What Happens to Donated Clothes?

50% of Americans say they’d give up sex for more closet space. And hey. I understand the appeal.

The dreaded task of going through my closet and deciding what to keep and what to cull is almost always on my to-do list. At the very bottom.

There’s a very real war against clutter taking place in our homes; many of us dream of a closet with a folding island and backlit shoe storage.

Are you part of the 50% of Americans who would give up sex to make this clutter go away?

But I had an epiphany a few years ago: maybe the issue isn’t lack of closet space. Maybe I have too much stuff? My side of the closet should be able to handle, reasonably, 50 garments. How much clothing do I need? I also have a dresser, too.

For me, that was a sobering thought. I’ve tried to pare down my belongings since then. I do re-sell what I can in buy-sell-trade groups or clothing resale apps like Mercari.

And when that feels too overwhelming, I’ll bring in goods to a local consignment store (like Once Upon A Child or Clothes Mentor). Or just dump them off at the local thrift store. Making a charitable donation feels good, and I’m freeing up some storage space and mental bandwidth by removing the anxiety-inducing clutter.

For a while, I have been aware that many nonprofit donation centers are controversial in terms of staffing, pay, and how sale proceeds are used. But turns out that donated clothing in and of itself is a major ethical issue.

Virtually all clothing you buy will find its way to a landfill in the US or a developing nation. Whether you chuck it in the trash yourself, or the items get there after passing through a donation center. Studies show that donated clothing has around a 10% chance of being sold on the sales floor vs being sold to textile brokers paid to haul away unwanted apparel. (Said another way, there’s a roughly 90% chance your clothing donation will be sold to textile brokers instead of going to the local needy population.)

From there, your unwanted clothing will be shredded for textile scraps, donated to developing nations (which wreaks havoc on local markets), or sold (instead of donated) to vendors in developing nations.

When a garment is shredded, it is recycled which can be seen as a positive. However, methods to recycle or upcycle old clothing can be harmful to the environment. Also, recycled clothing is not infinitely recyclable. Each time any product is recycled, its polymers break down and the overall quality is degraded. After being recycled, the item is reincarnated as a less sturdy, lesser quality good until eventually the material can no longer be recycled and ultimately winds up in a landfill.

Big yikes! Let’s find out more about what happens to your donated clothing and the simple, easy things you can do to make sure your clothing has a more sustainable happily ever after – after.

What happens to clothes when they are donated?

Most people assume that if they donate a pair of jeans, someone in their local community will purchase them, and that is the end of it. However, the process isn’t quite as clear-cut. If you donate an old pair of jeans, odds are they will be sold to a textile broker and find their way overseas to be re-sold at a local market.

We will break that down. But first, take heart. Sometimes, you donate a sweater to your local thrift store where within a couple of days, it will get processed, tagged, and placed on the floor. Best case scenario: it will get sold within a few days to a few weeks.

But when that doesn’t happen, things get dicey. The dicey is more common and that’s what we’ll explore.

Thrift stores aren’t being deceptively dicey when taking donations. They do need and want your old thing. But they cannot keep inventory indefinitely. Just like the GAP clearance-stickers out “old merchandise” with each new fashion micro-drop, thrift stores need to keep things moving. There is a timeline for how long a thrift store can keep stale merchandise on its floors when new inventory is always streaming in and there is never enough room.

Most donated clothing cannot be re-sold. Major nonprofits that receive clothing and textile donations sell the vast majority of it to textile brokers and it’s these proceeds that enable them to fund their programs and initiatives.

After going to textile brokers, most of that clothing winds up overseas in developing countries where our unwanted clothing is resold on a micro-level. Supporters say that re-selling used clothing overseas creates jobs and provides a source of affordable clothing for local communities. Donated clothing usually isn’t just given away for free, as that has been shown to have a negative impact on local economies. This is why most countries will not accept free clothing.

And developing nations do not have the infrastructure we do in the US to process our old clothes after they’ve tired of them. Thus, the clothing makes its way to their overcrowded landfills. Our old trash becomes another country’s new trash problem.

Here’s the life cycle of your shirt, from cradle to landfill

The life cycle of your donated T-shirt from production to its final resting place. Click or tap on the infographic image to enlarge.

Old clothes are in their landfills, so what?

Landfills in developing nations don’t have the same standards as U.S. landfills for sanitation and safety. Landfill contents (another word for garbage) are often burned. Even unburnt, emissions from landfills are the largest human-caused source of methane. Methane is 80x worse for the environment (global warming) than CO2.

In terms of impact on local peoples, those residing within 5 km of landfills have significantly worse health outcomes, including diabetes, tuberculosis, asthma, and other chronic illness and respiratory distress. The impact on local drinking water is catastrophic: leachate (accumulated moisture from wastepile), ammonia, heavy metals, and chloride leak into water sources. Locals can literally see and taste the impact in their brackish water.

Even without textile dumps from the U.S., developing nations would still be plagued with sanitation and potable water issues. But our garment dumps are making a horrendous situation worse. Polyester, nylon, fleece, and other synthetic materials shed micro-plastic in water. And it’s not just shiny, Greg Brady button-downs. Organic cotton or wool fabric is commonly blended with non-biodegradable materials that shed microplastic.

Smaller than 1/5 of an inch in diameter, most water treatment systems in the US are not designed to filter out these micro-plastic pollutants. Microplastic is appearing in our taps, air, soil, bloodstream, and human organs like lungs. There isn’t definitive, long-term toxicological data on the impact of humans ingesting microplastics, but many scientists say it’s reasonable to believe it’s problematic. I personally don’t want to eat a bowl of polyester micro-plastic, so it doesn’t seem like a stretch, but who really knows?

Why can’t we keep US-donated clothing in the US?

This would simplify things greatly, but the truth is there is not enough demand in the U.S. for all of our unwanted clothing. The average American throws out or donates 37 kilos (82 pounds) of clothing per year according to the BBC. At a population of 330 million, this amounts to a little over 27 billion pounds of unwanted clothing we shed each year. We have more unwanted clothing than poor people who need it.

Many of these unwanted garments do go to homeless individuals and low-income families. However, there are roughly 581,000 homeless persons in America and according to the US Census, there are 37.2 million people living at or below the poverty level. If all of our donated and unwanted apparel went to this combined total of 37.8 million Americans, that would be 716 pounds of clothing per person experiencing poverty or homelessness. 716 pounds is like 764 pairs of midweight jeans per person or 2,302 American Apparel tees.

America may have a large population of housing-poor or money-poor individuals, but they are not clothing poor. At least not when it comes to jeans and tees.

Are donated clothes shredded?

Sometimes donated clothes are shredded to be re-used for another purpose. If used clothing is not sold promptly or is not wearable due to holes or stains, it can be shredded for rags, insulation, or other fiber products. This reduces the amount of clothing waste because even though it is being downcycled, it’s still being used in some capacity.

Unwanted textiles can be shredded to be down-cycled into lower-quality goods.

Adam Baruchowitz, the founder of Wearable Collections, a for-profit company that collects and processes unwanted clothing in New York City, has explained that per industry standards, roughly 50% of donated apparel is wearable (either domestically or internationally). About 45% of garment donations are shredded to use as rags or other fiber products, and less than 5% is entirely unusable.

What happens to unsold clothing at Goodwill? What do charity shops do with clothes they can’t sell?

Charitable organizations like Goodwill, Salvation Army, Savers, and others collect donations on-site and sell them in their stores. But only about 50% of what they collect makes it onto their shelves for purchase and fewer than half of the items that go to the sales floor will sell. So what happens to the unsold clothes?

Vice President of Savers, Tony Shumpert explained that many thrift shops have relationships with “sorter/grader” textile recycling companies that haul unwanted textiles away. Those clothes may be too worn to sell or fall under a category or style that the store already has a surplus of.

The textiles are sorted by material and quality and compacted into huge bales. The clothing is sold by the pound to resale markets and recycling facilities. If the clothing is too worn to be sold, it can end up as carpet padding, insulation, rags, fabric scraps, or other uses.

As all thrift stores and charitable donation organizations accept clothes, they will have varying practices and standards. But like Savers, some clothing is sold on sales floors, most clothing is sold to textile brokers, and some clothing is completely unusable and winds up as trash.

Baled clothing is a commodity.

Most of the clothing you donate goes go to textile brokers who buy clothing by the pound. From there, most of that clothing goes overseas to developing countries. Many of these wares are then sold by street vendors which can have a negative impact on local economies. Many countries like Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda are seeking to ban imported clothing to protect their local economies and artisans.

Used clothing being re-sold in Ghana. Do you want to buy it?

On one hand, sending used clothing overseas provides tens of thousands of jobs for locals. However, many people argue that banning it would be more beneficial to encourage the growth of their local economies by building up their own garment industry and clothing factories. But even if developing countries created their own textile manufacturing, they likely would not have the same protections and labor rights for their workers. It’s a tough debate to know what is the most ethical choice in this situation and experts have strong opinions on both sides of the issue.

How many clothes are thrown away each year in the world?

According to Earth.org, 1.92 million tonnes of textile waste is produced yearly. Each year, 100 billion garments are made and 92 million tonnes of clothing end up in landfills. (Ton and tonne denote different units of measurement. A ton is an imperial unit of mass equivalent to 1,016.047 kg or 2,240 lbs, and a tonne is a metric unit of mass equivalent to 1,000 kilograms or 2,204.6 lbs.)

How many clothes go into landfills?

Human-made mountains of unwanted clothes.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans are throwing away record-breaking amounts of used clothing: 11.3 million tons ended up in landfills in 2018 compared to 1.7 million tons in 1960.

According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the average United States consumer throws away up to 81 pounds of clothing every year (similar to the BBC’s figure of 82 pounds.) As you can imagine, this figure adds up to a staggering amount — one that cannot be sustained indefinitely.

What happens to clothes in landfills?

When unwanted clothes make it to the landfill, the picture is bleak. Depending on the type of fabric, it can take 200 years or more for the materials to decompose. During the decomposition process, textiles generate greenhouse gases and leach toxic chemicals and dyes into the groundwater and soil.

Not only are people drinking and bathing in this water, but the contaminants also harm wildlife, plants, and soil. While you might think it doesn’t matter if this “dirt” goes to other dirt, it’s actually a huge problem. These dirty pollutants harm the soil’s ability to store carbon (removing C20) and plant biodiversity (storing nutrients to grow crops that feed us). Clean dirt is vitally important.

Leachate (build-up of moisture from garbage heaps) containing toxic chemicals used for garment production, ammonia, chlorides, and heavy metals) makes its way into local water sources. Men, women, children, and babies are drinking and bathing in this garbage water.

Why is donating clothes good?

Donating your old clothes may give you a tax break. Depending on the organization, you may be eligible for a tax write-off so make sure and ask when you drop off your donations.

This is what we envision when we donate clothing, although the process is very different.

Donating clothing to a local charity allows used goods in good condition to have a second life, at an affordable price for shoppers, while raising funds for a worthy cause.

The secondhand market has increased in the past decade with millennials and Gen Z more interested in shopping secondhand than previous generations. This is likely because those generations are some of the first to really see the ramifications of the fashion industry. (And of course, there’s the penchant of younger generations to embrace values that older ones rejected.)

Also, there is certain clothing that people experiencing poverty and homelessness really do need.

Donated clothing that is needed

  • Winter coats, hats, gloves, coats, mittens, and scarves
  • Snow bibs and snowsuits
  • Winter boots
  • Warm socks (new)
  • Underwear and bras (new)
  • Raincoats
  • Rain boots
  • New or lightly used sneakers (medium and wide-widths)
  • Baby clothing
  • Plus size casual wear (tops, pants)

This type of clothing, the kind you want to keep, is the kind that is most needed and most helpful for donation centers.

Most Americans do not have a surplus of these clothing items on hand. We tend to have fewer items of outerwear and hold onto them longer. These garments are often commonly passed down to other family members. And when people give clothing alms to the poor, they prefer to give from their used stash vs buying new gear. Also, Goodwill and other nonprofit thrift stores do not accept used socks and underwear. (You can still recycle your old underpants though.)

What are the cons of donating clothes?

Donating clothing can put the burden of recycling responsibly on other people, which some people do not think is ethical. While the saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is popular for a reason, many people donate items that should have been disposed of 5-10 years ago and then expect the local Goodwill or Savers to deal with it.

Garments that you don’t know what to do with (think: mothball coated tuxedos and taffeta prom dresses from decades ago), Goodwill shoppers don’t know what to do with them either. And there’s almost certainly no use for them in overseas markets where they wind their way through textile brokers.

Some people also do not agree with the multi-million dollar textile brokerage business, with dealers who buy clothing by the pound and then re-sell it to other countries or businesses. The amount of time, money, and resources that go into moving all these unwanted clothes are harmful to the environment and local economies in developing countries.

What clothes shouldn’t you donate?

Clothing that’s too worn-out for you to wear is too worn-out for needy people to wear, too. Growing up, my mom was of the belief that secondhand shopping was for poor people and donating our old clothes was one way (of many) to give alms. We gave our local thrift stores clothing in rough shape: items with rips, stains, holes, and missing buttons. And very stinky sneakers.

It wasn’t ill-intentioned. We wore our clothes down to the studs and my parents believed our cast-offs weren’t trash because the poor and needy would welcome these goods gladly since it was all they could afford. They honestly believed we shouldn’t throw away something still helpful to someone else.

Little did I know that thrift stores have plenty of clean, flaw-free garments on the floor. Many clothing items are even brand new with tags. There’s so much clothing to churn through that your bruised cast-offs are unneeded and become a trash pile for the nonprofit to deal with.

Items with stains or tears should not be donated. “Ultimately, everything you donate should respect the potential future recipient. Don’t expect someone in need to be grateful for a stained t-shirt or a pair of ratty sweats”, explains Karen Pearson, chair of the Sustainability Council.

Used clothing or textiles with stains or holes should be set aside and repurposed as household wipe cloths and garage rags, or sent away to textile recycling centers so that the burden does not fall upon nonprofit donation center workers.

Single-purpose clothing (especially when outdated) is also not helpful. Think about what the everyday person would be able to regularly wear.

Items that are broken or hazardous should also not be donated.

What else can I do with unwanted clothes?

There are many other options for unwanted clothes. Some of these options are:

  • Repair or Update
    • Do you just not want your old clothes or are they simply missing a button or need a couple of stitches?
    • Taking items to be mended by a seamstress (or learning to do it on your own) can help give more longevity to your clothing.
    • Would replacing the collar, shortening the hem, or changing the sleeve length give the item a more current look? Think of it like furniture reupholstery. If the garment has “good bones”, it’s worth the effort to update and maintain. Having a garment’s style updated by a seamstress is less expensive than you might think, and it gives you the feel of having a really custom, bespoke piece. You can try to update it yourself, too. If you were already willing to toss it out, you haven’t much to lose.
    • Dye it. If you can’t get out the stain or don’t like the color, you can buy home textile dye kits and do it yourself in the bathtub. This can yield some truly beautiful results.
  • Resell or Consign
    • Local organizations and consignment shops are great places to sell and buy secondhand clothing.
    • You can also sell items online with apps like Mercari or Poshmark.
  • Community “Buy Nothing Group”
    • The Buy Nothing Project has been around since 2013, but with the pandemic and people at home realizing just how much “stuff” they had, the Project has become more mainstream. The concept is simple. Everything is free.
  • Facebook Garage Sale Groups
    • List unwanted clothes free to a good home. Since everyone has too many, you might need to suggest the garments would make good cleaning rags, painter smocks for young artists, or textile scraps for quilts and other crafty projects.
  • Local Daycares
    • Old, stained baby and toddler clothes are hard. They could be in good shape, except for that puke stain you couldn’t quite lift. Thrift stores will cull them. But daycare centers need “burner” clothing on hand for blow-outs and potty-training accidents. Even when little ones go to daycare with extra clothes, inventory often runs out before parents know and have a chance to replenish.
  • Clothing Swap
    • Get your friends together and host a swap. This can be a great way to update your wardrobe without having to buy new items.
  • Repurpose
    • Quilts: I’ve recycled old sweatshirts and clothing into quilts. Even knit or fleece material, with fusible interfacing, can be suitable for quilting.
    • Cleaning rags: Cut up scraps into cleaning rags. (As a kid, I remember my dad’s old white briefs were used for this purpose. But without being cut. If you had come visit me on a Saturday morning before company, you would have found me polishing wood trim with tidy whities and a bottle of Old English.)
    • Rugs: You can make braided rag rugs out of old clothing. Cut the garments into long textile strips. Braid them. Sew them together. As an even easier alternative, there are no-sew rugs you can make. Some people go the opposite direction and get fancy with tufted rugs – they’re still easy to do but require a few more materials and take a bit longer to make. (I also think they look cooler.)
    • Endless other items: throw pillows, purses, tote bags, shopping bags, textile wall art, and more.
  • Textile Recycling
    • For Days is a company that sends you a giant bag to put all your unwanted clothes in. The items are downcycled into rags or insulation or resold.
    • H&M has its own recycling program where they accept any brands to be recycled in their stores. The program is controversial though, with claims that garments are not properly sorted and recycled. Many consider it a greenwashing ploy to drive more sales.

Should I still donate? What can I do?

Absolutely! It’s overwhelming to know the complicated after-life of your donated clothes. But if you have perfectly wearable items that you genuinely think someone else might want to wear, donate them so you can contribute to a nonprofit whose mission you support and your clothing can have a second home.

Utilizing a combination of programs and services, depending on the item you are looking to rehome, can be a good scenario. Then you can go through your items and sell what can be sold, donate what others can wear, and recycle responsibly through programs.

Selling clothes has a lot of benefits. You’re recouping money and you’re preventing another buyer from buying something new. If they can buy it secondhand from you, they won’t need to buy more new clothing.

Researching the impact of new fashion (and the fashion industry in general) can help identify which brands you want to support when you decide to replace items in your closet. Limiting new clothing purchases can be a way to reduce your footprint and concentrate on high-quality, slow-fashion goods. This significantly increases the longevity of your wardrobe and reduces the amount of clothing you send to landfills in the US and abroad.

No one is perfect, but everyone can do a little bit better. Small changes can add up.

Final thoughts

Although the complicated after-life of donated clothing seems hopeless, take heart. It’s only a losing battle if you see it that way. I very much see it as a winnable one.

It’s all about smaller, greener steps and making slightly better decisions. Maybe it’s a matter of thinking twice before you buy that new dress, or you opt to buy it from an eco-friendly brand. Or maybe you realize that your jacket doesn’t need to get replaced for the sake of something new and you can make it last for another season or two. (And use the money you would have spent towards a vacation or savings goal.) There are lots of small, easy steps.

The volume of used textiles in our landfills is sobering. But anyone and everyone can help. I’ve transitioned to buying more secondhand clothes and more sustainable clothing brands (that align with how I view sustainability). I do buy some fast fashion brands still, yes, but it has to meet the same criteria as other “greener” buys: it has to be a garment that I know I will get at least 14 wears out of before I lose interest (it becomes dated and out-of-style). This means a certain expectation of quality, too. Admittedly, this is not a perfect approach but it has greatly reduced my fashion-carbon footprint and it’s sustainable for me.

I’ve gone on green binges before (foods with no packaging waste, cloth diapers, eco-friendly hair products), and it’s not been permanently sustainable. For me, it’s always led to a cycle of purging after. It took a few failed cycles before I realized it’s not an all-or-nothing game. I’m not striving for perfection: I’m striving for better.

And again, donating your unwanted clothing that is in good condition and that you believe other people will want to wear is a perfectly reasonable and generous thing to do. But maybe we can give pause to what we’re donating, how much we’re donating, and the condition that our donation is in. And maybe we can think about acquiring fewer new clothes to re-gift to Goodwill, even if they are cute and on sale.

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