Marie Kondo encouraged us to seek joy in our belongings and let go of the ones that no longer do. As we tackle the when's and how's, we know that this necessary activity can lead to a lot of positive outcomes. However, we don't often think about the impact of the clothes we discard. For most of us, we sort through items we haven't worn in the past couple of months and divide them into 2 piles: donate and toss.
Tossing unwearable clothes into the garbage bin is never the answer. But my curiosity kicked in with what really happens to these pre-loved items. Here's what I found.
OUR CURRENT STATE
Even though most Americans donate clothing, textiles still make up a shocking percentage of US waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, we generated 17 million tons of textile waste in 2018, which is about 6% of total municipal waste.
So what happened to those 17 million tons?
On average, 700,000 tons of used clothing gets exported overseas. 2.5 million tons get recycled (14.7%) while 3.2 million tons get combusted (18.7%). Landfills received a staggering 11.3 million tons (62.5%).
These numbers tell us that reducing textile waste is imminent, because we don't have an energy-friendly combustion system to prevent filling our rotting landfills (where shoes and clothes can take 200+ years to decompose while emitting greenhouse gases).
DONATION IS GOOD, NOT PERFECT
Most Americans feel that donating clothes means giving unwanted clothes to someone who needs it and a form of charity. But it's not as simple as that.
First, not all charities are created equal; a quick search and you'll find scandal-ridden nonprofits such as Planet Aid, which not only profits from donations in their yellow clothing bins, but also contributes to a cult-like company culture.
Goodwill and Salvation Army have reported that only 10-20% of the donation is sold in their respective stores, which then uses revenue from sales to fund charities or job training programs for seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities. The remaining donated clothes are either resold to be recycled, exported, or tossed. Goodwill has reported that 5% of the donated clothes they received are sent directly to landfills- despite the fact that most textiles aren't biodegradable.
45% of the unsold donated clothes are then turned into tradable goods and exported to developing nations. In fact, the US is the biggest worldwide exporter of used clothing and in 2019, we exported 737 million US dollars worth of used clothes. As lucrative as the exported secondhand clothing market is, it has increasingly been criticized as an impediment to developing nations' own domestic textile sector. While tracking the journey of your donated old T-shirt, you could find it at a street market in Africa sold for as little as $1.50. In 2016, the East African Community (EAC) agreed to completely ban importing secondhand clothing—but the Trump administration pressured leaders to rescind the ban, which they eventually did in 2019. How do you negotiate with one of the largest economies when they threaten to impose trade sanctions? And how did a previously free donated good become a commodity to sell?
RECYCLING TO CLOSE THE LOOP
Sometimes, clothes are stained, ripped, or just plain worn out. As reported by the Council for Textile Recycling, 50% of donated items that are not resold directly in secondhand stores (such as Goodwill) are recycled. 30% of those items are upcycled, shredded and reclaimed as industrial wiping rags and 20% are recycled into fiber (which is used in home insulation, carpet padding, and raw material for the automotive industry). Natural textiles, like cotton or wool, are sorted, cleaned, broken down, and re-spun into yards of threads, ready to be renewed.
But as our generation starts to understand the value of recycled textiles, brands are finding opportunities to be responsible for their own products. Brands like Patagonia or Eileen Fisher have an efficient system to collect old clothes at scale and repurpose them into exciting new styles. Other innovations lead the way in creating renewed materials like recycled wool, cashmere, polyester.
At Opus Mind, we use recycled leather made from scraps of leather from a glove factory. We looked at our impact from two angles: lowering waste from existing scraps that would have been sent to landfills and creating a premium material that would be a good alternative to virgin leather.
HOPE FOR A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
This past decade, we've seen a rise in younger generations' concern to hold industries' practice accountable. Legacy corporations are always slower to adapt. But startup innovations do shake it up a bit. When companies like ThredUp and The RealReal integrate a user experience with a sense of responsibility and add some incentive with actual monetary rewards, you get a winning formula.
So, if you must part with your previously purchased item, why not try selling it through those platforms or opt to donate your clothes through them? After diving into the journey of donated clothes from legacy non-profits (which rejects 80-90% of it), my conclusion is that finding the next home for your pre-loved item would extend the item's lifecycle. Until the industry becomes more efficient at scale, we will not be able to achieve a circular fashion.
Our planet and our goal should be aligned. Are you with us?
Blog by Kathleen Kuo (@kathleenkuo_ )
Kathleen Kuo is Founder of Opus Mind and Community Chief. Coming from over a decade of experience in fashion and entrepreneurship, she started her career doing design, business strategy, and retail management for brands like CHANEL and Christian Dior.
📸 photo credit @michaeloliverlove
Behind the Bins: Former Planet Aid Employees Describe 'Cult-Like' Experience, NBC Washington article.
Do you know what's happening to your clothing donations?, Washington Post,
Facts and Figures About Materials Waste and Recycling, EPA.gov
The Life Cycle of Secondhand Clothing, Council for Textile Recycling,