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Donating or dumping culture.

Updated: Feb 7, 2020

How can we address the moral ‘hall-pass’ of shifting the burden of clothing donations ?

We donate our clothes, to clean out the clutter of our closets and our moral burden of over shopping. The feeling of cleansing is refreshing and leads to new opportunities and space. We tend to fill the gaps with new, later unwanted, goods again. The cycle repeats itself. As Elizabeth Cline coined it in her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, it is the pattern of “clothing deficit myth.” We will never get enough of having too much.

How can we address the moral ‘hall-pass’ of donation, that will not lead to new shopping, but help reduce the overconsumption pattern of our current society?

From an online questionnaire I shared a couple of weeks ago, I was able to identify some user behavior trends when it comes to clothing use and disposal. 93.4% of the participants stated that they donate their clothing once they are done with it. Donations include, family and friends, aid groups like Goodwill, Salvation Army and Oxfam, and lately retail take-back’s initiatives, such as the Thredup.

With the highest traffic ending at the aid groups, we walk away with empty bags, full hearts and new gaps to fill in our closets. The donation culture is filled with good intentions of contributing to social and economic initiatives while saving the planet. But 70% of the participants would still replace their garments with newly purchased goods from fashion retailer, such as H&M, Urban Outfitters or GAP. This is a great example of a system trap.

System traps, as discussed by Donella Meadows in Thinking in Systems, are the ways in which a system can go wrong. We live in a world created by system structures and rely on these policies to guide our daily thinking, but without acknowledging the errors that can occur in these systems, and how to solve them, we will not be able to change the policies to create a better structure for all.

What really happens to the clothes we donate? If the goods does not have reselling value or capability (facilities, staff, customer traffic or logistics) the masses of donated goods are resold to traders of second-hand clothing. The clothes are bought in 1,000-pound bales, sorted and then goes to developed country market spaces, like sub-Saharan Africa, South America and China. The reselling of the second-hand clothes are starting to dominate the local informal clothing industries by taking jobs away from textile workers and traders. While they can also provide jobs, this prevent local development. In many African countries, over 80% of the population dress themselves in second-hand clothing.

Shifting the burden of clothing waste, is a system trap where efforts to implement a ‘quick fix’ lead to a temporary improvement to the symptom of over consumption, but does nothing to address the root causes, so the burden forever remains on short–term attempts to address the deeper issue that are destined to fail. In turn this bandaid undermines the motivation to implement the fundamental solution.

With donating our clothes we are participating in the “out of sight, out of mind” or philanthropic challenge. We drop-off our clothing waste burden, with the hope for a second life and potentially a good cause. But the fundamental backfiring issue is not addressed of the masses of garments being produced, purchased and disposed everyday.

According to Overseas Development Institute, the U.S. alone sends away approximately a billion pounds of used clothing per year, making it the eighth largest export. This market has been trademarked in countries like Nigeria and Mozambique, as kafa ulaya (the clothes of the dead whites) and roupa da calamidade (clothing of the calamity).

Donating clothing to aid groups is still the better solution than disposing your waste garments to landfill. But by participating in the donating culture may lift the moral weight temporarily, until it lead to new purchase that eventually end as a donation again. The cycle end up with high levels of dumping in developed markets that is drowning in the ‘kindness’ of last years fashion.

The donation culture can also be looked at from the systematic approach of a reinforcing feedback loop. A reinforcing feedback loop is a self-enhancing loop, or a snowballing effect. As people donate more, they feel comfortable with buying more, and the cycle feeds on itself. A better approach would be to balance the reinforcing feedback loop by reducing consumption in the first place.

Within the next phase of my M.A Design for Sustainability final project, I will be looking how to extend the donation loop into an exchange loop of used and reused clothing. The potential of a positive reinforcing feedback loop can be connected with the behavior action of donating your clothing to extend the life of the garments or to support aid group with potential philanthropic outcomes. To close the loop the behavior can be leveraged with incentivized exchange culture programs like clothing swaps, educational campaigning of impact with donation tracking number and transparency.

Fashion System Thinking Sustainability Donations Circulareconomy

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