Why I won’t be donating to the “Phil the Bag” recycling scheme for schools

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Clothes Swap Event

If you have kids at school, you’ll know the drill.  A letter from school asking that you donate something or other to help the school raise funds, or to use for a project. Or that you go and buy something to donate for the school fete, or that they need to go in fancy dress, usually with about half a day’s notice.

These things always make me anxious.  I’m no good at sewing (I was always bottom of the class and ditched it for woodwork as soon as I could – not that I’m any good at that either) and if I am going to buy something I want it to be secondhand, or free of packaging – and the short notice always makes this difficult. I like to plan things ahead. But I also don’t want to feel guilty for being the mum that doesn’t join in with the idea.

My son has just started at a new school.  I was hoping things might be slightly different. He told me they had been asking for nominations for  “Eco Warriors” or “Eco Council”.  Although he didn’t want to stand he did want to suggest they had more recycling bins, particularly in the dining area and told me that he had been telling his class all about “Plastic Free July”.  Proud mum moment (of course I really wanted him to volunteer as well – but he thought it would be more boring than football!).

Then came the first letter asking for something.  Donations to an “innovative fundraising programme” called Phil the Bag (and there are many other similar schemes operating in schools around the UK).  On the face of it this looks a good idea.  You take in your unwanted, but still useable, clothes and other textiles.  The school receives money based on the  quantity of textiles they collect.  At the same time this, and I quote the school’s letter “not only develops the children’s sense of enterprise but also teaches them about the importance of recycling and how we can protect the environment.”  Sounds great doesn’t it?

Being the curious sort of person I am I contacted the school to see if they knew more about what actually happens to the donated textiles.  I then searched online myself and easily found the website for the scheme.  And the educational aspect of it looks great – and I can see it would be very attractive to schools.  They are even helping the environment by no longer providing plastic bags for you to fill but asking you to provide your own (surely this couldn’t be a cost cutting exercise?).

So, what happens to your donations? 

The first thing I noticed is that Phil the Bag is not a charity.  This is clearly stated if you look at their website.  They are a business, buying good quality clothes at a knockdown price to sell on for a profit.

The donated textiles are sold on to a wholesaler in Africa who then sells them on to local markets.  It has been suggested that this kind of trade undermines the local economy as the market is flooded with cheap clothes from the West. This puts local people out of work. A friend tells me there was an investigative programme on this on TV (Dispatches or Unreported World or similar).  The volume of donations (you only need to imagine the number of schools and community groups participating in such schemes as a way of fundraising to see this is going to be vast) means that at least some of it is likely to end up in landfill sites in Africa rather than ever being sold.  Are we simply shifting our problems of overconsumption overseas rather than facing up to them at home? A number of African countries have actually banned imported clothing to start addressing this issue, which also affects the countries’ balance of trade surplus/deficit.

And we are teaching the children that this is good “recycling”.  Actually it is not “recycling” but “re-use” but perhaps I’m a pedant.  Perhaps there are more Rs we should be telling them about as well, starting with Refuse and Reduce.  There is no denying that it is “enterprising”, but on the part of the company making all the profit, rather than the school.

Such schemes are also potentially diverting goods from genuine charities or relief projects.

Is there a better alternative?

I would love the children to learn about re-use in the context of a Circular Economy operating at a much more local level.  Why send our clothes all the way to Africa if they can be found a good new home in the same town?

Of course the school needs to raise funds (the letter says the scheme will raise money for “vital resources” – trying to make me feel guilty if I don’t take part?), but perhaps a Swishing event (clothes swap) or even a table top sale could raise an amount closer to the real value of the donated goods.  This may not have the “ready made” educational resource that comes with schemes like the Phil the Bag, but the benefits might really be much greater.

And if you do want to donate to people in Africa, do so through a genuine charity – if the intention is to clothe people in Africa, it might be better to donate money to be spent on locally made clothes rather than to swamp them with our unwanted items. And if you want to donate your unwanted clothes, do a bit of research into where they will end up, as some charities, and a lot of those organisations posting bags through your letterbox, also send clothes to overseas wholesalers as reported in this BBC article  Where do Your Old Clothes Go?

Phil the Bag – this is one innovative fund raising programme in which I won’t be taking part. And I won’t be feeling guilty.

Now I just have to explain that to my 9 year old.

 

UPDATE

After writing I noticed that Phil the Bag claim to be an official partner to Eco Schools, an initiative run by Keep Britain Tidy.  I contacted Keep Britain Tiday in the hope they could allay my concerns.  I have now received a response and it turns out that Phil the Bag have not actually worked with Eco Schools for many years.  Keep Britain Tidy say they entirely agree that we should be teaching our kids about the circular economy at a local rather than global level and suggest The Salvation Army as a better partner to worth with on clothing donation schemes.