Faculty & Research -Fast Fashion, Charities, and the Circular Economy (CE): Challenges for Operations Management

Fast Fashion, Charities, and the Circular Economy (CE): Challenges for Operations Management

Discover the pressing challenges of textile waste and fast fashion in this thought-provoking paper. As countries ban second-hand clothing imports and legislation pushes for more recycling, the capacity to manage preowned items is lacking. Charities, key in recycling efforts, face dilemmas in collaborating with fast fashion firms due to quality concerns and competition. This position paper calls on Operations Management researchers to devise innovative solutions for these complex issues, highlighting significant opportunities for impactful research in the evolving textile reverse supply chain.

The Intersection of Charity and Fast Fashion: A Comprehensive Overview

The modern landscape of fashion and philanthropy is undergoing rapid transformation, shaped by the evolving roles of charities, the surge of fast fashion, and the emerging challenges and opportunities within these sectors. This overview explores the critical intersection of these elements, highlighting the profound impact on society, the economy, and the environment.

The Multifaceted Role of Charities

Charities as Pillars of Society: Non-profit organizations (NPOs) play a pivotal role in society, engaging diverse groups from retirees to young professionals. With their philanthropic and social objectives, charities not only provide meaningful engagement opportunities but also contribute significantly to the economy. In the United States alone, over 1.4 million NPOs employ more than 10% of the workforce, contributing upwards of 2.1% to the GDP.

Environmental Stewards through Circular Economy: A key activity of charities is the collection and resale of preowned items, positioning them as important players in the circular economy. This approach not only generates revenue for various causes but also mitigates environmental impact through recycling and reusing goods.

Garments: The Financial Backbone of Charities

Dependence on Clothing Donations: Selling preowned items, especially clothing, forms the financial backbone of many charities. In the UK, for instance, clothing and accessories account for over 58% of charity shop sales. This reliance on high-quality clothing donations highlights a crucial aspect of charity operations and their financial sustainability.

The Rise and Impact of Fast Fashion

Fast Fashion’s Explosive Growth: The concept of fast fashion, characterized by rapid production and distribution, has revolutionized the fashion industry. Brands like Zara, H&M, and Topshop have led this trend, resulting in a significant increase in clothing consumption. However, this growth comes with a cost: an increase in low-durability, disposable clothing items that challenge both waste management and the perception of quality.

The Surging Consumption and Waste Challenge: As consumer behavior shifts towards frequent purchasing and discarding, charities face escalating logistics costs for collecting, transporting, sorting, and storing these low-durability items. Fast fashion’s impact extends beyond market trends, influencing waste generation and management on a global scale.

General Market Trends and Projections

Expanding Markets and Shifting Preferences: The U.S. fashion market is projected to grow significantly, alongside a notable increase in the second-hand clothes market. With less than 20% of textile waste currently collected in the U.S., the potential for growth in collection and recycling by charities is immense. Additionally, the rising popularity of online shopping for second-hand clothes indicates a shift in consumer preferences, presenting both challenges and opportunities for charities and fast fashion firms alike.

The Evolving Charity Sector and Market Competition

A Decline in Market Share: Despite their historical dominance in the resale market, charities in the U.S. have seen a decline in market share, falling from 100% in 2013 to 75% in 2019. This trend underscores the need for charities to adapt and innovate to remain competitive in a market increasingly dominated by for-profit platforms like Thredup and Poshmark.

The Road Ahead for Fast Fashion Firms

Infrastructure and Legislative Challenges: Fast fashion firms are grappling with inadequate infrastructure for collecting and recycling preowned clothes. Additionally, impending legislation like extended producer responsibility (EPR) will further pressure these firms to enhance their waste management strategies.

The Circular Economy and Waste Management Challenges

Struggling with the Influx of Preowned Items: The rise of fast fashion has led to a significant increase in the volume of preowned items, challenging collectors, including charities, to efficiently manage this influx. With many items destined for low-income countries, there is a growing need for business models that promote reuse and minimize dumping in emerging economies.

Pathways to Collaboration and Innovation

The paper posits that innovative collaborations between charities and fast fashion firms could address these challenges.

Potential for Charity-Fast Fashion Collaboration

By reimagining their internal operations, logistics systems, and technology, charities can better position themselves in the growing second-hand market. Concurrently, fast fashion firms can contribute to more sustainable practices by collaborating with charities in collection and resale efforts.

This comprehensive overview paints a vivid picture of the complex dynamics at play in the intersection of charity and fast fashion. It underscores the urgency for innovative solutions and collaborative efforts to navigate the evolving landscape of waste management, consumer behavior, and sustainability. The paper serves as a clarion call for researchers and practitioners alike to contribute meaningfully to this critical discourse.


This methodology represents a comprehensive, in-depth exploration of the intersection between fast fashion and charity within the circular economy. By employing a mix of qualitative interviews and analysis of secondary sources, the research offers a nuanced understanding of the challenges and opportunities in this sector. The diverse perspectives gathered from charities, FF firms, and key associations paint a detailed picture of the current landscape and pave the way for future research and innovation in sustainable fashion practices.

Applications and beneficiaries

This research sheds light on the intricate relationship between fast fashion (FF) and charities within the circular economy, offering critical insights for multiple stakeholders. Charities can leverage these findings to enhance their operational efficiency, particularly in managing the influx of low-quality FF items. FF firms can use this research to develop more sustainable practices and collaborate effectively with charities, aligning with extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation. Policy makers and environmental groups benefit by understanding the challenges and opportunities in textile waste management, informing better regulatory frameworks. Academics and industry researchers gain a comprehensive view of the textile reverse supply chain, guiding future studies and innovations.

Reference to the research

Farahani, R.Z., Asgari, N., Van Wassenhove, Luk N. (2022) Fast fashion, charities and the circular economy, Production and Operations Management, 31(3) 1089-1114.

Consult the research paper