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Feature article in Information, May 2023. Written by Tina Donnerborg, Head of Red Cross Recycling.

Recycling is booming in Denmark. More and more people – from diverse backgrounds – are purchasing recycled items and donating to recycling.

However, there are some concerns, as pointed out by Terese Weng, a student in Design Studies, in Information on April 29th. She raises the questions, where does the donated clothing end up? Why are prices in charity shops so high? And is thrift shopping fundamentally just a way to cleanse the collective guilty conscience of Western overconsumption.

I work in this field as the head of Red Cross Recycling, and my task is to raise funds for the humanitarian and social work that the Red Cross does internationally and in Denmark through the collection and resale of used clothing.

Last year, Red Cross Recycling achieved a record-breaking revenue of 281 million Danish kroner. This achievement allowed us to directly contribute 100 million kroner to the Red Cross’s core mission of helping those in need, both globally and domestically. I take pride in this, and I know it also it means a lot to many of the customers we meet in our shops every day.

As someone who is deeply involved in the recycling market I’ve witnessed an increase in interest, more customers, higher turnover, and a significant destigmatization of purchasing second-hand items up close in recent years. It’s surprising to me that recycling is often criticized for not being sustainable, straightforward, or a sensible use of resources.

For it is, quite simply, undifferentiated criticism.

Overconsumption is a challenge

In the Red Cross organization alone, we ’save’ the climate from emitting more than 18,000 tons of CO₂ annually in the overall balance. This positive impact on our collective climate is achieved despite using trucks for transportation of clothing and maintaining lighting and heating in our shops.

However, this should not be an excuse for excessive clothing consumption in general, and I understand Terese Weng’s questions and concerns. Is recycling just a new way to vent one’s overconsumption habits? Overconsumption that, as Weng notes, is sometimes even promoted by the Red Cross through persuasive Instagram posts, encouraging people to visit the nearest charity shop and make purchases even when the wardrobes are already overflowing?

I interpret this as some believing that we should instead go on a ‘shopping celibacy,’ wherein we purchase only what we need and mend items when they require repair. While this lifestyle is admirable for some, I think it is a strategy that may struggle to succeed in our growth-oriented society, where the pursuit of ‘new’ and ‘more’ have been drivers of societal development throughout evolution.

Therefore, I believe in a strategy where we move away from poor-quality clothing. We need to focus significantly more on how to minimize the purchase of low-quality clothing. It has much worse recycling potential and typically costs the same in terms of climate impact to produce as higher-quality clothing.

I see it myself at our sorting center in Horsens: we receive unbelievably large quantities of clothing that are of such poor quality that they cannot be resold in Denmark. Instead, we have to send it to other countries, where lower-quality clothing can still be traded. In Red Cross Recycling, we support an agenda of better quality clothing and therefore longer lifespan for clothing.

If we are really lucky, it could mean that in Red Cross Recycling, we can sell the same piece of clothing multiple times, benefiting more consumers, the environment, and our bottom line, which will generate more profits for the Red Cross’s work.

Dumping in Africa

Another criticism is that there are challenges with our business model, and isn’t the clothing just ending up in landfills in Africa? And yes, some of our clothing probably ends up in a landfill in Africa.

Over the years, I have read many feature articles and stories about the problems created by textile production. Most recently, a very nuanced article in this newspaper, where Information described what is called Obroni Wawu – the dead white man’s clothing – which ends up as waste in Africa.

But in Red Cross Recycling, our focus is on maximizing the direct reuse of the textiles we collect, benefiting consumers. Our figures show that 78 percent are reused directly in either Denmark or abroad. We do this in many ways:

We partner with surplus clothing buyers who can ensure that as much as possible can be sold in charity shops. We inspire more Danes to engage in do-it-yourself projects on our social media, so recycled clothing is sewn, altered, and given new life. We have an outlet shop with very low prices, increasing accessibility for those on a tight budget. Our latest initiative is the online shop, rodekorsgenbrug.dk, making recycling more accessible to all consumers.

I wouldn’t call this greenwashing, but rather smart consumption with thought and awareness.

In Red Cross Recycling, we also support new research projects, entrepreneurs, and designers in developing new products and production methods from recycled materials. We are making progress, but we are far from reaching the goal, which, in the best case, is 100 percent reuse. I hope that many smart and creative minds will explore new avenues by innovating opportunities for reusing fibers in future production. The technology just isn’t there yet.

We cannot guarantee that the clothing we sell to consumers won’t end up by the roadside. But fundamentally, our task is to ensure that textiles that have already been produced are reused as much as possible, for the benefit of as many as possible. And with that goal in mind, we are constantly identifying weak links, optimizing, and evolving.

Sustainable on multiple fronts

I dare say that recycling is still the way forward in the pursuit of more environmentally friendly consumption in a larger sustainable development. A development that can only happen because 10,000 volunteers in Red Cross shops and volunteers in other NGOs treat each piece of clothing with love and respect, and because customers and donors support us.

In line with this, I can confirm that prices for clothing in Red Cross shops have been adjusted in recent years. We have raised prices on more expensive clothing while maintaining lower prices on cheaper items. There are two reasons for this:

First and foremost, charity shops are businesses. The higher the turnover, the more resources for the Red Cross’s social initiatives in Denmark and international emergency relief work. Additionally, in our experience, those who donate clothing for recycling are typically aware of the value of their items. Therefore, in recent years, we’ve placed a stronger emphasis on more accurate pricing, like adding a percentage to the price for brand-new or high-end brand items.

This naturally means that there are fewer outright bargains, but the price range still means that everyone has the opportunity to buy recycled items. And the contribution to Red Cross activities that support thousands of children and adults each year is growing. This is not unimportant, as in the Red Cross, we experience significant interest and demand for our services – services that require funding. We run recycling programs to fund exactly the help and support that people in need require.

Charity shops are one of the first and most common sharing services we have, and it’s the NGOs and good causes that have been behind the development. We can recycle, and we can help those in need.