What Really Happens To Clothes we donate?
I recently moved to a new apartment, and in the spirit of de-cluttering and downsizing my possessions, was able to part with several bags of clothing that I no longer found a need for. My instincts, perhaps if due to nothing other than its close proximity, led me to my neighborhood Salvation Army where I parted ways with the clothes assuming the items would be reused by someone who really needed, or at least wanted them. Having done this many times over the years, I never thought twice about what happened to my clothing after being dropped off. Donating, rather than throwing out these items made me feel that my contribution was environmentally sound. Surely majority of the items are sold escaping landfills and environmental pollution. But what if I was wrong? This doubt led me to question: what really happens to the clothes we donate?
We live in a culture where our wardrobes rotate frequently. Americans are buying and discarding clothing at record rates— we buy about five times more clothing than we did in 1980, and threw away 40 percent more textiles in 2009 than we did a decade earlier. Every year, over 10 million tons of clothing are donated to charities, thrift shops, and big metal bins in parking lots across America. Only a small portion — about 20 percent — of Americans' used clothing, including those sent to consignment shops, are being sold at secondhand retail outlets and thrift stores in the United States. Donation centers have far more stuff than they could ever realistically resell. More clothing is being shipped to developing areas like sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and China — in fact, the U.S. sends away a full billion pounds of used clothing per year, making it our eighth largest export — where clothes are bought in 1,000-pound bales, sorted and then resold to the local population. While this may sound positive, it’s not. These large-scale donations sometimes wreak havoc on local industries by taking jobs away from local textile workers. In fact, many of these nations, like Kenya have petitioned to ban US clothing donations.
Another 45 percent is recycled through one of the U.S.'s 3,000-odd textile recycling facilities. Clothing whose original state couldn’t sustain long term wear and whose quality leaves few options for recyclable products account for this percentage. The Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) use these donations and reprocess them into new products like carpet padding, construction insulation, and rags. And the rest? That ends up in landfills. Eleven percent of donations made to Goodwill in 2014, for example, were deemed unsaleable and carted to landfills — about 22 million pounds in all — costing the organization millions of dollars in transport fees and other expenses.
So knowing that your donations may not be reused in the way you intended, what are your options for being environmentally responsible? With a little extra time and research you're sure to find better options. For starters, retailers such as Levi's, Madewell, H&M, North Face, and Patagonia have all launched in store clothing drives. The clothing received has a better chance of being repurposed here in the U.S. instead of being shipped abroad and ending up in landfills. As a bonus, these retailers reward your donation with discounts toward your next in store purchase. There's also the option of donating clothing directly to areas of crisis or seeking out organizations such as Refugees.org that take donations directly to those in need. Moreover, try to seek out charities that make their recycling program clear. You've likely noticed metal bins popping up in parking lots or spaces around your area but exercise caution! While their placement is convenient, they're often run by for-profit companies which can hurt legitimate charities doing the same work. When in doubt, research the name on the bin or call them to verify. If you're based in NYC, connect with Wearable Collections who not only do home pick ups, but also have collection bins at various Greenmarkets in every Borough (excluding Staten Island) throughout the week. Simply check their website to see when they're closest to you. More importantly, focus on buying less and buying better so that your clothing gets longer use or can continue on in the best possible condition after you're done with it.
Written By: Tiffany Walker