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What happens to clothes when you donate them?

While societies around the world have a problem with overconsumption, it seems we often are obsessed with getting rid of our belongings too.

Whether it’s a Marie Kondo-style clear-out or getting rid of old clothes to make room for new ones, purging our closets and homes of unwanted belongings is almost ritualistic.

The result of these clear-outs is often several bin bags headed for the charity shop. As well as the calm of a clearer, tidier home, you feel like your clothes will be helping a worthy cause.

Unfortunately, this often isn’t the case.

People are throwing out way more clothes than charity shops can store and sell, meaning that the shops have to also dispose of a lot of what they receive.

So where does it end up?

Textile distribution companies – or the incinerator

First stop for most excess clothes donations is a textiles distribution company. They’re sometimes called textile recycling companies, but this is a bit of a misleading name for them.

While some of the clothes that aren’t suitable for resale do get sold on to be used as insulation or the base of carpets, the majority are sorted into bales of different “grades” and exported to other countries.

Poor quality clothing of the sort that is mass produced and cheaply sold often goes straight to the incinerator, as confirmed by Oxfam.

Shipped abroad for other countries to sort out

Once sorted and packed into huge plastic bales by the textile distribution companies, the clothes are sold abroad on the international clothing market. The top importer of used clothing from the UK is Ghana, followed by countries such as Poland, Nigeria and Ukraine. Once the clothes arrive in these countries, they are usually sold in second-hand stores or markets.

Often, there are still far too many clothes to be resold, meaning that the issue of disposing of vast amounts of waste clothing is simply passed on to other countries.

Accra, Ghana, for example, has a huge second-hand clothes market called Kantamanto. The OR Foundation found that around 40% of used clothing unbaled at the market heads straight to landfill or incineration facilities. There’s simply too much of it.

70 tonnes of waste per day were being dumped in Kpone landfill in Accra. It began overflowing and in 2019 it caught fire – it is still on fire now, releasing toxic fumes into the environment.

Waste litters the streets in Accra – waste that is the result of unsustainable overconsumption in other countries.

Second-hand clothing markets

What about clothing that is resold on second-hand clothing markets abroad? Surely it’s good that the clothes get a new life and offer affordable clothing for locals?

Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than that.

While in some respects it is good that the lifecycle of the donated clothes is extended, their mass resale in other countries causes some serious issues.

It often results in a breakdown of local clothing production and trade, because the second-hand clothes are so much cheaper. Many local designers, producers and retailers simply can’t compete with the pricing.

Going back to the example of Kantamanto: the market is a complex web of transactions, and many market traders end up in debt. Often, people have to buy bales without knowing what’s inside, and if the items are unsellable then they end up out of pocket.

The second-hand clothing markets don’t present a long-term, sustainable way to deal with clothing waste.

In fact, countries such as Rwanda have started banning second-hand clothing imports from countries like the UK and the US.

What’s the solution?

Obviously, there is no single, simple to solution to what is a complex global issue.

Awareness of the international second-hand clothing trade and what really happens to clothing donations is a good place to start.

As consumers, we need to develop an understanding that there is currently no fully sustainable way of disposing of our clothes.

That’s not to say that you should never donate clothes to charity. But you should consider the quality of what you are donating and whether it will realistically be sold in a charity shop. You could also consider different ways of repurposing or disposing of your garments that have a lower ecological impact.

However, buying less and keeping what we have for longer needs to become the new norm if we are to start tackling the issue of global clothing waste.

Sources/further reading:

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