We’ve all heard the questions to ask ourselves before buying a piece of clothing. Do you love it? Does it go with a few other items in your closet? Can you make at least three outfits with it? The list goes on. The questions may be different, but they share one thing in common: they focus on the period of time when an item is in your possession. Increasingly, though, this type of thinking is giving way to a more holistic decision making process that also considers where a piece of clothing comes from, how it was made, and by whom. Clearly, origin matters. But what about the opposite end of an item’s life cycle — the destination?
The next time you’re about to buy something, ask yourself this: Where will this piece of clothing go after I no longer want it?
At first, it may seem strange to think about the end point of your relationship with an item before you’ve even committed to buying it. But we have discovered that asking this simple question has totally changed the way we shop. Why? Because as it turns out, what you can do with a piece of clothing when you no longer want it is a very good measure of whether it’s worth buying in the first place. Here, we get a handle on getting rid of clothes.
Do: Secondhand Retail
By far the best way to part with clothing you no longer want is to sell it to a secondhand retailer. It’s a win for you because you get a return on your investment that you can use to buy something else. It’s a win for the marketplace because it increases the availability of high quality or designer items at a fraction of their original price. And it’s a win for the environment, first, because it averts clothing from landfills. And second, because it increases the stock of second hand clothing, allowing consumers increased access to clothes that already exist, which is always preferable to buying something new from an environmental perspective.
There are many secondhand retail options, both online and off, including consignment, resale, and trade-in. We’ll cover the ins and outs of selling your clothes in the next part of this series. Until then, no matter the method, selling something secondhand implies that the item retains value beyond the period of time that you wear it. That value may be indicated by a designer label. But it may also be a handmade dress or a quality shirt without a label whose craftsmanship clearly shows. The bottom line: when you buy something that you can resell, you are essentially shopping for quality and longevity, which are the hallmarks of an item worth buying. It’s worth noting here that resellers seldom accept fast fashion brands, whose high volume, low quality, trendy items don’t have the kind of intrinsic value required for secondhand retail.
If buying to resell implies that an item is of value, buying to dispose can only mean that an item has virtually no value at all. Americans throw away 10.5 million tons of clothing annually. That works out to 65–70 pounds of clothing thrown away by each American each year. Even if clothing is made of a natural fiber, like cotton, the conditions in landfills do not promote the biodegrading process. Polyester, which is a synthetic fabric derived from crude oil, and now the most common fiber in our clothing, takes more than 200 years to decompose. The dyes and chemicals used in the textile dyeing and finishing process can leach into the soil, resulting in water contamination, which can impact our drinking water. This amounts to a massive environmental problem.
Beyond the environmental toll, throwing away clothing is a disservice to us as consumers. When we exchange our hard-earned resources for an item of clothing that we ultimately throw out, we are also throwing away our money. The bottom line: landfills are a lose-lose. If you’re considering buying something that you will find yourself eventually just throwing away, don’t buy it. Instead, put those resources aside for something you’ll eagerly wear for a long time to come.
With donations, there’s much more than meets the eye. The simple act of dropping our clothes off at a local charity or donation bin in a parking lot or school belies the massive, multi-billion dollar global operation that is modern clothing donation. In response to a greater volume of lower quality clothes being donated each year, a largely hidden industry has burgeoned consisting of textile processors, middleman, clothes recyclers, and exporters who ship bales of used clothing around the world.
Donating clothes is always preferential to throwing them away.
And yet, although 95% of clothes can be reused or recycled, only 15% of clothing in America gets donated, with the remaining 85% ending up in landfills. Of donated clothes, 45% is sold second-hand, 30% is recycled into industrial rags, insulation, and carpet padding, and 20% is reprocessed into fiber.
This of course, diverts tons of textile waste from landfills, and reduces unnecessary industrial reliance on virgin fibers. But the donation process isn’t without its dark side. Sub-Saharan Africa, which is the recipient of a third of all global donations, is a case in point, demonstrating so much of what is wrong with the industrialization of clothing donation. First, despite the fact that the clothing was donated in the first place, people across Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region, pay for it, with middlemen profiting from the deal. Second, the influx of cheap clothing is threatening local textile manufacturers who simply cannot compete on the basis of price. As a result, hundreds of thousands of garment workers and tailors have lost their jobs in the last decade. Third, because textile manufacturing is an important development stepping-stone for a low-income economy, the failure of the garment industry in Sub-Saharan Africa could have far-reaching implications for the economic and social prosperity of the region.
The bottom line: donating unwanted clothes is not a panacea for over-consumption. Once we have made the decision to bring something into our closet, it sets about a chain reaction throughout the world that impacts the environment and shapes the lives, positively and negatively, of others. Buying with that awareness in mind is a rich starting point.
Originally published at zady.com on July 2, 2015.