the op shop allure: friend or foe? | The Ladies Network

This piece was written for The Ladies Network.

op shop vintage

Marie Kondo entered the scene and changed the future of our homes, our belongings, and subsequently, the op shop. In teaching us, “Keep only those things that speak to your heart, then take the plunge and discard all the rest,” you can imagine countless women lugging old, worn goods and clothing by the bagful to the nearest charity store. While it’s all well and good to create some visual and mental space, there are greater, more worldwide effects as a result.

Like many young Australian women, I’ve developed a penchant for op shopping over the years. I felt the thrill when I discovered an almost-perfect Donna Karan grey blazer. I collected an array of brandless vintage garments, giving my wardrobe a bit of edge and differentiation. Hand in hand with the shopping goes the donating. I grew up on an ‘avoid the landfill’ mentality, so each garment that no longer served a purpose, yet remained fit for another life, was swiftly bagged up and donated. Until recently, I had faith that this action was one of help, but, as I am learning and continue to discover, these good deeds are not all they appear to be on the surface. As Lynne Bateson recently wrote for The Spectator, “The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.”

Over the years many journalists and nay-sayers have uncovered the “truth” about charity stores – while many do have charitable intentions, they also benefit greatly from our off-casts: selling on to us (the public), selling on to textile recycling firms (often for dismantling into rags and industrial items), and international trading, shipping remaining unwanted garments on to developing areas of the world, including Africa. (As a side note, a portion is also frequently sent to landfill as well. Those tatty H&M singlets don’t have a promising future. Just another reason to buy lasting quality, trendless pieces).

As a recent visitor to Africa, and now an individual with a growing passion for the area, the global effect has me tearing my hair out. While we may believe these garments are going to support poor families in need of clothing in these areas, the truth is considerably destructive for many as well.

Fashpack: Freetown (back on ABC iView – watch it now) is an insightful short series, following Australian Jo Dunlop’s fashion discoveries in Sierra Leone (also on her blog, Freetown Fashpack). Streets are lined with markets, selling bucket-loads of our unwanted clothing at ridiculously cheap prices. In essence, not such a bad thing. Great pieces are found, new discoveries made, and mostly at a bargain rate. But there are two things to consider.

For one, the amount of unwanted clothing arriving on their shores is astonishing. In 2014 alone, it’s reported that some East African countries imported more than $300 million of donated clothing. Shit-loads. Literally lining the streets, everywhere. More clothes than could ever be required.

On the local side, how does Africa’s fashion industry fare with all these cheap, second-hand garments and markets? Incredibly poorly, it seems, so much so that the tailors and small garment producers are fading into nothing. They can’t compete on price. Just like us, they’re after a bargain. In turn, this means struggles for the economy, loss of work, and a loss of traditional workmanship and skills. Coming out of Africa we are seeing some of the most talented, innovative and colourful designs; the ones we need to break up our largely monochromatic wardrobes living in the city. It’s not worth losing over a few unwanted garments. As a result, many East African countries are now trying to place a ban on the imports in an effort to lift the economy once again.

I will always be an op shop supporter, if only for selfish reasons enabling me to purchase new clothing at a fraction of the price and keep a slightly updated wardrobe. Obviously, we reach a point with many of our clothes where they truly can no longer be worn, whether it’s because of size or change in taste. Landfill isn’t the back up. These African nations need to establish a balance too, where cheap imports help clothe those lacking and local manufacturing is supported and nurtured. What it comes down to for us is buying more quality over quantity; buying the pieces you truly love, opposed to those to only be worn once; loving your wardrobe and utilising every piece. Bucking the trends. Next time you decide to Marie Kondo the shit out of your place, maybe consider another alternative – a clothes swap, market stall, creative project. We’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re just modifying it to achieve a better outcome for all.

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