Landfills Don't Need More Filling
Unfortunately, the majority of our clothing ends up here.
Recycling Ain't That Simple
Choosing to recycle your clothes is a great start, but most Western cities don’t really have a system that can do it effectively (shout out to Kawartha Lakes Ontario and Queen Creek Arizona for their textile recycling programmes!).
Has anyone seen the H&M campaign to recycle your old clothes and give you a discount on new ones in return? Those in-store bins seem like a great start, but according to Greenpeace, it’s not that simple: the technology doesn’t exist to turn most of the clothes they collect into new textile fibres. Many of the fibres in cheap clothes are made from mixed sources, and breaking down the component parts (say, in a cotton-acrylic blend) is difficult, expensive, and often just can’t be done.
Cotton itself is also really difficult to recycle: old clothes have to be chopped up and turned into raw material, which shortens the length of fibres and makes the new threads weaker and scratchier. These are poorer-quality fabrics and fashion manufacturers often don’t want to use them. The recycled fabrics are often just used for rags, stuffing, or as insulation.
Some North American cities offer textile recycling services, many don’t.
Can't I just Donate it?
Anyone else notice the clothing donation boxes that are popping up everywhere these days? It might give you a warm rush to know that even though you might not want your old fluffy angora sweater or low-rise bootleg jeans, surely someone else will get good use out of them – and you’ll be supporting a charity in the process! Unfortunately the reality is a bit more complicated (aka a lot more complicated).
Only about 10-30% of the clothes we donate are actually good enough quality to be resold in charity shops, and the rest are then packaged and sent overseas to developing countries (most of them in East Africa and South Asia). They end up being sold by the kilogram, flooding local markets. Sending cheap clothes to needy people might sound like a great idea, but there are some serious repercussions.
When there are so many second-hand clothes available, local vendors have to sell them for as little as 20 cents for a t-shirt, or up to $5 for a high-quality designer shirt in good condition. These prices don't give much room to the local textile industry to compete, which has some governments looking to ban used clothing imports all together (Ghana already banned the import of used undies, for more obvious reasons). The question is - would a developing country benefit more from jobs in growing cotton and producing clothing, or from importing cheap Western discards? The reality is complicated, but we’re willing to bet that a reliance on second-hand clothing from halfway across the world is not the most sustainable approach in the long-run.
A vendor at Toi market in Nairobi, Kenya. Several East African Governments have campaigned to ban used clothing imports and donations (credit: Katrina Shakarian)
So... What Can I do?
This new year, think carefully about where your old clothes go. Use this 4-step process to work through your options:
- Repair and upcycle your old clothes to give them new life, or give them to people you know who will use them – friends, family, or people in your community. Try the ReUseIt Network if you need some help.
- If you can’t do that, donate clean, wearable clothes to a registered charity or social business. We love Dress for Success, Dress Your Best, Purses for Nurses and Running Free, but look up the organizations local to you who donate or fundraise with a specific cause and/or target.
- If you have items that are really worn out, consider offering larger items to a local animal shelter for use as bedding, or to a community children’s/arts centre that might want scrap cloth.
- Otherwise, recycle them. Ask good old Google which organizations near you recycle textiles, or use the bins in stores like H&M or Patagonia.
But really, the best thing to do is clear: reject disposable fashion. Keep what you’ve got, wear it as long as you can, and when you buy new stuff, make sure it’s quality. Invest a bit of extra cash and buy clothes that have been made responsibly, and made to last. Maybe next January, you won’t need to make space at all.
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