What Really Happens To Your Donated Clothing
Season 1 episode 1
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Good morning friends, and welcome to the very first podcast episode of Seams Fabricated. I’m your host Lilli and I will be picking apart every aspect of the fashion industry and delving into some of history’s most influential clothing. It’s a lovely rainy morning here, and the perfect kind of weather for pottering around the house, maybe sorting through your old junk drawer, or even do a spring clean through your wardrobe. Yes we all have those jeans that don’t fit anymore. Donating clothes has become a very convenient way of getting rid of clothes. You don’t feel that guilt of throwing something good away, you’re not being wasteful. And you know that your items are going to a good cause, helping someone in need. Well what if I told you that it’s not quite that simple, and your donations most likely wont end up where you think they will. In today’s episode we are going to take a trip around the world with your old pulp fiction t shirt…
Let’s begin in the epicentre of Western culture, America. Over the past 20 years the amount of clothing Americans discard of has doubled. Going from 7 million tonnes to over 14 million tonnes ending up in landfill, and the numbers are still rising. Population inflation may be to blame for a portion of this however between 2000 and 2020 the American population has only increased by around 16% while textile wastage has increased by 100%, certainly not enough to account for 7 million extra tonnes of clothing. The rest can be attributed to fast fashion, designed for overconsumption.
Don’t worry Americans are definitely not alone in this, over here in Australia, we are sending 6 tonnes of textile waste to landfill every ten minutes. So obviously throwing out your clothes is contributing to the planets demise. But what has this got to do with donating clothes to people in need? Considering the numbers we have discussed I think it’s safe to say the world has enough unwanted clothing. Unfortunately the fast fashion industry keeps pumping more into the system that is clearly overloaded already. 5 minutes down the road from me is a clothing donation bin, and every time I drive past it is piled up with bags and bags of clothes for donation, so much so that people have just started piling it up next to the bins and into the carpark. There was even a post on the local community page addressing it as a problem, and as you can imagine there was a little kerfuffle as to who was to blame for this, and why people were still donating when it was clearly full.
I honestly think that many of us, myself included, see these donation bins as an easy way out. It takes effort to sell your items on Facebook marketplace, you have to list the size, the condition, deal with people not turning up when they say they will, I get it. It also hard to justify spending $30 on a shirt you wore once, to just throw it away? That’s so wasteful. So the best option is to give it to someone in need. Lets just hope your shirt makes it to them.
Once the clothes are collected from these bins, they are taken to a large sorting facility. These facilities are filled with row after row after row of plastic bags filled with unwanted clothing, shoes and bags. There are many documentaries and videos, with footage from these places and it is insane to see this ocean of unwanted items. Your local charity shops may take some items from this to keep their shelves stocked. But the majority of this waste is now sorted into categories based on condition and saleability.
Unfortunately, though it’s estimated that over 80% of these clothes will end up as rejects, going to landfill or the incinerator. And sadly this would most likely be the end of your donated t shirt.
Thankfully some companies are finding solutions and are recycling the fabrics that are able to be re spun and weaved into a brand new piece of fabric. The challenge with this is that most clothing now is made from blended fibres, a lot of cotton mixed with elastane to create a comfortable fit, but is impossible to recycle. Other facilities are using the salvageable pieces for cutting into rags that are bundled together and sold in bulk. Some remaining fabric that can’t be used in these ways is pressed into re claimed fibre panels, and is often used for heat insulation and cushioning, commonly applied in vehicles. These processes are a huge step in the right direction, though they can be taxing on water usage and other facilities. I will be digging deep into the topics of recycled fabrics and fibres in a future episode so make sure you stay tuned for that one!
For now let’s continue our journey across the world as we leave the sorting facility. The local charity shops are now fully stocked, a small amount of fabric has been recycled, if the facility is lucky enough to have that kind of technology. And a large amount has been taken to land fill. In fact let me just throw one more statistic at you, 84% of textiles globally end up incinerated or in landfill, which, shockingly enough is one garbage truck full every second. Like, there’s another one, and another one, and another one, you get the picture.
The good news is that after all that processing has been done there is still ample amount of donations to be given to those in need. The shipping costs are high so the sorting facility sells the remaining stock to a 3rd party buyer, that will now package and ship the stock to a country in need, for a price of course… after all the sale of second hand clothing to international countries is a 3.7 Billion dollar industry.
To give you an idea of how much is being shipped overseas, 351 million kilograms of clothing is traded per year from Britain alone. Let me make this clear. These clothes are not donated, they are traded. These countries are paying money for our overflow of resources. Some of these countries include Ghana, Pakistan and Ukraine. This business structure has been enforced long before sustainability became an issue or a trend.
Now lets follow this cargo ship and make our way to Africa, Nigeria to be exact. The marketplaces are full of life and colour, bustling with sweaty people in the heat. There are hundreds of stalls all lined up to sell food and clothing. Our second hand clothing. In many parts of Africa the locals have many names for the clothing stalls, my favourites include, “the clothes of the dead whites” and “clothing of calamity.” It’s eerie how true that name has turned out to be.
Although for most living in third world conditions these clothes are both a blessing and a curse. Many stall holders make a living off selling the imported second hand clothes. But this field of work comes with risks. The main one being that they have no choice over which clothes they are able to import. Besides clothing that is in bad condition, many sizes may not fit the body shapes of the locals. Another issue is trying to sell inappropriate clothing for the climate and culture. Imagine receiving a box full of jackets to sell in the middle of Kenya, or miniskirts in Pakistan. These items may be fashionable in our western culture, but would be entirely useless in theirs.
Donated underwear also raises risks and eyebrows. I honestly didn’t think this was an actual thing until I watched an episode of Extreme Cheapskates where a woman tried on 2nd hand underwear in a charity store. Gross. We know the dangers and ickyness of this, but many in foreign lands don’t, or cant afford any other option. Thankfully some countries like Zimbabwe have put a ban on buying and selling used knickers. The goal was to improve hygiene and support struggling local textile industries. A good plan on the whole, but with around 90% of the country without employment, who will be able to afford new underwear?
The issue with providing these countries with cheap second hand clothing, is that it leaves a hole in their own economy. With so many cheap items readily available, no one is going to pay for new clothes made locally. These countries struggle to manufacture their own clothing. Being a dressmaker I would definitely be out of a job. Many cultures pride themselves on their native clothing like the colourful Dashiki garments in West Africa or the beautiful and modest shalwar Kameez in the middle east. Sadly their streets are being overtaken by last years Gucci jeans and band t shirts.
This loss of job opportunity, techniques and culture are a result of the western world making them our dumping ground while we call it charity. Of course there are many benefits to this cycle, but as the years pass on it is becoming clearer that this is not sustainable, and the system will eventually collapse. In fact many west African countries have been trying to restrict or ban the import of western clothing for years because it is effecting them negatively.
Of course, any unsold items are the responsibility of the receiving country, and they must send more waste to their own landfill or spend more money on exporting that landfill. Yes landfill exportation is a thing. In Australia we send our waste to South Asia. So whether your donation is scrapped right away or bought in an African marketplace, the chance of it ending up in landfill in a third world country is pretty high.
I understand that this episode focussed on the negative side of donation, and my goal is not to discourage anyone from donating, because there is a small change someone in need will end up with your item. But I also think we need to work towards something more sustainable. A great place to start is to be mindful of what you buy.
Before I end this episode I want to share a cute story I found while I was doing this research. Daniel a Columbian Student, had donated a bag that was given out at a school orientation day. It had his name and city on the label. Once donated it ended up travelling to where a man purchased it for about $12 from a store in North Africa. The man found Daniel on Facebook and sent a photo of the bag with the label. Imagine being a Columbian student and having a man from north Africa end up with your school bag. Anyway the man explained that he had bought the bag from a local store, and they eventually became friends. I thought it was such a wholesome story. If you’re interested in reading it will leave a link in my show notes for you, along with all the other references of information.
Well friends thanks for tuning in today, it was a heavy topic but also a very important one. I hope you learnt something new. I will be back next Thursday with another episode. Be sure to subscribe and turn on notifications so you don’t miss out. You can find me on Instagram at @seamsfabricated. Have a lovely week.