Recently, my girlfriend and I managed to fill three trash bags with our old clothes. We threw in my worn-out jeans and button-downs, her sweaters and dresses, some free company T-shirts and a few tattered coats. We were moving to a new apartment, and as part of that process, we decided to get rid of our old, unwanted clothes.
I loaded up my car with the overstuffed bags and drove to the nearest Goodwill, leaving them in a metal basket inside the side door, which was already overflowing with stuff from other people doing the exact same thing. Nonetheless, I felt like I’d done something worthwhile; I’d gone out of my way not to throw these clothes in the trash, giving them a new life with someone who needed them more. It wasn’t until later that I realized all of this was much more beneficial to my conscience than the greater good.
Liz Ricketts is an educator and designer who has spent the last decade documenting the textile waste disaster in Ghana. She’s seen firsthand where the clothes dropped into charity bins and offloaded at second-hand stores in the U.S. ultimately end up — places like the roughly seven-acre Kantamanto market in the center of the Ghanian capital of Accra or the mountain of apparel piled atop the banks of the city’s Korle Lagoon. According to most estimates, 15 million used garments pour into Accra every week from the U.K., Europe, North America and Australia — what Ricketts calls the “Global North.” Of these 15 million items, an estimated 40 percent are so cheaply made that they’re deemed worthless to the marketplace and sent instead to the 30-foot bluffs made of discarded clothes mixed with other waste that tower over the shoreline.
And that’s just Accra. There’s also Panipat in northern India which, according to a BBC report, is known as the world’s “cast-off capital.” Not to mention, the influx of used clothes in certain East African countries has gotten so bad that in 2018, Rwanda became the first country in the region to impose a ban on the import of second-hand items.
“Most citizens don’t think twice about [donating clothes] because the second-hand trade has been marketed to them as charity and as recycling when it’s neither,” Ricketts tells me. The reality is, the second-hand trade is the first domino of a supply chain in “an expansive global network of for-profit businesses.”
What makes this part of the fast-fashion supply chain so powerful, per Cynthia Isenhour, an associate professor of anthropology and climate change at the University of Maine, is that many experts and environmental advocates are afraid to speak out against clothing donation centers. “The only real clear answer is that the donation boxes provide a better option than the trash,” she says. “But some studies have suggested that the ability to donate clothes helps consumers to rationalize turning over their wardrobe more frequently, leading to a net increase in total consumption.”
Along those lines, last year, researchers at Western Washington University surveyed 904 undergraduate students and found that the more clothes they donated, the more clothes they bought. The researchers determined that recycling alleviated the students’ guilt and “morally licensed” them to consume more clothes. By and large, that’s because most people, myself included, have very little understanding of where their donated clothes actually go. To that end, Newsweek reported in 2016 that only about 30 percent of the clothes donated to Goodwill are ultimately sold in the U.S. The rest is shrink-wrapped in “cubes taller than a person” and sold to textile recyclers all over the world. Other nonprofits that deal in used clothes have been accused of more spurious activities. In 2011, CharityWatch accused Planet Aid, known for their bright yellow clothing donation boxes, of misleading their donors. Per a local CBS report, “on their 2010 tax return, Planet Aid lists revenue of almost $36 million,” but they only spent 34 percent of that money on program services to help people in need.
In 2014, the New York Times reported that a few different New Jersey-based companies were illegally placing donation bins throughout New York City. They were typically adorned with verbiage that made it seem like the donations were for charity, but city officials said the clothes were more likely to be sold in thrift stores or shipped overseas. A similar scam used donation bins to mislead people in Michigan in 2017. And just last year, Long Island residents were targeted with fake donation boxes.
Much of this mess, according to Kirsi Niinimäki, a sustainable fashion and textile design expert, exists because it’s simply too easy to donate clothes. In recent years, it’s become trendy to suggest that the answer to some of our sustainability woes is to buy second-hand. At least then, so goes the conventional wisdom, you’re not directly feeding the fast-fashion machine. You’re being “sustainable.”
But again, Ricketts tells me that the current second-hand trade — for which donations are the backbone — is merely an outlet for continued overproduction and overconsumption, not a deterrent. “It’s no coincidence that the exportation of clothing from the U.S. to Ghana ramped up in the 1960s, the same time as the mall boom, normalization of credit cards and accelerated clothing production in the U.S.,” she explains. “The global second-hand trade has always been an outlet for the Global North’s excess.”
While awareness of the environmental impact of fast fashion has grown in recent decades, so too has the proliferation of textile recycling and second-hand organizations, which have helped to spare those of us who donate our clothes from any guilt we might have for putting them in the trash. But that feeling of relief is merely a symptom of the oversimplified, depoliticized narrative around donations. “Many clothing collectors and charities say that they will divert 100 percent of the clothing they collect out of a landfill, but that’s impossible for them to guarantee,” says Ricketts, as there’s little transparency and absolutely zero traceability. “I find clothing with Goodwill tags in nearly every shop in Kantamanto, and yet, no one at Goodwill is aware of Kantamanto.”
To be clear, Ricketts doesn’t have a problem with nonprofits like Goodwill making money taking and selling second-hand clothes. “It’s labor-intensive, dirty work, and it requires a great deal of skill to find a new home for such a varied supply of stuff,” she explains. The real problem is when our trash is shipped overseas. To wean ourselves off of that, she’d like to see far more investment in local resale and up-cycling networks across the U.S. For example, SUAY Sewshop in L.A., whose products are created from a combination of post-consumer waste, deadstock and domestic, organically grown fibers, is “an excellent example of a brand-based community that’s committed to cleaning up their own mess.”
With her Sustainable Fashion Initiative at the University of Cincinnati, Ricketts is attempting to do her part, too. It’s a student-led commitment to manage all textile waste from the fashion program internally via reuse, upcycling and recycling. Within the first semester of the initiative, Ricketts says, they were able to reduce the waste from the fashion department by 70 percent simply by charging the students with collecting their own trash, sorting through it and reusing it for a different project. “It’s incredible what communities can do if they simply choose not to make their waste someone else’s problem,” she tells me.
In recent years, apps that offer peer-to-peer shopping and re-selling like Depop and ThredUp have become increasingly popular, especially among Gen Z. But Ricketts says that if we want the upcycling economy to be a viable solution to the fast-fashion crisis, the public must be empowered with more “nuanced information about what actually happens to their clothes once they drop them in the bin.”
Part of that could begin with better labeling. Just this month, California took steps toward becoming the first state to ban companies from using the recycling arrows symbol unless they can prove the material is recycled in mostly California-based communities or is used to make new products. While Ricketts applauds this decision, she’d also like to see the same standard applied to retailer take-back programs like the ones H&M and Uniqlo offer, which are routinely advertised as recycling initiatives: You bring back your old clothes, and they reuse them to make new ones. But Ricketts says it’s far more likely that the bulk of this clothing is “diverted into the global second-hand trade.” Plus, H&M’s claim that they reuse and recycle what amounts to about 145 million T-shirts is less impressive when you contrast it with the 3 billion garments they produce annually.
At the same time, putting limits on what people can place in a donation bin likely isn’t a solution either. “When it comes to clothing, quality is too subjective and the tags don’t accurately describe what the garment is made out of, so placing limits on what goes in the bins wouldn’t be effective,” Ricketts explains.
To her point, I’m not sure what I would have done if I couldn’t have conveniently dropped off my clothes at Goodwill. I probably would have tried to give some of them away, and tossed the rest. At the very least, Ricketts suggests that next time I should wash them before throwing them into trash bags and ticketing them for Goodwill. They’ll be less likely to be thrown out that way. The more difficult task, of course, is to just buy fewer clothes.