Laying the Threads Bare on Clothing Donation: What seems like a local action can have hidden global consequences

Article by Jenna Moore

Image by Katrina Shakarian

Bales of clothing waiting to be sold at Gikomba market, Kenya

Fast-fashion marketing encourages us to treat our clothes as disposable items, but many of the clothes discarded as waste by Canadians on a daily basis are still fully wearable. As a recent Greenpeace report explains, clothes discarded in the trash are are “not only a huge waste of all the resources embedded in these products, but create yet more pollution.”

The solution that many of us with a full closet are encouraged to pursue is to donate our unwanted items to charity. Or, recently, with the rise of retailer-run take-back programs, to bring our clothes back to the store we bought them in. Donation is a simple, easy, and low-cost solution to diverting textiles from landfills, and at first glance seems to solve the problem.

But take a closer look, and even the simple, well-intentioned act of dropping a bag of clothes in a bin can have far-reaching consequences, many of which are not always clear.

Donation myths

A major critique of retailer-run collection programs is that they are just another example of corporate greenwashing. Marketing campaigns for these programs suggest that giving back unwanted clothing to stores helps to “close the gap” of the circular economy by turning something old into something new (Hi, H&M). In truth, current textile recycling technology is not developed enough to turn large volumes of mixed-fibre materials into wearable-quality fabric.

As CBC’s Marketplace program recently discovered, only about 35% of textiles donated to retailer take-back programs are given new life as a functional product. This transformation most often happens in a process known as downcycling, in which used textiles are turned into lesser-quality industrial material such as insulation, rags, or relief blankets.

Similarly, only 10-20% of textiles donated to charitable organizations in Canada are actually resold in a store. For many charitable collection outlets, the volume of clothing donations received far out-supplies the demand. That leaves quite a large percentage of secondhand garments unaccounted for.

So where does it all go?

What happens to material that a retailer can’t recycle? What happens to the clothes that your local thrift shop can’t accommodate? In both of these cases, it is possible that what isn’t sent to a downcycling facility via domestic textile waste traders might be sent directly back into the post-consumer waste stream where it will end up in the landfill anyway.

However, the majority of these clothes will probably be sold in bulk to overseas buyers.

This infographic from the Greenpeace report mentioned earlier provides a good visualization on textile flow in the EU.

Overflow used clothing, including items deemed unfit to sell in North American markets, is exported around the world to used clothing dealers (most often in Africa and Central and South America). Once here, bales of textiles are passed through a series of wholesalers before they reach the individual business people who rely on the second hand trade for their livelihood. The numbers aren’t negligible. In 2015, $US 17.8 million worth of used clothes was exported from Canada to Kenya alone. In 2016, Canada’s global exports of used textiles were $CAD 160 million. But as in North America, there is a limit to the demand for used clothing in these countries, especially since much of it is in poor condition.

The high volume of cheap imports has been blamed for the “near collapse” of the domestic textile industries in many of these countries. As a result, the East African Community (EAC), one of the largest destinations for used textiles, has proposed a ban on imports from North America. (See here for more discussion on the used textile industry in Kenya). But there are other consequences too. For example, the environmental impact of shipping emissions. Or, the fact that in many destination countries, excess and unsellable goods are more often dumped haphazardly or burned, rather than sent to recycling facilities to be broken down.

Taking responsibility

Considering the global reach of what initially presents itself as a local action complicates the once simple solution of taking our worn tee shirts back to a collection bin.

What makes this situation especially troubling is that it shows no signs of slowing down. A report published in 2017 by the Global Fashion Agenda predicts that global consumption of new clothing will rise from a current 62 million tonnes per year to 102 million tonnes per year by 2030. If current discarding practices continue at the same rate, this increase will only continue to overwhelm an already saturated second hand market, both in Canada and abroad.

Our current textile recycling system often serves to blur the lines between real reuse and plain outsourcing of waste management. While donating clothing to charity is still a better solution than tossing it in the trash, in order to minimize our impact, the trick is to ensure that our donations are actually being resold or repurposed as locally as possible.

This means seeking out a local tailor, learning to mend clothes ourselves, and taking better care of our clothes in the first place. When donating, local programs with a target demographic (winter coats for children, business clothes for people getting back on their feet, prom dresses for highschool students) are a better choice if you want to make sure your garments will be worn again. For readers in the Montreal area, check out Tessa’s previous post for suggestions on where to donate.

Most of all, minimizing impact means thinking carefully about what we consume, and making it a habit to consider exactly what we will do with the garment at the end of its life, before we decide to buy it.

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