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What really happens to the clothes you donate?

Over the last several decades, fast fashion has completely changed the game of fashion. Today, Americans buy five times as much clothing as they did in 1980 and between 1999 and 2009, the volume of textile trash rose by 40 percent.

According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the U.S alone generates an average of 25 billion pounds of textiles waste per year, which is about 82 pounds per US resident.

85 percent of these clothes are thrown away in the trash and directly end up in landfills. The remaining 15 percent gets donated or recycled, giving textiles one of the poorest recycling rates of any reusable material.

But what really happens to the clothes we donate? Are they really going toward a good cause?

Last time you did a closet clear-out and ended up filling up trash bags with old clothes to bring them to your local charity shop, you likely felt good thinking you were donating towards a good cause. Giving your lightly worn Zara dresses and H&M tops to the less fortunate who really need them seems like a good deed, but is it really?

Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. As Elizabeth Cline explains in her book, “Overdressed: The Shocking High Cost of Cheap Fashion”, the truth is that donation centers receive more clothes than they could ever possibly resell. Out of all the clothing that we donate, less than 15 percent gets sold through thrift stores.  

What happens to the remaining 85 percent?

About 45 percent is exported by for-profit recyclers to developing countries around the world in Africa, Asia or South America. There the clothes are bought in 1,000 pounds bales, sorted and then resold to the local communities. This model is far from perfect as it takes away jobs from local textile workers. In Ghana, for example, local industries have been particularly negatively affected as its textile and clothing employment fell by 80% between 1975 and 2000. Another 40 percent is recycled by textile processing facilities for commercial and industrial use and the remaining 15 percent ends up in landfills.

In order to always move new products into your wardrobes and to better their public image, a lot of brands have begun their own recycling programs.

H&M’s recycling initiative offers customers a discount if they drop unwanted clothing off at any of the company’s 4,500 stores worldwide. But, only 5 to 10 percent of the collected clothing is recycled into fibers that ultimately make new clothes. That’s partly because textiles are mechanically shredded when they’re recycled, which shortens and weakens the fibers. Textile makers generally mix recycled fibers with lots of virgin material to make fabric strong enough to use in clothing.

60 percent of the clothes gathered in the H&M’s recycling initiative actually goes to thrift stores that are already saturated, entering the same cycle described above. The rest that cannot be reworn is repurposed for things like cleaning cloths or insulation for houses.

Since launching its recycling initiative in the Spring of 2013, H&M said it has collected 56,000 tons of textiles globally, the equivalent of roughly 260 million T-shirts. But realistically, it is impossible for any recycling program to make a dent in the giant pile of castoff clothes H&M and other fast fashion brands create.

Even if the reality behind the clothes you donate is far from perfect, don't let this discourage you from donating your clothes. The vast majority (85 percent) of unwanted textiles are carted off directly to U.S. landfills each year. That's more than 7 percent of our national landfill waste. Giving your unwanted clothing to for-profit recyclers is way, way better than stuffing them in your trash.

However, it is important to understand that the easiest and most economical way we can have a positive impact is simply by reducing the amount we consume. Rather than constantly buying new clothes according to seasonal trends, invest in timeless styles of better quality. When you change the way you buy, you send a strong message to the fashion industry and you disrupt the status quo. The power is in our hands and our wallets. 

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