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Julia Roebuck: Clothing In Circular Communities


To reduce the increasing volume of textile waste caused by fast fashion, traditional routes for clothing re-use need to get creative, embrace localism and think circular.

The Coronavirus pandemic exposed many problems in the global textiles and fashion industry. The cancelled orders, lack of financial support from brands to suppliers and the fast fashion factories implicated in the Leicester lockdown all made media headlines. In addition to the many problems within the garment manufacturing and retailing phases of the supply chain, another problem was occurring at the end-of-life phase: An enormous build-up of post-consumer textile waste.

Charity Retail Under Pressure

Between March – May 2020, lockdown clear-outs occurred in households across the country. Out of lofts, spare bedrooms and wardrobes poured the nation’s unwanted clothing. Yet, with charity shops closed and many textile bring sites taped up (sorting facilities were closed as no stock could be moved on) bags of clothing remained in car boots, hallways and garages until the usual routes for unwanted textiles could re-open.

When the high streets of Britain opened in June 2020, the routes for unwanted clothing were not able to operate as usual. With older volunteers shielding, unwell or not able to return, there was a reduction in the usual 250,000 strong volunteer workforce who staff the charity retail sector across the UK. Some charity retail spaces could not open as they didn’t meet the Covid secure requirements. In addition, extra storage space is required to quarantine all donations for 72 hours prior to sorting. These combined factors meant that not all of the 11,200 charity shops across the UK could open, and the ones that did open were stuck in the bottleneck, sorting an increased quantity of post-lockdown donations.

Furthermore, many donations, regardless of quality, had to be discarded or collected by textile recycling companies as there were not enough volunteers to sort through them all, and not enough space to store them. Shoppers were not purchasing at a rate that matched donations, which was true even before the pandemic (only 18% of all discarded clothing is sold back into use through charity retail routes) but the ratio of citizens donating vs citizens buying reached such an imbalance during summer 2020 that some charity shops are still refusing donations until more stock is cleared.

Circular Solutions for Pre-Loved Clothing

In addition to raising over £295m for a range of causes in the UK, charity shops are well placed to act as pre-loved textile hubs within each of their own communities. They are embedded in the behaviours and culture of unwanted clothing in the UK and a well-travelled route for many citizens getting rid of unwanted products that are too good to take to their local Household Waste and Recycling Centre. When framed from a waste prevention perspective however, charity shops can go a lot further to connect pre-loved clothing with people and projects to keep many garments in active use locally.

Upcycle Fashion’s mission is to extend the useful life of clothing, and a circular approach at a local level seeks to join up community assets: People (sewers, volunteers), projects (Uniform Exchange, Food Bank) and places (community centre, church hall) to match different types of pre-loved clothing with the appropriate person or project to ensure garment longevity.

This approach keeps the pre-loved clothing that charity shops can’t sort or sell in active use within communities, instead of being sold by the kilo to textile recyclers, which is better for people and better for the planet.

Providing circular approaches within communities relies on a variety of individuals and groups who see the pre-loved clothing as a valuable resource for their project. I have been excited to explore this approach in my community with the support of our local charity shop and these are a few of the projects that have already launched, or are in the pipeline ready for when Covid restrictions allow:

Action for Change

Sustainable fashion has many interpretations, but it is the opinion of Upcycle Fashion that we need to connect people with their clothing to truly value the garments we own. To perform basic repair techniques, or support a reuse economy and pay those with sewing skills to repair for you. We need to rethink how we consume clothing in order to slow down rapid overconsumption. Circular alternatives to linear take-make-waste models include swapping, sharing, customising and upcycling, all of which provide social and wellbeing benefits in addition to reducing the negative environmental impact of the textiles and fashion sector.

Upcycle Fashion uses these three approaches to drive change:

1. Making Spaces

Over the last 40 years, the teaching of hand sewing skills for garment mending and making in schools and the home has reduced. Communities are well placed to make spaces for the teaching of these skills by opening up community spaces for workshops. Whether pop-up sessions across different spaces, or one designated permanent space, different communities will have their own preferred approach to suit their infrastructure.

2. Rewear Revolution

According to the Fashion Revolution campaign, Loved Clothes Last. As wearers of clothing, we all play a role in ensuring its longevity. Sewing skills for garment repair, customisation and upcycling help to keep our clothing in active use for as long as possible. This reduces waste and, when a new garment is not bought in its place, also reduces overconsumption of raw materials, mass manufacture and transportation of clothing around the world. A Rewear Revolution seeks to  encourage a love of what is already in our wardrobes and to place value on the stories of its active use.

3. Drop and Shop

As previously mentioned, charity shops serve most people’s drop-and-go approach but what we need to create change is a mentality of drop-and-shop. To reduce waste, and increase sales, it is essential the charity retail spaces include an engaging and social offering, turning more people into droppers and shoppers.

If you have any examples of Clothing in a Circular Community near you, I would love to hear from you! Email [email protected] or find me on social media @upcyclefashion

Julia Roebuck is the founder of Upcycle Fashion and works to deliver circular & sharing fashion projects in communities to reduce textile waste.

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