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Retailer Marks & Spencer, in partnership with Oxfam, wants customers to hand over an old item of clothing every time they buy a new one

Rebecca Smithers, Guardian, 26 Apr 12

Britain's biggest clothing retailer is launching a campaign to stop one in four items of clothing bought in the UK ending up in the bin.

Marks & Spencer wants customers to hand over an old or unwanted garment whenever they buy a new one, to encourage a phenomenon it has dubbed "shwopping". It wants to kick-start a "buy one, give one" culture which could allow unwanted items to be resold, reused or recycled by its charity partner Oxfam. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, UK consumers throw away 2m tonnes of clothing a year, with half going straight to landfill. But the move has sparked fears that smaller charity shops could miss out on donations, while there are question marks over the logistics of the retailer becoming a dumping ground for large quantities of unwanted clothing.

The scheme is part of M&S's Plan A programme and an expansion of a partnership with Oxfam which began in January 2008 and has seen more than 10m items donated, worth an estimated £8m. Donors handing old M&S clothing into Oxfam stores received a £5 M&S voucher.

Shoppers will be encouraged to take their unwanted garments into all 342 M&S stores in the UK and leave them in recycling bins by the tills, although this time they are being given no financial incentive. Similar schemes have already been seen on the high street, with retailer TK Maxx and Cancer Research UK urging people to "Give up Clothes for Good" in a bid to raise in excess of £2.5m to help the charity beat children's cancer.

But the M&S and Oxfam link-up has led the organisation representing smaller charities to urge donors to continue to support their local shops. Cath Lee, chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition, said: "It's great to encourage recycling in this way, but it would be a great shame if an unintended consequence is that the shops of smaller, less well known charities receive fewer donations as a result. "There is huge diversity amongst charities, and the smaller ones have an essential role to play in addressing local and specialist causes. They contribute an enormous amount to our communities. The smaller charities that have shops will be heavily reliant on the income from the donated goods sold, so it's important that people continue to give their unwanted clothes to their local shops in their high street."

A spokeswoman for the Charity Retail Association said: "We are encouraged to see a large commercial retailer making a concerted effort to reuse clothing through charity shops, and would like to see more of these partnerships taking place, with both small and large charity shop chains. "The number one problem for charity shops is lack of donations … Working together with the corporate sector in this way may offer people an alternative, convenient route to donate to charity shops."

M&S has already created a coat made almost entirely from recycled wool and cashmere from damaged clothing returned to stores. The clothes are collected and sent to a specialist fabric maker, where they are reduced to fibre, cleaned and spun into wool to make the item.

Earlier this month M&S admitted it scored an embarrassing own goal after buying blunders left it with major shortages of coats, knitwear, printed blouses and even ballet pumps. It was caught short by the cold snap in February, which sparked a late run on winter coats and woollens.


See also: Oxfam Wastesaver