What to do with old undies

Most of us know what to do with our second-hand clothes. If they are in good condition we either give them to a friend, take them to a charity shop, or sell them on to a grateful new owner. If they are not in good condition we may take them to a recycling bank or, if we’re feeling creative, upcycle them into something else. (Some people throw them in the bin, though I of course am not advocating that!)

But, what do you do with your underwear when it has seen better days? I have no shame in admitting that my first thought is to mend mine. If some elastic has come unstitched on a pair of pants, or lace has come loose on a bra, assuming it is otherwise good condition, I will reach for a needle and thread. However, if your bra no longer fits, you don’t like the style or it has lost its shape, that’s a different story. It’s not quite as simple as selling it at your local jumble sale, giving it to your best friend or taking it to your local charity shop. Not everyone likes the idea of wearing someone else’s bra, so many charity shops won’t take them because they can be hard to sell.

I recently reorganised my wardrobe and found a box of bras that I’d removed from active service around two years ago. That box had sat forgotten under the dressing table ever since, as I had no idea what to do with its contents. Some of the bras had lost their stretch (and therefore their support), though many are almost as good as new but no longer fit me. Re-discovering them reminded me of Oxfam’s ‘Bra Hunt’, a one-off campaign they ran in April this year that was designed to encourage women to donate their bras. It also served to highlight Oxfam’s “full-circle” policy whereby they use (and make money from) everything that is donated - they aim to send nothing to landfill.

Helen Mirren, Miquita Oliver and Zoe Ball, all supporters of Oxfam's 'Bra Hunt'.

Jenna Birks from Foundation Agency, the PR company who work with Oxfam Fashion, told me more about what happens to your undies after you donate them:

Bras can be donated instore or in clothing banks. They can be in any condition - if Oxfam shops in the UK can't sell them, they are sent to Oxfam's sorting facility in Huddersfield. Some will be sent to Frip Ethique, others may be broken down and recycled to make cushion fillings etc.”

Frip Ethique, to which Jenna refers, is an Oxfam-run social enterprise in Senegal which enables the women (and a few men) who work there to build their own livelihoods. In a country where working conditions are difficult and work itself is scarce, staff at Frip Ethique are well looked after - they have job security, a union, are paid a living wage, receive sickness benefits and a pension.

Clothing donations arrive from the UK and the team at Frip Ethique sort them, after which they sell them to local market traders for a good profit. El Hadji, known as Diop, has worked at Frip Ethique for six years. He was a soldier before that and found it very hard to find work afterwards. Diop now works in the sorting centre, running the department where the sorted clothes are packed up in to bales:

“There are lots of advantages to working here: I can keep a family. I’ve got a wife, and six babies - three boys and three girls.  My wife is a teacher. I can keep all my family on what I earn here. I’m the supervisor.  I take the clothes to the baling machine, once the clothes have been sorted out into baby clothes, skirts, shirts, scarves, bras etc. We make up about between 60 and 180 bales a day depending. Each bale weighs 45 kg.”

A clothes sorter at Frip Ethique - one of over 40 staff working for the Oxfam-run social enterprise in Senegal

Bras from the UK have a high value in Africa because they don’t have the processes set up to produce high-quality lingerie. Suzanne Ndiaye, the sales manager at Frip Ethique explains how they introduced British bras to Senegalese market traders:

“Before Frip Ethique we had no British bras here. Just Belgian and French, but the quality was not good. When we first got them, we went out into the markets to try and raise awareness of British quality. It was really difficult to start with, with all the clothes, not just with the bras, because people did not know that British quality was higher. The clothes aren’t so worn out. American second hand clothing is divided into Grade A and Grade B. We tried that but the Grade B didn’t sell, so we mixed them all together. We lowered the price to start with, to bring customers in. They soon realized.”

International development charity TRAID, also aims to reuse as much as possible of what is donated in their stores and recycling banks (of which they have over 900 across the UK). They carefully sort donations in their UK warehouse according to quality, condition and style. As Leigh McAlea, Head of Communications at TRAID explains, “the condition of the piece is most important as we can’t resell items that have any damage”. The garments that end up in a TRAID store will have been selected or “curated” for the local community - some stores sell ethnic clothing, childrenswear, vintage garments or even fabrics, depending on the local demographic. Some damaged items will be used for their TRAIDremade line and anything unusable will be sold for recycling.

TRAID shop manager Laura sorting clothes at the UK warehouse. © Rita Platts / TRAID

Bras that are in very good nick can be sold in store, but what happens to their rejects? Leigh explained, “bras that aren’t in good enough condition for our store will be wholesaled, where items are sorted again according to the country they are going to – there’s no point sending a ski suit to Africa.” Any bra sold by TRAID to a wholesaler will find its way to Africa or even Eastern Europe where, its value is also relatively high.

The small percentage of bras that the wholesaler deems unsuitable for resale abroad, will be recycled and used for stuffing car seats and the like. Pants, tights or socks that are brand new (with labels) can be sold in a TRAID store – second-hand items cannot, and will be recycled.

So next time you have an undergarment that needs a new home just donate it to your local Oxfam or TRAID store (laundered naturally). If you don’t have either nearby, search for your nearest TRAID recycling bank or Oxfam donation point. Alternatively, you could ask a charity shop in your neighbourhood if they will accept them for resale or recycling. If they are reluctant or flat out refuse, your local council should have a list of all the textiles recycling facilities in your area.

Here’s our directory of London textiles recycling facilities. Over time we do aim to increase this to cover more of the UK and further afield. For mending inspiration, check out our Sew It Forward initiative.

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Founder and Director of The Good Wardrobe. Lover of charity shops and mending stuff.  New to Bristol. Follow on twitter

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