A few years ago, I volunteered at a local drop-in center in Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, whose clients included many people living on the streets nearby. My job was to sift through a mountain of donated clothing, looking for vibrant blouses, bespoke coats and other gems that would help the struggling people served by the charity.
However, not all items were worth giving to customers. And those clothes – a stained Gap T-shirt here, badly torn pants there – were thrown in a dumpster.
More and more used clothes end up in the trash. We buy more fast fashion, which changes styles quickly. Even though overall apparel sales have fallen sharply during the pandemic, online apparel sales have steadily increased. We had to make room for new stuff, and time at home prompted us to clean out our closets, overwhelming some charities with donations.
Donated clothes that you hoped would get a second life in your community could also be recycled into products such as industrial rags, carpet padding or insulation for the home. Sometimes they will be shipped in bales to Ghana, Uganda, Malaysia and other countries, where retailers will sift through the garments for prices. Some e-commerce returns also end up being shipped overseas, according to Rest of World. Occasionally, an enterprising seller overseas will sell a high-quality item to someone in the United States by listing it on Etsy or eBay.
E-commerce fuels the cycle. In 2021, online sales accounted for nearly half of all apparel purchases, according to Digital Commerce 360. That year, online apparel purchases grew 25% to $181 billion.
When ordering online, shoppers tend to buy more clothes than they plan to keep. More than half of shoppers told e-commerce customer service firm Narvar in 2021 that they bought multiple sizes of the same product with a plan to return what didn’t fit. Some companies even let customers keep clothes that don’t work, giving them even more clothes to donate or throw away.
Although difficult to quantify, e-commerce appears to be driving more apparel purchases, said Neil Saunders, retail analyst at GlobalData. Online shopping has exposed shoppers to more brands than they would see at their local mall, and it allows for shopping at any time of day, he said.
“When there are more opportunities to shop, there are more impulse purchases,” Saunders said of the clothes.
Here are four common fates that clothes you discard could meet.
Recycled, but not into new clothes
Your old gladiator rags could become real rags. Old clothes are bought by recyclers and turned into rags for car detailing, upholstery for furniture or soundproofing for cars, according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, or SMART. Fiber recyclers collect old clothes directly from donation boxes you might see in parking lots, or they buy the clothes from charities.
That may not be the outcome clothing donors envision for their old jeans, said SMART manager Jackie King.
“They just expect the clothes to come straight back to the shelves,” she said. “It doesn’t always happen that way”
But King pointed out that fiber recycling has benefits. Fewer natural resources are used because fewer new textiles are needed to produce these goods. Recycling fibers also prevents these garments from being burned or filling up landfills, and it funnels money to charities that sell garments to recyclers.
Old clothes are rarely recycled into new clothes. This is because most items are made from blends of natural and synthetic fibers, making them difficult to break down for new fabric.
For sale in distant street markets
Walk through an open-air market in Accra, Ghana, and second-hand clothes from the United States are on sale everywhere. You will see similar wares displayed in other African countries. Importers buy heavy bales of used clothes and resell them to retailers, who sort the clothes by quality. The balls come from charities, which earn money for their operations by selling the balls, or from textile recyclers.
Not everyone in importing countries likes the flow of used clothing, partly because it’s competition for local producers. A group of four East African countries attempted to ban imports to protect their domestic textile industries, but only Rwanda upheld the ban after the US government threatened to tariff the countries’ garment exports .
Clothing can also be a hazard. Research by the OR Foundation, a group that advocates for better fashion practices in the US and Ghana, found unusable clothes were overflowing landfills and creating pollution when burned in open fires in Accra.
In the garbage
Americans trashed 9 million tons of clothing and shoes in 2018, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Even if you donate it, the clothes could still end up in the landfill.
Clothes that go overseas are also thrown away at high rates. Buyers try their luck on every ball; they cannot go through it point by point first. If they don’t like what they get, it will probably end up in the trash. The OR Foundation estimates that 40% of imported clothing becomes waste. Mountains of clothing contributed to a giant landfill fire in Accra in 2019, according to a report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and long ropes of intertwined clothing often wash up on beaches in Ghana.
“Diverting clothes from landfills in the North by dumping this excess in the South is absurd,” wrote Liz Ricketts, head of the OR Foundation, in an article describing the problems caused by the shipment of surplus clothes to Ghana. “To call it a solution, or to talk about recycling, is even more absurd.”
On Instagram and Etsy
Of course, some of the donated clothes are in good condition. Some Ghanaian business owners search for better quality second-hand clothes on the street market and organize them on social media.
Accra-based Lia Akuoko posts used clothes from the city’s used clothing market on her Instagram account called lias_prettyfinds. Among her discoveries: a cropped leopard-print blazer, a red wrap dress with spaghetti straps and jeans embossed with a butterfly motif and made by Akuoko.
“They especially like colorful shift dresses,” Akuoko said of her clients, texting on WhatsApp.
In Malaysia, some companies are posting finds from lots shipped from Japan on resale websites aimed at US buyers. Once sold, the clothes take another trip overseas. The New York Times reported in February that many Malaysian sellers were posting their listings on Etsy and eBay, and one seller was posting his luxury Japanese fashion finds on Grailed, a US-based menswear resale site. .
Alternatives to clothes in the trash
The first thing advocates suggest to limit the problems caused by used clothes is to buy fewer clothes. Beyond that, there are a few choices you can make when you’re ready to part with your clothes, which usually involves handing your clothes over directly to their next owner.
This can happen on resale websites, like eBay and PoshMark, where. It can also happen online through websites such as FreeCycle or Buy Nothing groups on Facebook. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also learn some mending and sewing techniques to upcycle your own clothes.
When your clothes are unusable, fiber recycling is probably your best bet. Donating through charities or collection boxes is the quickest way to do this. However, you cannot be 100% sure that the fibers will be reused in industrial products instead of ending up as waste, here or on the other side of the world.