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 have the choice of selling it, giving it to a friend, throwing it in the trash, or donating 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 choose to donate any clothing we can’t sell, either 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
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
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.
“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
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
“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
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 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.”11
How You Can Help
“We cannot export our way out of our fast fashion addiction.” -Film: Textile Mountain – The Hidden Burden of Our Fashion Waste12
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.
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.”13
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
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.
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.
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 Schlossberg14
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.15
Try donating them at strategic times.16 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.
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.”17 There are some brands that actually do good things with collected items, but you have to research to know which ones.
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!
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
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.