A few years ago, I volunteered at a local Saint Vincent de Paul day center, whose clients included many people living on the streets nearby. My job was to sort through a mountain of donated clothes, looking for vibrant blouses, tailored coats and other gems that would help struggling people served by the charity.
Not every item, however, was worth offering to clients. And those clothes -- a stained Gap T-shirt here, a badly ripped pair of pants there -- got tossed into a dumpster.
More used clothes are ending up in the garbage. We're buying more fast fashion, which cycles in and out of style quickly. Even though overall clothing sales fell sharply during the pandemic, e-commerce apparel sales grew steadily. We had to make room for the new stuff, and time stuck at home prompted us to clean out our closets, overwhelming some charities with donations.
The donated clothes you hoped would have a second life in your community might also end up recycled into products like industrial rags, carpet padding or home insulation. Sometimes, they'll be shipped in bales to Ghana, Uganda, Malaysia and other countries, where retailers will sift through the clothes looking for prizes. Some e-commerce returns also end up shipped overseas, according to Rest of World. Every once in a while, an enterprising vendor overseas will sell a high quality item to someone in the US by listing it on Etsy or eBay.
E-commerce is fueling the cycle. By 2021, online sales accounted for nearly half of all apparel purchases, according to Digital Commerce 360. That year, e-commerce apparel purchases rose 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 company Narvar in 2021 that they buy multiple sizes of the same product with a plan to return what doesn't fit. Some companies even let customers keep clothes that don't work out, giving them even more clothes to donate or throw away.
Though it's difficult to quantify, e-commerce appears to drive more purchases of clothes, said Neil Saunders, a retail analyst at GlobalData. Online shopping has exposed shoppers to more brands than they'd see in their local mall, and it makes it possible to shop any time of day, he said.
"When there is more opportunity to shop, there is more impulse buying," Saunders said of apparel.
Here are four common fates that the clothes you get rid of might encounter.
Recycled, but not into new clothes
Your old glad rags could become real rags. The old clothes are purchased by recyclers and turned into things like rags for auto detailing, stuffing for furniture or soundproofing for cars, according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, or SMART. Fiber recyclers collect old clothes directly from the 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 Jackie King, head of SMART.
"They just expect that clothing is just going to go right back out on the shelves," she said. "It doesn't always happen like that"
But King emphasized fiber recycling has upsides. Fewer natural resources are used because fewer new textiles are needed to produce those goods. Fiber recycling also keeps those clothes from being burned or filling landfills, and it funnels cash to the charities that sell clothes to recyclers.
Old clothes are rarely recycled into new clothes. That's because most items are made from blends of natural and synthetic fibers, making them difficult to break down for new fabric.
For sale in faraway street markets
Walk through an outdoor market in Accra, Ghana, and secondhand clothes from the US are on sale everywhere. You'll see similar wares on display in other African countries. Importers buy heavy bales of used clothing and sell them to retailers, who sort the clothes by quality. The bales come from charities, which make money for their operations by selling the bales, or from textile recyclers.
Not everyone in the importing countries likes the flow of used clothing, in part because it's competition for local producers. A group of four east African countries tried to ban the imports to protect their domestic textile industries, but only Rwanda maintained the ban after the US government threatened tariffs on the countries' clothing exports.
The clothing can also be a hazard. Research by the OR Foundation, a group advocating for better fashion practices in the US and Ghana, found that unusable clothing overflowed from landfills and created pollution when burned in open fires in Accra.
In the garbage
Americans trashed 9 million tons of clothes and shoes in 2018, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Even if you donate it, the clothing could still end up in the landfill.
Clothes that go overseas are also discarded at high rates. Buyers take a chance on each bale; they can't go through it item by item first. If they don't like what they get, it's probably going to end up in the trash. The OR Foundation estimates that 40% of imported clothes become waste. Mountains of clothing contributed to a giant landfill fire in Accra in 2019, according to a report from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and long ropes of entwined clothes often wash up on Ghana's beaches.
"Diverting clothing from landfills in the Global North by dumping this excess on the Global South is absurd," wrote Liz Ricketts, head of the OR Foundation, in a piece describing the problems caused by shipping excess clothes to Ghana. "Calling this a solution, or referring to this as recycling, is even more absurd."
On Instagram and Etsy
Of course, some of the donated clothing is in good shape. Some Ghanaian business owners seek out higher quality used clothes at the street market and curate them on social media.
Lia Akuoko, based in Accra, posts used clothes from the city's used clothes 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 stamped with a butterfly motif and tailored by Akuoko.
"They mostly love colorful straight dresses," Akuoko said of her customers, texting over WhatsApp.
In Malaysia, some businesses post finds from bundles shipped from Japan on resale websites aimed at US shoppers. Once sold, the clothes make another overseas trip. The New York Times reported in February that many Malaysian vendors post their listings on Etsy and eBay, and one vendor posts his luxury Japanese fashion finds on Grailed, a US-based men's clothing resale site.
Alternatives to trashing clothes
The first thing advocates suggest for limiting the problems caused by used clothing is to buy fewer clothes. Beyond that, you can make different choices when you're ready to part with your clothes, which typically involve handing off your togs directly to their next owner.
This can happen on resale websites, like eBay and PoshMark, where individuals can list used clothes. It can also happen online through websites like FreeCycle or Buy Nothing groups on Facebook. If you're feeling adventurous, you can also learn some mending and tailoring 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 fastest way to do this. However, you can't be 100% sure the fibers will get reused in industrial products instead of ending up as garbage, either here or halfway across the world.