Americans rarely think about clothing waste because, really, what’s there to think about? It’s a crisis that’s entirely hidden from us. Our understanding of what happens to our fashion mistakes ends at the point at which we drop off our worn-out t-shirts, dresses and jeans at our local charity or toss it into a collection bin or, increasingly, our trash cans.
What happens to it from the point where we donate it? Few of us know. Americans are still talking about used clothing in charitable terms–we like to think we still live in a world where clothing is scarce and expensive and we are donating to someone in need. Please. The world we actually live in is one where dresses at Forever 21 and Target start at $4.99. The cold hard truth is that U.S. has the worst clothing waste problem in the world. Why? Because America has the worst clothing consumption problem in the world. We buy far more new clothes than any other country on Earth — and we’re failing to connect the fact that the new inevitably displaces the old, even if “the old” is that H&M ribbed bodysuit bought on a whim just two weeks ago.
In order for me to truly understand America’s crisis of unwanted clothing, I had to go to New Jersey, to a textile sorting facility. There, workers dig through and separate clothes piled up wall to wall and floor to ceiling in a giant warehouse, sorting them based on condition, determining what can be reworn and what cannot. The stuff that is too torn up is literally recycled, at another facility. But, as it turns out, recycling is a very small fraction of the unwanted clothing business. A majority, about 60%, of America’s cast-off apparel is rewearable and continues its second life as clothes.
How does our clothing end up in a sorting facility in New Jersey? Most of it comes from huge charities, such as Goodwill or Salvation Army and other similar charitable and for-profit clothing collectors. It increasingly comes from retailer take back programs such as the one championed by H&M. Charities, it’s important to note, only manage to sell about 15%-20% on average of what we donate to them in their own thrift shops. How can this be so? Because we give them way too much stuff. But also because new fashion is so cheap nowadays that many would-be thrift store shoppers would just as soon go to T.J.Maxx to buy something fresh and new.
H&M, which launched a World Recycling Week this year, tries to market their take-back program as a recycling program. As a result, there’s a public perception that H&M is literally breaking down the clothes we’re donating to them and reforming it into new products. That’s far from the truth. No matter where you donate your clothes, including at H&M, any of it that can be reworn gets reworn–and it’s most likely reworn in a different country.
The New Jersey facility is but one player in a massive international export-oriented secondhand clothing exchange, which America leads. The U.S. now ships $700 million worth of our unwanted apparel to other parts of the world–a four-fold increase in the last 15 years. The countries that receive the largest share of America’s old clothes: Canada, where it’s typically sorted on a more granular level, and exported again (in other words, little of it stays in Canada), as well as India, which has a long history of processing unwanted clothes from the West and redistributing it around the world.
The secondhand clothing industry is very nuanced and fine-grained–people who work in this business know that suede trench coats have little market anywhere; that an unpaired shoe can be paired up with a similar but not identical shoe and sold in Pakistan; and that the higher-value clothes can go to South American countries where people have the money to buy a two-seasons-old J. Crew or GAP shirt or maybe a Zara dress with a snag here or there.
Africa gets the dregs; they get the non-branded stuff, the Old Navy cargo shorts, the Merona for Target knit dresses and tops, the H&M basics, the stuff that we snub on the thrift store racks because it’s almost as affordable to buy it new. More generally, Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua take a lot of our unloved apparel, as does Angola and Kenya.
Once it arrives in any one of the dozens of countries it’s shipped to around the world, our secondhand apparel isn’t given away as charity–despite the fact that much of it donated for such purposes–it is sold. The secondhand clothing trade is big business. While Americans may not like this idea, the alternative of dumping free unwanted clothing on developing countries could potentially have serious adverse economic impacts (more on that in a minute).
Government data shows that somehow, some way, Americans are throwing away even more of our unwanted duds than we are donating or recycling. Some 85% of our clothing waste is being landfilled, as compared to the 15% that we donate, sell, recycle or give away. I’ve been to dumps and transfer stations searching for signs of this problem. But mixed in with everything else, our tossed-out apparel gets upstaged by food scraps, cheap Ikea furniture, construction debris, paper, plastic and the like. I suspect the percentage is so shockingly high partly because manufacturers and fashion companies are dumping samples and unsold goods at landfills. I also know of at least one major charity in a major U.S. city that dumps clothing donations into landfill whenever they get too many of them; it’s unlikely they’re the only one engaging in this habit.
But the problem really starts to make sense in the sorting facilities–where you can see all of the unwanted clothes stacked up. And it is scary. The U.S. generates 30.6 billion pounds of textile waste per year–enough to fill up two million Olympic sized swimming pools, and that figure includes what gets reworn and recycled as well as landfilled. But the problem, you see, is that this number of filled swimming pools has been growing rapidly year after year for the last decade and a half, in tandem with our accelerating consumption of clothing. Americans now buy far more clothing than we can wear or make good use of and so we have more clothes going into dumps and being dumped onto developing countries.
But isn’t reusing clothes–even if the reuse happens in other countries–a good thing? It’s an honest question, one with a complex answer. The good entailed in shipping our clothes overseas is that, well, the unwanted apparel has to go somewhere–and since Americans don’t want all or even most of it, selling it to parts of the world that do want it is a reasonable solution. It’s certainly far more environmentally friendly than sending it to the landfill.
But there is a dark side to the trade. Kenya for example once had a robust textile and garment trade that many argue has been negatively impacted by the booming import of secondhand clothing from the West; hence why the East African nation is talking about banning it outright. It’s among many countries, such as Zimbabwe and Mexico, that restrict the sale of secondhand clothes following pressure from manufacturers and sellers of new clothing.
Selling secondhand clothing is also poverty work in many parts of the world; these aren’t jobs that are growing the economic pie or aiding development for most countries, such as Kenya. In this way, secondhand clothes do little to truly help people out of poverty, ensuring that their dependence on used clothing continues.
To make the issue just a notch more complex, these dynamics are not the fault of secondhand clothing traders anymore than recyclers of plastic bottles are responsible for the environmental crisis of plastic. If we want to point fingers, we need to point them at retailers who are making way too much stuff and selling it too cheaply and to governments who don’t properly protect and regulate fashion and clothing export industries. And we also need to point the finger at ourselves.
Really shipping all those used clothes overseas is more of a psychological problem for us, for American consumers — as it inadvertently hides our wastefulness from us. We might as well be shipping it to the moon. It allows us to continue to believe that our wastefulness is somehow good for the world.
Americans now consume clothing as a commodity, something to be mindlessly purchased and discarded like a cup of coffee or a plastic bottle. Clothing companies encourage this behavior in order to sell off their staggering and unsustainable volumes of cheap, indistinguishable “fashion.”
We toss out plenty of products with wild abandon–plastic bottles leap to mind. Is tossing out clothing and moving on to something new that much worse than doing the same with a plastic bottle? In a word. Yes. To create a one-liter bottle of water requires 1.39 liters of water and 3.4 megajoules of energy. A t-shirt by contrast commands 2,700 liters of water. A pair of jeans requires 400 megajoules of energy, the equivalent of powering a computer at your office for three and a half months for 8 hours a day. This is why the fashion industry is now the second most polluting industry on Earth — there is a lot of water and resources tied up in a $4.99 dress, even if the price doesn’t suggest it.
What Americans really need to do to challenge the clothing waste crisis is two-fold and it has nothing to do with changing what charity or retailer you give your unwanted clothes to. The solution first is that we need to buy way less new clothing, avoiding those purchases that are going to cycle quickly into the secondhand market or the landfill. The average American is buying over sixty items a year; we need to cut that consumption in half. If it sounds like deprivation, I’d argue it’s really not. That would still leave us buying something new every two weeks.
Secondly, Americans need to wear the clothing we already have for longer. According to a report by Wrap UK, just wearing what’s in our closets for a mere 6 to 9 months longer could lesson the carbon and water footprint of fashion significantly. Lastly, next time you have some clothes to get rid of, don’t look at your waste as a blessing in disguise. The economic and environmental impact of unwanted clothes is much too complicated–and many would argue it’s oftentimes negative–to see it as intrinsic good.