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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Shelagh Murphy Dufault May 27, 2018 8:46am

Levia, I live in a diverse community- and a proclaimed sanctuary city. I do exactly the same thing with clothes, even to the point of hanging them on hangers on a seagrape tree at the empty lot across the street and usually within a couple of hours everything is gone. Any time we put something outside I post signs in Spanish, Creole and English saying 'Free' A year ago my son dragged our fairly new Ikea futon to the edge of the driveway, right next to the sidewalk- it was a new purchase (for my son to sleep on when he moved home to take care of me after a brutal battle with cancer.) It was okay to sit upon but really not the most comfortable sleeping futon according to my son :( It sat out there for hours until that evening when I brought my dogs out for a walk I realized I forgot to put a sign on it- I quickly made a sign, taped it to the frame and left with the dogs. Coming home 20 minutes later I found a very pregnant young woman sitting on the futon, she was smiling but looked exhausted with two little kids jumping on the mattress, squealing and playing happily all around her- I smiled back at her as I walked up the drive to my house. Another girl, around nine, looked very worried as I walked up- I smiled when she asked if it was okay that they were waiting there for her father who was coming back with his van. They walked by earlier and were wondering why someone had a couch in their yard and then they saw the sign on their way home. I told her I was very happy the futon was going to such a happy family and she gave me the best smile. She said they just moved here and needed a couch, when I told her it could also turn into a bed she was awed... Then I asked the girl to ask her mama if I could bring something cold to drink for all of them while they waited and that girl didn't hesitate at all and replied "Yes please, for my mother, she is having a baby and she's very thirsty!" I brought out a pitcher of lemonade with glasses and ice... I asked the daughter to just put everything on the table by my gate when they were through. I went out when her papa came back and showed her parents how to change it to a bed- the husband spoke English and I said the bed isn't great to sleep on and he laughed. This was a magical moment for me where I was just as happy giving as this family was receiving.

Shelagh Murphy Dufault May 27, 2018 7:40am

I totally agree, Jennifer! I've found some T-shirts that have holes along the neckline or under the arms (or worse- sweat stains anyone?)(Egads!) When I was doing faux finishes for a living I would bring the ripped/stained white T's to a manager and offer to pay half price for those as they would definitely go to the landfill- more often than not my offer was accepted- or better yet I'd get the shirts for free. Btw- I've worked with autistic clients with an art program I've created specifically for special needs. I believe people in your line of work are truly heros.

Shelagh Murphy Dufault May 27, 2018 1:58am

I appreciate this article on so many levels, Galina, thank you for illustrating the incredible odyssey my donated boho & blue jean chic might take. I am amused to find Elephant recycled the article as well, as it's just over a year old and I found it in my feed this week... My friends and I, being mindful environmentalists, honestly believed we were on track donating our gently worn clothing. It irks the hell out of me to learn that a lot of donations end up in as landfill anyway. The summer before my son started high school I respected his desire to dress as he wished- yet there was simply no way I would justify spending a fortune on a 'designer' pair of pants, say, or an obscenely expensive T-shirt. I invited my boy to sit and join me for a friendly chat. I surprised him by handing over my budget for his school clothes- as a single parent, this was a tidy and respectable amount of money to hand to a teen. I explained that I would pay for his undergarments- socks and such- and suggested he try his hand at shopping on his own at the mall (and blow everything on one outfit) or he could visit local consignment shops and thrift stores. I told him we would go shoe shopping later- this money was for clothing only. As to the shoes; I'd give him my budget of 'x' amount of dollars and if necessary, he could dip into his own earnings. At the end of the day, I was impressed with his haul. He looked so pleased with himself as he came through the door with both arms full of bags of clothing. He bought an entire wardrobe, in fact, full of designer names and styles he wanted. After showing off his largess, he stopped and fanned out his remaining bank, laughing when I put my hand out for the change. By spending wisely, he figured he deserved that extra dosh and I laughingly agreed to let him keep it 'for future expenses.' In the long run I saved beau-coup dollars on giving him his choice- I was relieved he took the course he did and ignored the mall. And he looked sharp going into the new school year. A pragmatic proponent of thrifting, re-purposing and up-cycling, I will unabashedly pluck a piece of furniture off the side of the road rather than seeing it end up in the local landfill. I call these abandoned bits 'Road-kill' and give these pieces new life by painting, re-upholstering and may even dress them up with pieces of costume jewelry. As a special needs art teacher I've shared this passion with my students and getting them to think beyond the tired, broken old pieces with torn fabric and and envision what we could create with a new coat of paint, recycled fabric and a bit of imagination. One chair was completely transformed with a coat of flat black paint, the seat re-upholstered with recycled black velvet and dressed up with 3 strands of faux pearls hanging from the back of the chair. Another one, called a 'harp chair' for its distinctive design was structurally sound but the surface was in horrid condition. After sanding down peeling veneer we decoupaged sheet music and finished with a sweet color-wash over all, including the faded fabric seat which lent a fresh vibe to a now remarkably pretty chair. I supervised the difficult hands-on 'grunt work', and with a bit of guidance, my artists helped, as well as assisting others with some of the creative techniques. We had the time of our lives and, my gosh, did we create some stunning pieces! Through the non-profit I worked with we sold every piece of furniture. This gave my students a profound sense of pride in their creative skills as well as the ability to make money by taking someone's cast-offs and turning them into works of art. I've taught hundreds of kids to create comfy pillows and shopping bags from little dresses and old t-shirts. I've also taken darling mini-skirts and turned them into 'designer bags' pretty enough for evening wear. I'm sharing this in hope that your readers may do the same. If I ruled the world, I would create drop off centers for any usable clothing, home goods, furniture and offer these to truly needy, deserving families. I would urge cities and municipalities to outlaw bulk furniture going to the landfill or charge a hefty premium to pick up and transport to centers I mentioned above. One last bit; our community has a wonderful non-profit called ReSource Depot in West Palm Beach. Teachers and non-prof organizations can find plenty of donated items such as designer fabrics, art supplies, and material for classrooms. Over the years I've donated thousands of dollars worth of materials and art supplies. Just within the past year, I've culled through hundreds of dollars worth of screen-printing inks, art papers, fabric markers and miscellania I've been hanging on to for projects I just haven't been able to get to- this stuff was taking up valuable real-estate in my art studio and now other teachers and artists can take advantage of these things for a low annual membership fee. And I appreciate the space this affords me in the studio.

Vee Lee Lee May 25, 2018 11:59pm

Yes Alexandria, that's us here too in NZ. I was selling some things online after my father passed and it wasn't great stuff so I was moving it on quickly and cheaply and throw away as least as possible. One woman brought something and when she came to pick it up, I said 'just ask if you see anything else you like.' Well she was grabbing all these things, some I was surprised at and I made a pile and was shocked when I said $10 for it all and I told her she was doing me a favour too. She then said, "I used to buy things like this at Op Shops (charity) but now they want too much for them or don't have them anymore." And then when I did get a charity shop to come pick up some decent furniture and other items, they said no to some of it, saying that it doesn't sell. Ummmm, bookshelves and small furniture, some cool retro? No it won't sell if you whack a big price on it. I agree, many have lost their way and forget that it's donated goods so stop going for top dollar and have the things priced cheaply so they're in and out and going to the people that really need it in the community. I bombed your post! But only because you hit the nail right on the head.

Vee Lee Lee May 25, 2018 11:43pm

I don't know what to do about this. It's one of those things you know and read about but you feel overwhelmed. That's me. In my city in New Zealand, it's at the stage where some charity shops (we call them Op Shops) cannot take on the amounts of donated clothes given to them (amongst other things; they are discerning with many other items too). There is so much cheap clothing (and 'stuff') around to buy too which a lot opt for. And to be honest, some of these Op Shops have lost their way in a social sense as to what they're about and want way too much for their clothing. They're are voluntary based and some have poor set ups where clothing is a battle just to look through and then it's overpriced as such. Anyway, it's been on my mind and I knew there was a bigger picture and reading this made my heart sink. I'll do something with this nudge, not sure what yet. Funnily enough I went through a suitcase full of my old fave clothes that's been stored at my daughter's. I grabbed out a few things to wear now as they fit the look I like. I do that a lot where I'll wear something of mine year after year and if I buy, it's often online second hand items or from an Op Shop. I have a jacket for instance, originally from USA in 90's that I found in an Op Shop in 2000. I've worn it and my daughter has too, over the years and only last year, I was getting off a plane here and this guy goes, "I think that used to be my jacket." We got talking and yes it was his, his name still faintly inside and the timing of me buying. He was in the States working at a Community College and this was the basketball team's jacket. He parted with it as it's bright green and didn't fit him anymore but he was most pleased to see it again and worn in quite a different way than before. I love how that happened and I love my jacket. Okay now I feel better so I will approach this whole 'donated clothes' thing with a renewed sense of how I can help and less of an overwhelmed view.

Aisling Van Dam LaBauve May 25, 2018 4:21pm

I buy lots of clothing at thrift stores and I donate to them as well, but I keep clothes for a long time and don't buy them often. So, I think that maybe spreading out where my family donates might be a good thing-a little at Goodwill, and maybe some at local shelters. Where I used to live, the homeless shelter accepted donations, as did a facility that helped young people (kids who had runaway, become unwed mothers in need of help, etc.) who needed clothing for themselves and their children. I had no idea that this problem existed but it's good to be informed, so thank you. I believe we can do the most good in the world (as opposed to just doing what makes us feel good) when we're informed.

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Galina Singer

From Communism to Consumerism, from Atheism to Spirituality, from Victimhood to Self-Responsibility, Galina Singer has traversed several cultures and conflicting philosophies in search for meaning. The answers came when she took the time to look within, piercing through layers of dogma and multi-cultural conditioning and uncovering her authentic voice. Today Galina investigates reasons behind the depression pandemic and how to take back control over our lives through self-knowledge and self-acceptance. By peeling away layers of societal and family conditioning Galina helps clients to re-discover their authentic voices and wake up to the lives of freedom and fulfilment. Connect with her on Facebook or Instagram.