The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 2

Last updated on March 27, 2024.

Bales of textile recycling, colorful, Goodwill Outlet warehouse and retail store in St. Paul, MN.
Bales of textile recycling at the Goodwill Outlet warehouse and retail store in St. Paul, MN, April 2019. Photo by MPCA Photos on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Fast fashion is harming the environment, causing human workers to suffer and work for little pay, and creating a lot of waste. But just how much waste?

When we discard an article of clothing, we can sell it, give it to a friend, throw it in the trash, or donate it to a thrift store or resale shop. Reselling our clothing is ideal, as we can recoup some of the cost, and the clothing gets a second life. Children wear their clothes for a short time before outgrowing them, so often you can sell them online. Consignment stores buy clothes, but usually, only certain brands that often exclude fast fashion.

Most of us donate any clothing we can’t sell to the local Goodwill, another local thrift store, church, or local charity. However, there is so much donated clothing in the world now that we could clothe every human on the planet and still have leftover clothing. And that’s if production of new clothing stopped today!

“Buying so much clothing and treating it as if it is disposable, is putting a huge, added weight on the environment and is simply unsustainable.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

Pile of children's clothes and shoes, colorful.
Pile of children’s clothes and shoes. Photo by Abby on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0).

A garbage truck full of clothes is taken to the landfill every second, where they produce methane as they rot.” -Georgina Stevens, Climate Action: The Future is in Our Hands

Textile and Clothing Waste in Landfills

Worldwide and annually, we throw away 92 million tons of textiles. In the US alone, “an estimated 11.3 million tons of textile waste – equivalent to 85% of all textiles – end up in landfills on a yearly basis. That’s equivalent to approximately 81.5 pounds per person per year and around 2,150 pieces per second countrywide.”1 The amount of clothing we dispose of has increased by 750% since 1960.2 Clothing does not biodegrade in landfills, just as most items will not biodegrade in a landfill. In addition, much of the clothing we produce is made from synthetic fabrics, made from plastic fibers (aka microfibers), which contaminate the water supply, our bodies, and the ocean.

“Textile waste is often overlooked when we think about plastic waste but it’s estimated that U.S. consumers throw away about 81 pounds of clothing every year, including large amounts of synthetic textiles made from plastics.” -Sandra Ann Harris, Say Goodbye to Plastic: A Survival Guide for Plastic-Free Living

Clothing Returns

Retailers are throwing away most of the items consumers return to the store. In the US, 2.6 million tons of returned clothing items ended up in landfills in 2020 alone. It often costs more for the company to put them back on the sales floor than it does to just throw them away. “Reverse logistics company Optoro also estimates that in the same year, 16 million tonnes of CO2 emissions were created by online returns in the US in 2020 – the equivalent to the emissions of 3.5 million cars on the road for a year.”3 Dumpster divers frequently find stacks of clothing in dumpsters behind clothing and department stores and post their finds on social media platforms.

Box with clothing donations, with "DONATE" written in red letters.
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Pexels.

Donated Clothing

“Our donated clothing goes on a journey of its own.” -Beth Porter, Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine: Sorting Out the Recycling System

Unfortunately, fast fashion has outpaced the demand for second-hand clothing. Thrift stores cannot possibly sell all of the donated clothing, so textile recyclers and rag graders have grown to help charities process the excess and keep textiles out of landfills. About half of the clothing donated at major U.S. thrift stores is shipped internationally for textile recycling.4 But the number can be even higher if items don’t sell. “Up to 80 percent of all clothing donated to charity thrift stores ends up in textile recycling.”5

Huge thrift store full of full clothing racks.
Photo by arbyreed on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Goodwill, for example, conducts an initial sort at the retail store where items were dropped off or donated. Anything wet or mildewy is separated out because it is not sellable. Some of the best, clean, dry clothing items are put on the sales floor. Many Goodwill stores track how long each piece of clothing has been on the retail floor, and if an item doesn’t sell within four weeks, Goodwill removes it. They send the items on to a Goodwill outlet or a 99-cent Goodwill store. Prices are cheap to encourage purchasing and thus divert things from landfills. Clothing items that aren’t sold through those methods or through auctions go to textile recycling organizations.6

Shredded clothes, various colors, in boxes.
Shredded clothes, photo by Alexander Zvir on pexels.com.

Textile Recycling

“Globally, just 12% of the material used for clothing ends up being recycled. Much of the problem comes down to the materials our clothes are made from and inadequate technologies to recycle them.”7

Used textiles can be turned into rags for industrial use or processed into a soft fiber filling for furniture, home insulation, car soundproofing, etc. Goodwill indicates they “have seen estimates that textile recyclers divert about 2.5 billion pounds of used clothes from landfills.”8 But this is really just downcycling. Textile recycling isn’t working as a global solution because of the massive overabundance.

“Many types of clothing and footwear can be shredded and downcycled – with some shredding companies turning everything from shoes, handbags, baby clothes, and jackets into fibers. To be clear: No matter whether you donate to a charity, collection bin, thrift store, garment collection program, or most anywhere else, your clothes are likely going to end up in the global secondhand clothing trade or will be downcycled rather than recycled in the traditional sense. Less than 1 percent of clothing is recycled in the truest sense of the word, meaning broken down and turned back into new clothes. This desperately needs to change to make fashion more sustainable to solve the clothing waste crisis.” –Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good

Warehouse with hundreds of tons of clothing in Cambodia. Piles of textiles sorted by color, with people sorting in background.
Warehouse with hundreds of tons of clothing in Cambodia. Photo by Francois Le Nguyen on Unsplash.

The Global Second-Hand Market

There are too many clothes in the world.

There are so many used clothes in the world that even developing countries cannot use them all. Sellers in other countries will by bundles of second-hand clothing, hoping to resell them for a small profit. In Kenya, the word “mitumba,” refers to the bundles of plastic-wrapped packages of used clothing from people in wealthy countries. In Accra, Ghana, they call them “obroni wawu,” meaning ‘dead white man’s clothes.’

This has created massive piles of textiles and clothing across the globe, often in countries without organized waste management. This is devastating to local environments and negatively impacts the health of humans living in those environments. In northern Chile, about 59,000 tons of clothing arrive annually. Clothing merchants purchase some, but at least 39,000 tons end up in rubbish dumps in the desert.9

In 2020, “a mountain of cast-off clothing outside the Ghanaian capital city of Accra generated so much methane that it exploded; months later, it was still smoldering.”10 Market fires have become common in places that have too many goods and too much waste, all cast-offs from the western world. In other countries, the excess textile waste clutters the landscape, clogs up waterways, and pollutes the environment.

“Worldwide, we jettison 2.1 billion tons of fashion. Much of it is shunted to Africa, our rationalization being that the poorest continent needs free clothing.” -Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis11

Worldwide Environmental Impact

There are increasingly fewer places to ship textile recycling and used clothing, as countries are full of them. This is creating a huge environmental problem. Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet and Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, wrote in a Bloomberg opinion piece:

“For decades, the donation bin has offered consumers in rich countries a guilt-free way to unload their old clothing. In a virtuous and profitable cycle, a global network of traders would collect these garments, grade them, and transport them around the world to be recycled, worn again, or turned into rags and stuffing. 

“Now that cycle is breaking down. Fashion trends are accelerating, new clothes are becoming as cheap as used ones, and poor countries are turning their backs on the secondhand trade. Without significant changes in the way that clothes are made and marketed, this could add up to an environmental disaster in the making…

“The rise of ‘fast fashion’ is thus creating a bleak scenario: The tide of secondhand clothes keeps growing even as the markets to reuse them are disappearing. From an environmental standpoint, that’s a big problem.”12

Pile of clothing, colorful.
Photo by Bicanski on Pixnio.

How You Can Help

“We cannot export our way out of our fast fashion addiction.” -Film: Textile Mountain – The Hidden Burden of Our Fashion Waste13

First, start thinking ‘slow fashion’ instead of fast fashion. Slow fashion refers to the method of producing clothing that takes into consideration all aspects of the supply chain.

Clothing Purchases

The second thing you can do is stop shopping! Most likely, you have more than enough clothes to wear for a long time.

When you do need something, ask yourself if it really needs to be new, or if you can find it second-hand. If it must be new, save up to buy that one classic, quality piece, instead of 10 cheap pieces that are low quality and super trendy. Be choosy so that there is no need to return the items.

Second-hand clothing is best the way to have a sustainable and affordable wardrobe. You can shop at consignment shops, thrift stores, clothing swaps, yard sales, and other resale shops. The online options are endless. “By making it easier and more accessible to shop used, resale is helping to reduce the water, chemicals, and energy we need to make new clothes…According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, for every garment worn twice as long, its carbon footprint is reduced by 44 percent! And based on research conducted by thredUP, shopping secondhand extends the average life of a garment by 2.2 years.”14 

Try a capsule wardrobe like Project 333 that inspires dressing better, with less.

“Resale could eventually help reduce the culture of fast fashion and lead people away from disposable clothes.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good

Hand stitching a hole in a piece of gray and red clothing using orange thread.
Photo by Joseph Sharp on Unsplash.

Wear Clothing Longer

If you can purchase clothing that is more classic and less trendy, and buy higher quality clothing, you’ll be able to wear your clothing for much longer. “We get rid of about 60 percent of the clothing we buy within a year of its being made; we used to keep our clothing twice as long.” Wearing higher quality pieces longer would reduce textile waste greatly.

Try Mending

If you can sew, this is the best way to extend the life of your current wardrobe. Hemming, repairing tears and holes, darning, replacing buttons, and simple embroidery are all basic techniques in mending. You don’t even have to own a sewing machine. You can find inspiration in books and countless online video tutorials. Experiment with different techniques and ideas. Some even dye light clothing if they’ve got something with an ugly stain.

If you don’t know how to sew, there are so many ways you can learn! Find books, a family member, online classes/tutorials, or in-person classes at a local sewing shop.

If you don’t want to sew, find a good tailor that can make repairs and adjustments. Or a friend that sews on the side for extra income, as long as you’ve seen their work first.

Outdoor charity bin with bags of donations surrounding it, looking like trash.
If it looks like trash, it will probably be treated as such. Photo by Anna Gregory on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Getting Rid of Clothes

“You may think, Well, I donate my clothes, or I heard about a program that takes jeans and makes them into insulation, or What about recycled textiles or all of the clothes we send overseas in form of aid? All of those things happen, but not to the extent that you think, and sometimes with surprisingly negative consequences.” -Tatiana Schlossberg15

Following are the do’s and don’t’s of getting rid of clothing.

Never throw your clothes in the trash (unless it’s just really ripped and stained, or otherwise totally ruined and not able to be reused for rags).

Before dropping clothing off at a thrift store or other charity, try to find a friend or family member who might want those clothes. Or try selling them online or at a local consignment sale or shop.

If you donate, donate better by following these best practices:

While many charities that accept used clothing work with textile recyclers, not all do. Ask your local charities and thrift stores if they recycle or landfill unsellable clothing before donating.

Make sure items are clean and dry. Empty pockets, and remove pet hair and lint. Tie shoes together so they don’t get separated. Mend items before donating so they don’t get landfilled. Donate when the stores are accepting donations so that items don’t get ruined by the weather.16 

Try donating them at strategic times.17 Donate winter items to a homeless shelter or organization at the beginning of winter. Homeless organizations almost always need good shoes. Donate clothing during a post-disaster local drive. For bedding and towels, check with local animal shelters as oftentimes, they can use these items! Take the time to seek out donation drives for specific items. That way, organizations are far more likely to use your donated items instead of throwing them away.

“If a friend has always commented on how much they love your jacket, or your sister has always coveted that vintage bag, now is the time to redistribute them to an eager recipient. It’s entirely your choice whether you want to give pieces away or sell them, but doing so within your community reduces the  fashion miles’ involved in shipping them around the country or across the globe.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe18

Watch Out for Greenwashing

‘Take-back’ programs or in-store clothing recycling programs are sometimes a form of greenwashing. “These schemes allow customers to drop off unwanted items in ‘bins’ in the brands’ stores. But it’s been highlighted that only 0.1% of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fibre.”19 There are some brands that actually do good things with collected items, but you have to research to know which ones.

Interior of a Salvation Army thrift store, with lots of clothing racks.
Photo by Dennis Sylvester Hurd on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC0 1.0).

I hope this article has helped you figure out to buy less clothing, make the clothing you have last longer, and how to donate and discard better. For my next article, we’ll explore different types of fabrics, both natural and synthetic. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Website, Project 333

Film, Textile Mountain – The Hidden Burden of Our Fashion Waste.

Article, “Dead white man’s clothes,” by Linton Besser, ABC News Australia, updated

www.weardonaterecycle.org

Website, Fashion Detox Challenge

Article, “How to Buy Clothes That Are Built to Last,” by Kendra Pierre-Louis, New York Times, September 25, 2019

Article, “13 Brands Using Take-Back Schemes to Recycle Waste Responsibly,” by Solene Rauturier, Good On You, January 6, 2022.

Footnotes: 

Black Friday and Why You Don’t Have to Participate

Last updated on December 11, 2022.

black friday scrabble letters.
Photo by Wokandapix on Pixabay.

What are the best Black Friday deals?

Sorry, that’s not what this website is about. But I invite you to read on and rethink this crazy annual shopping ritual.

First, what is Black Friday? It’s the day after Thanksgiving, regarded as the first day of the traditional Christmas shopping season. Retailers offer specially reduced prices on all kinds of items. I’ve linked an article about its history of it in the footnotes.1 But now sales extend beyond Black Friday and into Cyber Monday. The 2022 sales were record-breaking, despite the recession. The sales on Black Friday were $9.12 billion, and $11.3 billion on Cyber Monday. That’s so much money!

“America is back…We are once again spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need to give to people we don’t like.” -Stephen Colbert, joking that this was proof that the economy had recovered.

Shopping mall and escalator, Photo by Dieter de Vroomen on Unsplash
Photo by Dieter de Vroomen on Unsplash.

What has Black Friday turned into?

A chaotic mess of stampeding people who act selfishly and just plain mad. I personally have never participated in the madness because I don’t like crowds enough to save a few dollars. It’s just not for me. And I felt that way before the videos of trampling were captured. Here’s a news report featuring the madness I speak of:

The following video from 2010 is one of the worst I found, where people were trampled and injured.

And if you want more, there’s a link to an entire article dedicated to the nastiness that occurred on Black Fridays in the footnotes.2 Don’t forget that during the 2008 financial crisis, a Walmart employee was trampled to death on Black Friday.

The Materialism of it All

This year, please rethink this whole extravaganza. Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why do we participate in the madness? To save some money? To get another diamond for your spouse? The “hottest” toys for your kids? The newest washer and dryer? It’s mass-marketed materialism at its best. I mean, worst. And it’s just STUFF.

You don’t have to be minimalist to reject this entire mess.

We all have the desire to see our children squeal with delight when they unwrap their toys or see our spouse tear up over a thoughtful gift. And most of us do need to save money. So don’t feel guilty about having participated. Just think through what you plan to buy. Having a plan will save you from impulsive purchases, stress, and maybe even chaos.

If you’re striving for plastic-free, zero waste, or minimalism (or all 3!!!), then you’ve really got to think through the whole holiday insanity of gift-giving anyway. Does your wife really need a bigger diamond wedding ring? Or does she cherish the one you gave her when you proposed? Does your child really need the newest plastic toys wrapped in plastic cellophane that then gets wrapped in plastic-coated wrapping paper with plastic tape? Will your washer and dryer last a couple more years?

If you really just want to save money, how about just shopping less? Think about the impact you’ll have not only on the environment but also on your own pocketbook. Here’s a video from The Story of Stuff Project about Black Friday:

Think outside the box this year.

How about gifting experiences? Think museums, aquariums, hotel packages, airfare, theater tickets, movie tickets, or zip-lining tickets. How about gifting someone a day trip to the spa or a massage package? How about a photography package for your family? Does your son or daughter really want to go to Six Flags next summer? Now’s a good time to buy those tickets.

There are lots of other physical gifts you can give too.

What about a nice plant for your friend who has a garden? Or a cousin who loves houseplants? Does your Mom just love scented bar soaps? You can buy naked soaps (meaning no packaging) in many places these days, including in the Southeastern U.S. Does your brother love Jelly Belly jellybeans? Consumables are always good gifts. People used to give bread as a housewarming gift, why can’t we do that for Christmas? You can even give the gift of beer or wine – I don’t think anyone will want to return those things the day after Christmas.

There are always non-profit gifts, donating to a good cause in someone’s name.

Is there an animal lover in your life? Donate money to their local animal shelter, or to an organization that provides animal therapy to people. Does your Dad really want to help victims of natural disasters? Donate to the appropriate non-profit in his name. Does your neighbor love trees? Plant one in their honor through the Arbor Foundation. Does a friend really want to help people in developing countries? Donate to a cause in their name. (Of course, make sure you are donating to a legitimate organization, it usually just takes a little research).

If you’ve got a friend who is into environmentalism or wants to go plastic-free / zero waste / minimalist, how about a book on one of those topics? I’ve got a list that you can start with. I also have a list of children’s books on topics related to environmentalism, wildlife, the ocean, etc. There are so many more out there too; those lists just feature the ones I’ve personally read.

Person's hands, using a credit card machine, Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

What to do if you do get impulsive

You can always return unwanted items. But there are other options if that’s not possible.

Use unwanted items for that ridiculous Secret Santa routine your office insists on participating in every year. Bought extra children’s clothing or an extra children’s coat? Donate it to a local charity. In Chattanooga, the Forgotten Child Fund’s Coats for Kids annual drive is around the first week of December. Did you buy too many toys for the grandkids? How about donating them to Toys for Tots? Churches, thrift stores, homeless shelters, schools, even some daycare centers are always needing items.

Bought too much wine that you intended on gifting? Bring it to a friend’s house when they’ve invited you over for dinner. Enjoy. Especially if it has a natural cork instead of a plastic one.

Let’s have a peaceful and safe holiday season. Remember, the stuff isn’t what’s important. The people in our lives are. Let’s give them the best gift of all this year: our love and company.

Happy Thanksgiving, and as always, thanks for reading.

People clinking wine glasses over a Thanksgiving meal, turkey and candles with Christmas tree in background.
Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash.

Footnotes: