Thrift Stores are not the Answer

Thrift stores and Goodwill can’t solve America’s textile consumerism crisis, but here’s what you can do

Americans buy a staggering amount of clothing each year. All those new garments need to fit in already-brimming closets, necessitating the disposal of old clothes. And while we all know that throwing clothing (or anything else, for that matter) into the garbage isn’t the best option, it can be unclear what to do with old shirts and pants.

One common misconception is that donating your clothes keeps all of your second-hand garments in circulation while absolving you of that guilty feeling when you get rid of unworn clothing. 

The problem with this idea? 

Donating your clothes doesn’t always lead to positive outcomes. In fact, clothing donation can make the issue worse. Amongst the potential outcomes of clothing donation: clothes still ending up in landfills, clothing being downcycled into non-reusable forms, or clothing being exported abroad, where it can damage local economies in developing countries. 

However, there are several easily achievable actions that can allow you to help make a positive impact and feel good about what you’re wearing.

The average American purchases around 65 articles of clothing per year

American’s are purchasing 60% more clothing annually than they were in 2000. The World Resources Institute has a great, easy-to-read write-up about the environmental implications of clothing consumption.

Essentially, each article of clothing takes a tremendous number of resources to produce: production of a single t-shirt uses enough water for a human to be sustained for two-and-a-half years.

Combined with the rise in fast fashion and decreasing clothing prices, this means that Americans are buying more clothing than ever, inevitably leading to more clothing disposal.

This begs the question: how does one dispose of old, unwanted clothing?

People (incorrectly) view clothing donation as a way to offset the impact of their consumption

The garbage bag full of clothing to be donated has become a ubiquitous sign of the changing of the garb, as last season’s clothing (worn or unworn) makes way for more current garments.

These bags are donated to local charities and thrift stores (such as Goodwill or Salvation Army), slid into roadside donation bins, or dropped off at stores offering take-back programs. 

Each of these paths may take a different route, but most people assume those clothes will be put to good use outfitting the homeless and those in need.

Having done a good deed, it’s not hard to imagine people feeling like they deserve a reward, swinging by the mall on the way home to see if there are any new clothes on sale.

What could be wrong with that?

Clothing donation has several really, really significant problems

In reality, only about 0.1% of clothing that is donated to charities or company take-back programs is actually recycled into new textile fiber. To make that concrete and understandable: for every 1,000 donated shirts, only one actually is recycled into reusable clothing fibers. Some of the donated clothes are eventually disposed of or incinerated. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 84% of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator.

A large portion is bundled and sold overseas, where it can decimate local economies.

A significant amount of the remaining items are downcycled, largely being turned into carpets or housing insulation. While this is better than the clothing immediately going to a landfill, it is often just adding an extra stop along the way: housing insulation and carpets are significant contributors to landfills each year.

And most importantly, clothing donation continues the cycle of consumerism by lessening the perceived impact of buying new clothes. It allows us to forgive ourselves for buying unneeded clothing because we believe it ends up clothing those less fortunate. In reality, the amount of donated clothing each year far surpasses those in need, a persistent dissonance dubbed the “clothing deficit myth” by researcher and author Elizabeth Cline. Rather than there being a dearth of clothing for those in need, there are more than 300 t-shirts donated per homeless person per year.

Each consumer can make a difference, and it doesn’t require sacrifice or going without

While there is no simple solution to the problem of fast fashion and the manufacture and purchase of disposable clothing, there are a few concrete actions that can ensure that you contribute to the solution, rather than the problem.

  1. You’ve already accomplished the first step: unflinching awareness of the issue. People often aren’t aware of (or simply ignore) the impact of their decisions.
  2. Secondly, buying more judiciously, opting for fewer occasion-specific purchases and more for staple items that can be reworn again and again. This means prioritizing quality over quantity so that your clothing items remain functional throughout their lifecycle
  3. Lastly, prioritize companies that make sustainability a core part of their business model. Allbirds is a wonderful example of this. Patagonia is another example of a company that strives to minimize environmental impact.

Of course, at again&again, we are committed to innovative ways of implementing closed-loop recycling systems to be better stewards of our economy and environment, all while providing unparalleled comfort and fit. More on that in our upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned!

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