France

Buying second-hand clothes: is it really green? – The underside of the second hand in Rennes

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Buying second-hand clothing from a thrift store is good for your wallet. But is it also for the planet? At first glance, it does not make a crease: better to reuse a shirt already worn by someone not far from home.

Except that in practice, each professional can call on a plethora of sources, more or less polluting, to feed their stocks of old clothes. And your beautiful shirt found around the corner may have been bought on the other side of the planet.

A confusing term

In order to see more clearly, it is necessary to sort out the supply circuits of second-hand stores. Not easy, because each shop has its own method. To make matters worse, the term “thrift store” is confusing. It can designate solidarity stores such as Emmaüs. But also high-end boutiques where you can unearth old luxury models. Between the two: a wide spectrum of consignment and personal supply circuits.

Where do fries come from?

Clothes are like fruit: it’s better to buy local. But it’s not easy to find your way around the jungle of second-hand shops. Each has its source of supply: the least expensive can operate with donations, others favor consignment or specialized wholesalers. To reduce your carbon footprint, the safest thing to do is to go to the good old garage sale.

Stéphanie Arzaud, owner of the very select Rossignol de mes amours (specialized in vintage), chooses each piece herself. “Antiquing is a party,” she smiles behind a steaming cup of tea. I also work with second-hand dealers”. Frank Krembser, of Vintage DNA, has “a whole network of touts”. “I buy by the piece, not in batches”. On the other hand, 200 m away, at Soleil noir, “these are sometimes private deposits, but especially wholesalers to whom we place orders by theme”.

Pieces from all over the world

Jonathan Frips is one of Europe’s second-hand wholesale specialists. From his warehouse in Normandy, he supplies the Rennais de la Friperie Vintage or the Chineurs de sapes (online). The clothes arrive in bags of several hundred kilos from the USA, Canada, Japan… They are then dispatched according to their quality, the tastes of the buyers or the fashion. Some thrift shops therefore sell pieces from all over the world. Like Kilo shop, near the town hall, which belongs to another Norman heavyweight in the sector, Eureka.

It’s as many additional boat trips made by clothes, which have already crossed the oceans. A pair of jeans can travel 65,000 km from the cotton field to its sale. That is 1.6 times around the Earth. Suffice to say that the green side of second-hand clothes takes a hit. The carbon impact is lower for consignment stores, which put private clothing on the shelves and pay them a percentage.

What are Le Relais boxes used for?

What about the large white or green “Le Relais” boxes for donating clothes, shoes and accessories? There are 1,900 in Brittany. In 2021, the French deposited nearly 250,000 tonnes of used parts at collection points. Many believe that they are given directly to the needy. However, these coins are not intended to be redistributed. Le Relais 35 is a cooperative society (Scop) which resells the clothing deposited to develop its activity. 6% are resold locally, mainly in second-hand Ding Fring stores (Rennes, Chantepie and Saint-Grégoire). 55% go to Africa or Eastern Europe. The rest is turned into insulation.

Le Relais Bretagne claims a turnover of 4.5 M€. “The money is directed towards the payroll, insists Pascal Milleville, director of Relais 35. We must be profitable if we want to give as many jobs as possible to people who have experienced a break in their lives. In Brittany, textiles are only processed by social and solidarity economy companies”. In all, 160 employees are attached to the huge Relais 35 warehouse, a maze of catwalks and bales of compressed clothing.

The second-hand circuit

Through the windows, you can see the steeple of Acigné behind the trees. The machines purr. The radio is singing a Metallica hit. On the treadmills, shirts and pants parade. Employees evaluate them in a fraction of a second to send them to the appropriate bin. This safe gesture requires “a month and a half to two months of training”. A small part will be resold in the Rennes region – a model defended by Pascal Milleville: “A person may feel uncomfortable receiving a donation. Buying, even at 50 cents, helps to preserve dignity”.

Pascal Milleville points to a pile of clothes. “That’s what we send to Africa when we don’t have a local re-employment solution”. Relais 35 has developed other sorting platforms in Madagascar, Burkina Faso and Senegal. “850 employees, and the results remain in the country”. Coins are resold by retailers in markets. “It’s quality, not waste, nor furs or ski suits”, repeats three times Pascal Milleville, visibly annoyed by “certain reports” which criticize this activity. We think of “Where do our clothes end up? “, broadcast on Arte last year. Images of t-shirts too damaged to be sold and rotting on African beaches, in the absence of recycling channels.

Could they not be reused in France? In reality, donations, swollen by overconsumption, far exceed demand. “Here, we have 9,400 tonnes of clothing per year. The homeless don’t need as much to dress up.” And this is only a fraction of the 625,000 t of textiles placed on the French market every year. The solution to green the sector? The textile walls of the warehouse shout it from the ceiling: produce less to throw away less.



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