PICTURE the scene: a young woman in a striking pink dress is standing at a bar, holding a cocktail. She sips directly from the glass, not through a straw, as the venue recently ditched single-use plastics to the approval of its switched-on clientele.

Fast forward a few hours – after she has struck a pose for Insta, Snapchat and Facebook – and our style-conscious girl about town heads home to drop her single-use dress in the laundry basket. Regardless of how many “likes” she’s notched up by the morning, there’s something wrong with this picture.

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While the impact of plastic pollution on marine life was brought into sharp focus by Blue Planet’s images of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nostril, the environmental devastation caused by mass production of textiles is much less easily conveyed – not least because the harms are so many and varied. And while the ditching of plastic in the hospitality trade has almost no impact on the consumer, dedicated followers of fashion will take a bit of convincing to forsake the latest trends.

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It might be a tougher sell, especially to image-conscious teens and twenty-somethings, but with young people increasingly leading the way on green issues – witness the climate change walkout from schools last month – campaigners hope the tide might be about to turn against cheap, throwaway clothing. Initiatives like the Scotland-wide Pass It On Week, which begins next Saturday [March 9] and runs for nine days until next Sunday [March 17], are part of a major push for re-use and recycling. The year’s theme, “The Big Declutter”, ties in nicely with the minimalistic fervour inspired by Marie Condo, whose Netflix show became such a talking point at the start of the year.

“This is a hot topic right now – fast fashion is the new Blue Planet,” says Samantha Moir of Zero Waste Scotland. “People are suddenly understanding what it means to buy new stuff, especially textiles. They’re understanding more about the environmental impact that’s having, and that’s really important. Once that light bulb has come on... we saw what it did for straws with the turtles, and I think the same thing’s going to happen with textiles.”

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She says people are increasingly keen to make the right choices, but may not be quite sure what those right choices are. We can’t simply stop buying clothes altogether – most of us can live without drinking straws but everyone needs something to wear – and those on limited incomes need affordable clothes. This is where charity shops come in, by offering a win-win alternative to buying new: less damage to the planet, more money to good causes.

It might seem a little surprising that a sector which relies on donations would be at the forefront of a campaign to encourage less shopping – after all, don’t charity shops need a steady stream of donations to keep operating? But at the rate we’re going there’s very little danger of them running out of stock, and in any case there’s little money to be made from donated garments that only cost a few pounds to begin with.

Even if there was, profit doesn’t come before planet, even when those profits are going to a worthy cause. “Removing clothes from the cycle would in a sense disadvantage our members, because there will be less stuff,” says Robin Osterley, chief executive of the Charity Retail Association, which represents the interests of charity shops in the UK including around 1000 in Scotland, “but we don’t mind that, We think it’s really crucial for the planet as a whole to do that.”

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The association backs the concept of extended producer responsibility, which takes into account the environmental costs associated with a product not just at the point of production or sale but throughout its life cycle. A levy on clothes manufacturers is one way they – and in turn consumers – could be made to pay for the damage they are causing.

THE environmental argument in favour of buying secondhand is certainly strong, but can the David of charity retail really take on the Goliath of high-street and online brands such as Primark, ASOS and Boohoo, and win? That depends to a great extent on whether young consumers can be influenced to care more about saving the planet than keeping up with the very latest trends. Laying bare the true cost of the clothing we buy means not only keeping informed about working conditions in the factories where garments are made, but scrutinising labels and weighing up several environmental factors: the true cost of production, the energy use from repeated washing, and the impact of disposal when the item is no longer wanted.

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What emerges is a complex picture. For example, cotton cultivation requires huge volumes of water and the use of polluting pesticides (although it is grown on only 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land, it accounts for 16% of global insecticide use).

The washing requirements of cotton garments adds further to their carbon footprint, but on the plus side natural fibres are biodegradable.

On the other hand, the production of man-made fibres requires finite fossil fuels and lots of energy, but the resultant garments may need to be washed less, or at lower temperatures. Some of these fabrics can by recycled (requiring more energy, but not as much as making more from scratch), but they will not biodegrade, and as a result may linger in the environment for anything between 20 and 200 years.

As someone who buys more than my fair share of clothes – but likes to consider myself a responsible recycler and a charity shopping pro – I wanted to find out exactly what happens to the clothes we discard.

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I decided to take a single dress from my own overflowing wardrobe and follow it along three paths: into the bin, and onward to landfill; into a charity collection bag; or personally donated back to the same charity shop where I originally bought it.

What I found out surprised me... and made me seriously question my own shopping habits. I can vividly remember texting my friend from the changing room of the Shelter shop on Great Western Road. “I’ve found an amazing dress,” I told her. “It’s like something Lady Gaga would wear on a red carpet.”

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I had to breathe in to get the zip up, and I wasn’t confident I’d be able to walk or sit down in it, but it was fabulous. I knew that if I left it on the rail I would regret it.

Many years and about five kilos later, I’ve reached some unavoidable conclusions: one, the dress no longer fits me and realistically never will again; and two, I am not Lady Gaga.

So it’s time to say goodbye. Thankfully, any sadness I might feel about giving up my red-carpet dream is quickly dispelled when I meet Jackie Meade, who has been managing the Shelter shop near Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens for just over a year.

Her eyes light up when she sees the shimmering metallic pink creation from Topshop’s boutique range, and she tells me her regular customers – including many students – are acutely aware of the environmental damage caused by our society’s insatiable appetite for new clothes.

They are on the look-out for distinctive vintage outfits, but they’re also seeking to limit their carbon footprints by buying secondhand.

IT dawns on me that while I might feel virtuous about the fact that a decent proportion of my clothes are from charity shops, the coats, dresses and tops I buy aren’t replacements for similar items that have worn out, or substitutes for new clothes. They are bonus items I justify snapping up because I’m helping a charity while indulging myself.

“What we’re really looking for is for people to buy more from charity shops so that they’re not buying new,” explains Moir. “That’s the ultimate goal: we want to be displacing the purchase of new items.”

She says it’s difficult to obtain reliable data about whether people buying clothes from charity shops buy less from the high street.

It seems likely that those buying white goods, or big-ticket items like bicycles, aren’t also buying the same items new, but when it comes to clothes the picture is less clear.

“They’re probably buying less,” she says, “but they’re not stopping buying altogether”.

I’m feeling more than a little guilty about the four discounted jumpsuits I’ve bought for my upcoming long-haul holiday (total cost: a ridiculously tiny £23), but at least the many clothes I do buy aren’t ending up in landfill, or at least not as a direct result of my actions.

It’s not just the charity shops that benefit when clothes are donated to them rather than binned; it’s your local council, too. Had I thrown my Topshop dress in the bin it would have been added to the pile for which Glasgow City Council pays landfill tax – money that could be much better spent on providing vital services amid ongoing austerity.

By donating instead of dumping clothes, people in the UK kept a massive 327,000kg of textiles out of the landfill in 2017/18, saving councils a total of £28 million. If that doesn’t make you think twice about binning dated but wearable outfits, what will?

Even if you’re not convinced anyone will want your old rags, Osterley says it’s always best to donate them, as you never know what someone else might want to wear, mend, dye or otherwise upcycle. If your local charity shop can’t shift your items they can move them to a shop with a different consumer demographic, or sell them to a recycler. Anything is better than adding a garment to the landfill pile and bringing its life-cycle to a premature end.

The third way – donation via a bag that’s dropped through your letterbox – might seem like a next-best option for those who lack the time or transport to donate in person. But beware: although these bags maybe bear the name of a charity, that doesn’t mean your clothes will end up for sale in one of its shops, or even remain in the country. “Most of those operations are run by commercial operators who will take a significant chunk of the income for themselves, and donate a relatively small proportion of it to the charity that is mentioned on the bag,” explains Osterley, who urges people to donate directly to shops wherever possible.

There is no legal obligation for the firms to specify what proportion of the profits will go to charity, and there’s a good chance your clothes will end up in a vast overseas market.

However, despite the transport costs involved, this isn’t the environmentally disastrous outcome it might sound. Western fashions – and particularly high-quality bras – are highly prized in west and east African countries, where there’s no stigma around wearing secondhand clothes.

The fact that shipping mountains of clothes hundreds of miles makes both business and environmental sense only serves to hammer home just how wasteful our throwaway culture is, and just how damaging and expensive it is to keep making more and more new clothes rather than swapping, selling or repurposing the ones we have.

For the time being, my dress isn’t going to end up in landfill, or on a container ship to bound for Africa or Asia. It’s been given a prime position in the window of the Shelter shop, and with any luck it will be bought by a young woman (or a boundary- pushing young man) who has both an eye for a bargain and a clean conscience when it comes to sustainable fashion. I’m crossing my fingers it finds a good home... and I’ll be keeping an eye on the red carpets, just in case.