When uniform reaches the end of it’s life

28th October 2021 / Posted by Impressions

In March 2020 we launched our Schoolwear re-cycling scheme, Smart Futures CIC.  Not a great time to start anything but we didn’t realise that at the time! We are now gathering momentum and have successfully passed on lots of uniform to families that need it and 2022 promises to be much bigger and better! However working on the project has certainly thrown up lots of issues that we hadn’t previously given much thought to.

At Smart Futures we ensure the clothes we get donated are used for the longest possible time.  The uniform that is made by the suppliers we love best, like our Woodbank Sweatshirts or our David Luke blazers for example (and there are lots more on our website) are usually in fabulous condition when they come to us and can often be used again and again.

But what do we do with the uniform we can’t use?  The simple answer is that there isn’t anything we can do with it except put it in the bin and hope that, at best, it gets incinerated and turned into energy.  At worst it goes to landfill.  If the garments are made of natural fabrics such as cotton don’t concern me as these will naturally biodegrade over time if they do make their way to landfill.  But if the garment is made from polyester, it won’t. Essentially, it’s plastic.  So ideally, we don’t want that in landfill.

According to WRAP (Waste Resources Action Programme) more than 300,000 tonnes of used clothing go to landfill every year. It’s a bigger problem for school wear as none of the major UK textile recyclers in the UK have, so far, been willing to take our scrap fabric.

Most scrap fabrics are shipped overseas to be sold in second-hand markets.  However, in Schoolwear, the problem is that the garments have a school logo embroidered on so can’t be sold.

Wrap estimates that more than 70% of all UK reused clothing heads overseas – as part of a global second-hand trade in which billions of old garments are bought and sold around the world every year.  The UK is the second largest used clothing exporter after the US.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t all get re-used. The OR Foundation—a US-based non-profit that aims to better Ghana’s second-hand clothing problem, where 30,000 tonnes arrive in its capital, Accra, every year—found that 40 per cent of what the country receives goes straight into landfill.

“Countries are concerned about taking used clothing because they want to protect their own primary industries,” says Keith James, special advisor at WRAP. “The challenge is really growing the market for recycling; creating a new demand for recycled fibres.”

Even that isn’t perfect.  Whilst it’s great that we are able to make polyester from recycled plastic bottles instead of virgin polyester, that still doesn’t solve the problem.

In an article in Vogue in November 2019 Emily Chan wrote that whilst using recycled plastic may be fashionable to use in clothing now, we need to consider the long-term environmental impacts of both extruding the plastic to turn it into polyester fabric and the perhaps more importantly what happens to it when it stops being a wearable garment.

She quotes Mother of Pearl creative director Amy Powney, who suggested that “If we don’t have an infrastructure for recycling it in the correct way, then it ends up in landfill, whether it’s virgin or recycled.”

There has to be another way.  We are sending far too many garments to landfill and the environmental impact is huge.  This affects us all.  Passing our garments to a charity shop or a CIC such as ours might be passing to a worthwhile cause but it is also passing the book if those garments are in no condition to be re-used.

We have to understand where the garments we wear come from, how they are made and what the impacts are and what happens to them when we are done wearing them. So, we need to consider the garments we buy and what they are made from.  And we need to accelerate the technology that can turn our used clothes into something else of use.


We all need clothes & uniform.  We all need to share the responsibility.


Caeryn Collins