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: 

Have you seen WALL-E?

Last updated on February 5, 2023.

Wall-E cover art

Have you seen the Disney-Pixar movie WALL-E? It features two cute little robots that mostly communicate through a few words and voice inflections. There’s very little dialogue so the story is told visually and beautifully. I found it to be a powerful movie. Here’s the trailer for it:

I first saw this movie about a year ago. I borrowed it from the library so that I could watch it with my son, and I was really blown away by the film! The day after, I was talking to a colleague about it and he told me that he can gauge a person by their reaction to that movie. He said if they’re indifferent about it, that’s likely how they are about the environment as well. But if a person reacts emotionally, it says a lot about them. While you can’t judge a person by a single film reaction, of course, that conversation has always stuck in my mind.

There’s a lot about WALL-E that stuck with me.

So I watched it again over the weekend.

Please note: the rest of this post does contain spoilers. So if you haven’t watched it, please go watch it and then come back and finish reading this post!

Wall-E, Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash
Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash.

Even though it’s a decade old already, it’s still completely relevant. WALL-E is cleaning up the trash on Earth, which has become one giant wasteland and landfill. Humans made so much trash and polluted the air so badly that all of the plant life died off and they had to move to space! It takes place 700 years in the future. The little robot is lonely and has only one friend, a little cockroach (because cockroaches can survive everything, right?).

He finds interesting objects while cleaning up the trash, such as silverware, Zippo lighters, and Rubik’s cubes. The robot discovers a squeaky dog toy and a bra, which he mistakes for a mask. He catalogs and sorts the items in his home (like Ariel does in The Little Mermaid, collecting items from shipwrecks and keeping them in her secret cove.) WALL-E even has one of the singing Big Mouth Billy Bass plaques that were popular years ago. He has recovered one videotape of Hello, Dolly! from the late 1960s, from which he learns about emotions and human interactions.

rubiks cube, Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash
Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash.

The air is cloudy, there’s very little water and no plant life. The whole premise of the movie is that once plant life reappears on Earth, humans can return. WALL-E meets EVE, a robot that has come to Earth to search for plant life. He finds a plant and gives it to her as a token of love. But this is her own mission and it spawns a journey that lays out the history of corporate greed, mass consumerism, and the unsustainable disposable economy and lifestyle that humans created. So much stuff and waste that the Earth became polluted and uninhabitable.

That sounds like the path we’re on right now.

plant, Photo by Igor Son on Unsplash
Photo by Igor Son on Unsplash.

Sadly, in the movie, the humans, once in space, did not change their behaviors. They rocketed their trash further into space instead of learning from the past. This behavior was propelled by corporate giant B&L, a fictional sort of Walmart or Amazon that gained a monopoly on Earth and gained control of everything by the time the humans left for space.

This movie really hit home.

Truly, though, if robots can get it, why can’t we?

I think many of us do get it. I think the more people that learn about the worldwide waste crisis, the more people will want to change things. So help spread the word and educate others. Let your children watch this movie. Share it with a friend. Leave me a comment below. And thanks for reading!