fussy fashionistas. Herald Sun: 06.08.2011

Lee, Mike. 2006. The Truth About Where Your Donated Clothes End Up. ABC NEWS (USA) 21/12/2006.

Safe, Georgina. 2011. Protection For Those Behind The Seams. Sydney Morning Herald: 29.09.2011

Siegle, Lucy. 2011. To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World? London: Fourth Estate.

Tranberg Hansen, Karen. 1999. Second Hand Clothing Encounters in Zambia: Global Discourses, Western Commodities, and Local Histories. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 69(3):343-365.

Tranberg Hansen, Karen. 2004. Helping or Hindering: Controversies Around the International Second-Hand Clothing Trade. Anthropology Today 20(4):3-9.

Buy Nothing New Month:

Ethical Clothing Australia:

Labour Behind The Label:

No Sweat :

War on Want :

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: