Gill Perkins, CEO of Wandsworth Oasis, who have branches in Tooting and across south London, on how charity shops can provide an alternative to ‘Fast Fashion’... 

I loved the title of the Charity Retail Association’s recent blog on today’s throwaway culture so much, I decided to plagiarise it (I asked them of course!). 

This generation – and I sort of count myself amongst its members – have largely lost the skills of sewing and repairing. Clothing is no longer worn for years and years, but is seen as more ‘disposable’ – perhaps because of the constant sales and availability of cheap items in supermarkets and the presence of the big high street discounters which just weren’t around when I was younger.    

I was horrified to read various reports on the ugly impact of the fashion industry on the environment. Did you know that discarded clothing made of non-biodegradable fabrics can sit in landfills for up to 200 years, not to mention bring minute particles of plastic in to our oceans? Did you know that it takes 2,700 litres of water to make one cotton shirt, enough to meet the average person’s drinking needs for two-and-a-half years? And this is without looking at the societal impacts of the industry. Fast fashion really needs to slow down…

The same is true of furniture – beautiful brown wood wardrobes and dressers built to last are not in vogue, with people preferring to fill their homes with cheap DIY furniture that rarely survives a house move. In a fascinating report in 2015 by the RSA called Rearranging the Furniture, the design researchers discovered that each year, reuse and recycling companies are forced to throw away thousands of tonnes of sofas and chairs to land-fill sites rather than find them a new home as regulation fire labels are not present. We have this problem all the time at Wandsworth Oasis – beautiful sofas we are not legally allowed to sell  as the fire labels have been cut off by the previous owner (as they’re often deemed annoying or unsightly). Not only does this cause problems with the potential donor, but has a direct impact on landfill locally. 

The report also said that every year in the UK we throw out around 1,600,000 tonnes of so-called “bulky waste” – large items that are too large to fit into a standard dustbin and concluded that more than half of this could be reused – helping to reduce poverty by helping households in need access furniture, white goods and other household items. Whilst the UK now recycles 42% of the 200 million tonnes of waste it generates each year, the emphasis on recycling neglects to focus adequately on the potential for increased resource efficiency through reusing old products, the report said.

Charity shops and other second hand outlets have the real ability to become the ethical and sustainable alternative – or perhaps even antidote – to fast fashion and all its negative implications and to filling landfill with unwanted, perfectly serviceable furniture. But it isn’t  as simple as it would seem to get the reuse and recycling message out. Despite a long-established national network of charity shops and increasing numbers of in-store recycling points in UK high-street stores, three-quarters of Britons throw away unwanted clothing, rather than donating or recycling it. And the cost of transportation to get the furniture in to the charity shops for resale is high. 

At Wandsworth Oasis we try to be creative in the promotion of charity shops and their role in the circular economy. We work in partnership with local organisations like Transition Town Tooting, the Tooting Hub and South Thames College to showcase how items from our shops can be upcycled or simply worn again as is. We even invited the MP for Tooting, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan to browse the rails of our Amen Corner shop and see if she could snap up a bargain. And we have an initiative with WRWA to encourage man and van companies to take usable furniture and clothing to a charity shop before they drive up on the weigh bridge at the tip. But it’s not enough – please encourage your friends and family to donate reusable items to a charity shop, rather than dump them. And if you aren’t a charity shop junkie, come to one of our fabulous shops across Wandsworth and see for yourself what you’re missing out on!