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Done With Spring Cleaning? Read This Before You Donate Your Clothes
Learn what actually happens to the clothes you donate.
The spring season can come with that urge to start afresh and declutter. But what consequences does spring cleaning have when it comes to that closet cleanout and donating old clothes? Unfortunately, donation doesn’t always give clothes that second life we think it does…
The Thrift Shop is Just the Beginning
Many of us end a closet cleanout with a big pile of clothes to donate. It feels good to create some space in your wardrobe while also getting to pass your clothes on to someone else who might use it. After all, giving clothing a second life is an important sustainable practice. But, 85% of all discarded clothes end up in landfills. Yep— even what you donated. So, how do they get there?
Due to the excess and overconsumption that has become normalized, many thrift stores are overwhelmed with so much inventory and unsellable clothing. They are only able to sell about 10-20% of the clothes they receive. Left with so much extra, secondhand stores will send the rest of the clothes off to sorting centers. There, the clothes will get categorized into their next potential pathway. Some of the clothes will be sent to recycling centers, though the term “recycling” is misleading because really the clothes are being downcycled into rags or insulation. And the rest of the clothes get sorted, baled, and shipped to countries around the world to enter their secondhand clothing markets.
A Problematic Ending
The clothing slotted for export is bundled into bales that can range from 100 to 1,000 pounds. These bales are bought by overseas secondhand market vendors to be sold again to their countries’ shoppers. A majority of these bales end up in the Global South, mainly Africa. Due to the nature of the bales, only a small percentage of what is in those bundles is valuable to the overseas entrepreneurs. Keep in mind that these are already our castoffs of unwanted, donated clothing that didn't sell. Clothes in the bales can be sold as is or deconstructed and used for fabrics. But the majority of the bale is unusable, seemingly reaching the end of the line. Thus, much of it is landfilled or burned in that country. Millions and millions of pounds of secondhand clothes are piled up in Chile’s Atacama Desert, on the beaches of Ghana, and around the world because of this practice.
Not only is this clearly problematic for the environment given the sheer size of the waste in landfills, it’s also not necessarily a fruitful business model for the recipient country’s entrepreneurs and economy. While these overseas entrepreneurs are leveraging what they can with the secondhand clothing markets and truly embodying circularity with how they creatively make the most of our waste, many of them have to go into debt to participate in it, struggle to make a profit, and express distaste for having to serve as our dumping grounds. Plus, secondhand bales have undermined the local textile economy, causing them to have to drive down their prices, making it impossible to compete and keep up. This system is unjust, causing both an environmental and an economic burden. This is known as waste colonialism.
The moral of the story? The burden of our waste in the Global North is intentionally and adversely transferred to those in the Global South and harms their homes, health, and economies. It’s definitely not the feel-good picture of our donated goods going to a new family in our own community.
Wait, So What Should I Do With My Clothes?
As we learned, donating your unwanted clothes probably shouldn’t be your first choice. But we won’t leave you hanging without some ideas of what to do instead. You want to rehome your pieces where you know they can actually get a good second life. Here are some ideas:
Gift to friends & family
Take them to a clothing swap
Sell them yourself
Recycle responsibly (most recycling centers export their clothes to the secondhand markets, too)
Donate strategically to cause-based charities that clearly define what they need
Overall, the best thing you can do is only add clothes to your wardrobe that you truly love and won’t want to get rid of down the line. Of course, it’s inevitable that we will all have clothes to pass on at some point. Be intentional to care for your clothes and responsibly rehome them when the time comes.