This article was originally published as a guest post on ADIMAY.
After decades of the rampant consumerism that seems to go hand-in-hand with the fast fashion industry, buyers have recently been turning to a new trend: minimalism. Celebrity organizers like Marie Kondo and grassroots groups like The Minimalists have helped catapult this movement into the spotlight by highlighting the benefits of living with less—and honestly, downsizing and decluttering your life can be great in many ways. But the one thing these movements seem to miss? Educating their audiences on the right way to dispose of all those unwanted items (hint: it doesn’t involve the donation bin).
WHAT REALLY HAPPENS
For many of us, the well-intentioned thing we might have done in the past was to box everything up and drop it off at the local Goodwill. But less than a quarter of clothes donated to local charities and organizations actually get resold in the community.
The rest is then reprocessed, turned into rags, sent to landfill, or exported to be resold abroad, a practice which is problematic enough in and of itself.
Even worse though, a recent report found that 73% of post-use disposed clothing is eventually incinerated or sent to landfill. At their assumed rate of 48 million tons of clothing disposed of every year, that’s a terrifying amount, especially compounded over time.
While there are some instances when donating might be okay—for example, if your local shelter is asking for specific clothing items they desperately need, like gently-worn sweaters or jackets—most of the time, if you don’t know the final destination of your donation, it’s best to steer clear. And in reality, we can rarely track where any individual piece of clothing actually ends up; the transparency and accountability just aren’t there yet.
I witnessed many of these negative side effects firsthand when I lived in a small coastal town in rural Tanzania. Although second-hand clothing was readily available at the local market, the steady stream of clothes being imported from abroad made it almost impossible for East African businesses to compete in the local textile and manufacturing industry. This made retailers and sellers heavily reliant on foreign imports, a concerning fact considering the region has talked extensively in recent years of banning used clothing imports altogether.
Further, each article of clothing still runs the risk of ending up in a landfill, but now it’s in a country with much less advanced waste management infrastructure. Ultimately, by donating our old clothes, we’re just passing along the responsibility of properly disposing of the things we buy and consume, under the guise of “helping” someone who might not even need our help in the first place.
WHY IT MATTERS
The fashion industry has historically been based on a linear business model: clothes are designed, manufactured, used, and disposed of, and then it starts all over again. In order to live more sustainably in the generations to come, everything about this industry will have to change. Fortunately though, we can play a major role as consumers in supporting this transition; by taking care of the clothes we own, mending and repairing them instead of buying new, and properly disposing of them at the end of their life cycle, we can help shift the industry toward a closed-loop system. In the words of the 2018 Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, “initiatives such as these are crucial not only to increase awareness and lower the environmental footprint, but also to involve the customer actively in the transformation of the fashion industry toward a circular model.”
We can, and must, do better.
This is the first of a two-part series on clothing donations. Read the second part, "7 Ways to Declutter Your Closet (Without Donating Your Clothes)," here.