April 19, 2017

Why our Clothing Donations may be doing More Harm than Good.

Springtime has become synonymous with decluttering.

Just like most people, I have spent the last several weeks going through and putting away our winter clothes and taking out the lighter and brighter clothes, more suitable to warm weather.

With three teenage girls at home, there are plenty of clothes each year that no longer fit and just as many that they simply do not want to keep for next winter.

Like millions of other consumers, I have prepared several bags of clothes for donations.

Making charitable donations of clothes has become routine.

Most of us wouldn’t consider throwing away still perfectly usable, once loved clothing. Moreover, we believe that our unwanted clothes will become a treasure of some thrifty consumer or someone actually in need.

Unfortunately, the reality of clothing donations is not that simple and definitely less romantic.

When we drop our no longer wanted clothes off at a charity, like Salvation Army or Goodwill, more often than not it actually equates to throwing our clothing away.

Due to the rise of cheap, disposable fast fashion, supply of donated used clothes has begun to far outweigh demand. As a result, charities have seen themselves transformed into dumps that accept clothes of varying condition in ever-increasing volumes.

When we donate our clothing to charity, we believe that they will be given to those in need or sold in charity shops to raise funds for those in need.

While some garments are sold in the charity shops, the demand is relatively low compared to the supply. Today, less than 20 percent of clothing donations made to charities are actually resold there, with the rest going to recycling facilities, from which they either go to landfills or are sold abroad. This proportion is similar in the U.S., U.K., and Canada.

To help manage the unstoppable influx of clothing, charities increasingly rely on textile recyclers.

Textiles, as a category, have one of the lowest recycling rates of any reusable material. To complicate the situation further, much of the clothing we wear today is made up of a blend of materials.

The challenge is to find ways to separate blended fiber materials so they can be recycled according to their own system. The technologies being created to recycle more than just cotton and polyester are still brand new, which means that a T-shirt that’s 99 percent cotton and one percent spandex can’t be saved from a landfill today.

All this means that when we donate clothes made of mixed materials, we are simply adding one more step before the clothing ultimately gets sent to landfills anyway.

What isn’t bought in shops is sold to textile merchants who then sort, grade, and export the surplus garments—converting what began as donations into tradable goods, sold to buyers in developing economies.

According to the latest available UN figures, the U.S. and U.K. are the largest used clothing exporters, followed by the rest of Northern Europe, in a global second-hand trade in which billions of old garments are bought and sold around the world every year. Top destinations are Poland, Ghana, Pakistan, and Ukraine.

The problem is that the ever-increasing flow of old clothing from the Western world has had a negative effect on local textile industries in many countries.

In 2014, a handful of East African countries imported more than $300 million worth of secondhand clothing from the United States and other wealthy countries. Although this created a robust market in East Africa and thereby a decent amount of jobs, these imports have also devastated local clothing industries and led the region to rely far too heavily on the West.

Once these discarded clothes hit East African shores, they sell for extremely low prices, which make locally made clothes look too expensive by comparison. The average cost of an imported secondhand garment is between 5 and 10 percent of a new garment made in Kenya, for example. As result, local textiles factories and self-employed tailors can’t compete, so they either close down or don’t do as well as they could.

The leather and textile industries are crucial for employment creation, poverty reduction, and advancement in technological capability in the region.

In March 2016, the East African Community (EAC), which is made up of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda, proposed banning all imported used clothing and shoes by 2019. The goal is to help the economy, to stop relying on imports from rich nations, boost local manufacturing, and create new jobs.

The proposed ban probably won’t become law, as the exporters who have the most to lose will likely put up a fight.

No matter the outcome of the proposed ban, it is clear that Western consumers need to find more responsible ways to dispose of our barely worn items.

“Places such as Uganda, and Haiti, and India shouldn’t have to be—and very soon may choose not to be—responsible for our excess,” states Kelsey Halling, director of impact for Thread International, a group that repurposes garbage.

When we donate our clothes, we are buying into a fantasy that we are doing something good. 

Donating is good. But doing our part should start way before then. The good thing would be to think twice next time we are at the check-out counter, considering whether we should buy something we do not really need in the first place.

Taking responsibility to reduce our consumption habit is arguably the easiest and most economical way we can make a positive impact.

Meanwhile, as we declutter our homes and have children growing, here are some places we can safely and consciously give to, knowing that the majority of our clothing will find a useful home:

  • Dress For Success: A non-profit that focuses on the empowerment of women looking to go back into the workforce—focusing on suiting and styling them with appropriate interview attire.
  • Refashion NYC: In partnership with Housing Works, Refashion NYC uses donations and profits from donations to fund a full range of lifesaving services for homeless and low income men, women, and youth living with HIV and AIDS, including housing, medical care, job training, and other supportive services.
  • Fabscrap: a New York-based textile company, will actually come to pick up old clothing from businesses and repurpose it in its textiles.

I often try to donate my children’s clothes to people I know personally and who I know could use the help. It is also always good to donate to local homeless or battered women’s shelters.

Donating to local organizations is safer because there is no middleman or complicated distribution process. Plus, we can always take the clothes to the front door and talk to someone directly.

 Relephant Bonus:

Author: Galina Singer

Image: With kind permission, Tanu Nejagal & Christopher Shiels

Editor: Khara-Jade Warren


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