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The Truth About Why You Should Donate ALL Old Clothes

By Kelly Drennan

As a sustainable fashion advocate for the past decade, I happen to know my stuff. I’ve written about how fashion is the second largest polluting industry after oil; that the average t-shirt travels 35,000 km before landing on your back, or that one cotton t-shirt requires about 10 full bathtubs of water to make.

Textile waste has long been an issue I’ve addressed as well. But it is only recently that I have come to realize how little the average person knows about what truly happens to our garments when we’re done with them.

Yes, the fashion industry is starting to think about this. Governments, too, with some municipalities looking at landfill bans, and that’s exciting for those of us who want to see sustainability advanced throughout the entire fashion system. But where work really needs to be done (alongside industry & government) is with us, the consumers.

Buying less is of course the golden rule. We don’t need more clothes. According to Fashion Revolution, we purchase 400x more clothing/year than we did in 1980 – that is a sickening fact. So what are we to do with these new garments when we’re done with them?

Passing on our unwanted clothing to friends, family and those in need is, of course, the best option. But Americans toss out 25 billion pounds of clothing every year, with only 15 percent of that being donated or recycled. I think one reason for that low figure is because many of us believe that if our unwanted textiles are unattractive (think: knackered underwear, shrunken sweaters, ripped or stained linens), they’re simply rubbish.

Enter the charitable organizations and clothing donation bins.

Why You Should Donate ALL Old Clothes

I decided to poll my Facebook community around what they donate and where. In just a few hours I had over 50 responses, and 90% of those stated they never donate undesirable textiles.  Some of that 90% go on to say they may use them as rags around the house, which is great. But most simply chuck those unwearables (and unmentionables) into the garbage can, because they simply didn’t know any better.

The fact is, EVERYTHING can go into the bins. That’s right – even your holey-toed socks, saggy underwear and stained linens. Not because there is a market to resell these items, but because there is a market to recycle the fabric they’re made from. And while that market might still be small, we have the power to make it greater.

Supply & Demand

If we start donating everything to the bins and to the second hand retailers, it means they will have a whole lot more textile waste on their hands, forcing the fashion industry and government to move quickly and come up with some innovative solutions that can help boost our economy (or grow the low-carbon economy) by creating jobs and reducing GHGs.*

About 60-70% of what we donate is resold by stores like Value Village, Goodwill and the Salvation Army, or is shipped to developing countries in the form of charitable donations. And the other 30-40%? Well, that’s sold as shredded fabric for recycling. The automotive, carpet, toy, and building industry are buying shredded textile waste and using it for insulation, under padding and stuffing, for example.

Why You Should Donate All Old Clothes

About 5% of what is collected is truly recycled and turned into brand new threads that eventually become new garments. H&M and Levi’s are two large brands that are doing exactly that, and they’re even collecting used textiles in their stores to help facilitate the process. I am confident that even more will jump on board in the next few years.

It is this kind of textile recycling – part of the circular economy – that we need to grow. It will create new jobs and support our country’s climate action plan under the Paris Agreement. All we need to do to help make this happen is donate!

For the sake of the planet, please donate ALL your old textiles to charity bins. Whether your old jacket gets another ten years of wear from a person in need, your old socks become new insulation, or your stained towels are transformed into teddy bear stuffing, your old ‘dead’ textiles are far more useful than you think.

Why You Should Donate All Old Clothes

*This article has been edited for style.

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4 Comments

  • Reply
    Leah
    Apr 5, 2018 at 4:26 pm

    The statistic on fashion is incorrect. Fashion is more like the 5th most polluting industry, according to EcoCult’s very thorough analysis using recent data.

    And as a thrift shop manager, I don’t necessarily agree that donating everything is the best choice. This assumes that all thrift shops have the infrastructure to support moving masses of unusable textiles to recycling facilities when, in fact, many local and national shops are forced to pay to throw away goods they can’t find a use for. Just go behind your local thrift shop and see what’s in their dumpster. The other problem is that countries that used to accept our used textiles are starting to ban the practice since it tampers with native industries. Yes, we do need to reduce our overall consumption, but placing the burden on thrift shops, who are already being crushed under the weight of cheap textiles and are often run by a combination of volunteers and paid staff, will not be as productive as you imply. This argument further reduces personal agency and places the bulk of the work on the nonprofit laborer.

    • Chere
      Reply
      Chere
      Apr 5, 2018 at 9:19 pm

      Hi Leah, thanks for your comments. Actually, I did some fact checking, and that statistic does indeed seem to be correct, according to countless scholarly and NGO reports. In fact, considering the fashion industry uses not only loads of energy, water and extracted materials from the mining and petroleum industries, agriculture (and let’s not forget most cotton is also GMO, which isn’t even counted as a ‘pollutant’ but should be), and chemicals industry (for dying and finishing), it’s almost surprising that it’s not considered to be the number 1 polluter! And that’s without even thinking about the impact of dry cleaning, washing, transport and waste…But in any case, the article does say clearly that buying less IS the best solution. Further, around 70% of all waste clothing in the UK (where I am) is sold as rags for recycling – and the trade is so lucrative, criminal gangs are often stealing bags left outside charity shops so they can sell them on https://www.ft.com/content/44784f66-8ae8-11e1-912d-00144feab49a. As with deadstock fabric, even with old rags, there’s money to be made – and any charity shop that tosses stuff out in the rubbish is clearly missing this fact.

      More than 70 percent of the world’s population wears secondhand clothing. About 50 percent of collected shoes and clothing is used as second-hand products. 20 percent is used to produce polishing and cleaning cloths for various industrial purposes and 26 percent is recycled for applications such as fiber for insulation products, upholstery, fiberboard, and mattresses.

      In the United States, textile recycling industry removes approximately 2.5 billion pounds of post-consumer textiles each year from the waste stream and the industry creates more than 17,000 jobs. Among this workforce, 10,000 are semi-skilled employees employed in the primary processing of used textile and the remaining 7,000 employees are employed in the final processing stage. There are more than 500 garments recycling companies in the USA and majority of these companies are owned and operated by small and family businesses, each of which employs 35 to 50 workers.

      So, I’d say donating old clothing is still a way better idea than throwing it out – of course keeping in mind that the first of the 3 big R’s is REDUCE. 😉

    • Reply
      Rachel Kibbe
      Apr 7, 2018 at 9:34 pm

      Thrift stores can’t take all donations, and shouldn’t be expected to, but businesses like mine, whose goal is specifically to keep clothes out of the trash, can handle these clothes and want them. We collected 20 million pounds last year and we are growing. We have the logistics to handle large amounts of clothes.

      If you or anyone (including retailers and Thrift Stores) want to chat more about helping with donation overages, please reach out. We are currently set up to collect from locations in NY, NJ, Mass, and New Hampshire.

      http://www.HELPSY.co / [email protected]

  • Reply
    Alden Wicker
    Apr 6, 2018 at 1:43 am

    Hey Chere,

    I did a deep dive into secondhand fashion a couple years ago for Newsweek, and what I found is that even textile recyclers lose money on hole-y articles of clothing, plus large and small charity shops. http://www.newsweek.com/2016/09/09/old-clothes-fashion-waste-crisis-494824.html The system is on the verge of collapse, for the reasons that Leah explained above. And global demand for used clothing has dropped, because of the ratio of junk to good stuff is rising precipitously, leading many charity shops and recyclers to shutter. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-42777804?utm_source=Publicate&utm_medium=email&utm_content=Global+demand+for+old+clothes+declines&utm_campaign=Sustainable+Fashion+Round+UpWeek+of+January+29
    Finally, only holy clothing that is certain fibers (100% cotton, and other absorbent textiles) can be downcycled. Blends gunk up the machine that chops up the fabric, and textiles that are cut into rags have to be absorbent.
    So it might be more accurate to say that consumers should drop off 100% cotton and absorbent hole-y and stained textiles to H&M, Levi’s, Goodwill and Salvation Army, and should only drop off wearable and beautiful used clothing to small charity shops.

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