Do Clothing Donations Actually Go to People in Need?

by , 06/15/12   filed under: Featured, Features

clothes recycling, clothing donations, fast fashion, disposable fashion, disposable clothing, cheap clothing, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, Elizabeth L. Cline, Overdressed, overconsumption, conscious consumption, vintage clothing, vintage fashion, materialism


There are thousands of secondhand textile processors in the United States today, mostly small family businesses, many of them several generations old. Without textile recyclers, charities would be totally beleaguered and forced to throw away everything that couldn’t be sold. Charities might even have to turn us away. The only benefit to this doomsday scenario is that our clothes would pile up in our house or in landfills, finally forcing us to face down just how much clothing waste we create.

The dramatic increase in the volume of secondhand clothing has driven down its value by an estimated 71 percent in the last 15 years.

Textile recycling is a tough business. And it’s gotten tougher over time. The dramatic increase in the volume of secondhand clothing has driven down its value by an estimated 71 percent in the last 15 years. But the decreasing quality of donations is also pushing prices through the floor. As the value of used clothing has gone down, textile graders have increasingly relied on the small sliver of well-cared-for vintage clothes that comes through the waste stream.

Most of our donated clothing does not end up in vintage shops, as car-seat stuffing, or as an industrial wiping rag. It is sold overseas. After the prized vintage is plucked out and the outcasts are sent to the fiber and wiping rag companies, the remaining clothing is sorted, shrink-wrapped, tied up, baled, and sold to used-clothing vendors around the world. By one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ No. 1 export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-saharan Africa.

Once again, while many Americans might like to imagine that there is some poor, underdressed African who wants our worn and tattered duds, the African used clothing market is very particular and is demanding higher quality and more fashion-forward styles.

As the quality of clothing Americans buy and donates goes down, the stuff that ends up on Africa’s shores can be quite shoddy. As incomes rise in Africa, tastes become more savvy, cheap Chinese imports of new clothes flood those countries, and our own high-quality clothing supply is depleted, it’s foreseeable that the African solution to our overconsumption may come to an end.

What then?

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11 Responses to “Do Clothing Donations Actually Go to People in Need?”

  1. No Name says:

    This article is so far off on the truth its unreal. The thrift stores are alive and well thanks to many US resellers who thrift and sell them online to support their families along with families looking to save money during hard economic times (no thanks to our politicians) on perfectly good, used secondhand clothing. Far be it from the author to actually do his (her?) homework and state the real facts.

  2. sprout65 says:

    This does not surprise me.
    I have noticed the quality of our made in China clothing has gone so far down hill it is almost disposable. Even so called “high end” expensive brands state that they are made in China, which has driven me to purchase almost all of my clothing at second hand stores. it is sad that Americans will settle for such poor quality and don’t even think about the inhumane working conditions sweat shop workers endure for short lived trendy looking garments. It’s such a superficial disconnection and it’s too bad we have lost our respect from these other countries.

  3. Jasmin Malik Chua says:

    @No Name: It’s difficult to tell from such a brief excerpt, which we condensed even further due to space constraints, but Elizabeth spent three years researching her book. She met with key players in the industry and even spent some time visiting facilities in China and Bangladesh. I can assure you, she’s done her homework, and done it well. If you have some unique insight, perhaps you could share it with the class?

  4. estub says:

    Article is also way off on major assertion…old clothing our industry recycles is mostly (55%) recycled into materials for wiping rags and fiber, approx. Less than half or 45% of this material gains a second life as re-purposed secondhand clothing exported to developing countries where secondhand clothing, footwear and textiles provide needed and affordable clothing. Does anyone contend we should not recycle or re purpose this clothing? Largest charities describe our thrift and recycling industry as symbiotic…today major brands and retailers like Patagonia and Levis are making efforts to advise consumers what we wear should not go in the landfill, with programs designed to encourage donation or recycling….Actually this clothing does go to those in need…issue most don’t realize is that over 3 billion pounds annually are being recycled in this manner with over 21 billion pounds going to landfill…so actually we need to do more to

  5. ShoptobeGreen (@shoptobegreen) says:

    I have always and will always continue to donate old clothing though I have noticed that many second hand shops (like goodwill are not carrying as much clothing as they once did) and I have seen articles were it talks about how a lot of donations are thrown away (after donation) but at the same time if you go to places like etsy you see more and more artisans making beautiful designs out of old recycled clothing so demand should be growing. Right? Plus aren’t more and more manufacturers using recycled fibers? Couldn’t that be another income stream for charity organizations while reducing landfill contributions?

  6. estub says:

    ShoptobeGreen- Spread the word…that is exactly what thrifts do…they use what they can in their thrift stores or supply to those in need…and the balance is sold to recyclers, thereby raising revenue for their important programs. Recyclers and Thrift Industry have been working together in North America since the 1940’s and today combine to recycle some 3+ Billion pounds annually…visit to learn more.

  7. Jasmin Malik Chua says:

    People are misunderstanding the point of the story—it doesn’t say don’t donate or don’t recycle your old clothes. Rather, it points out that we’re tossing away more clothing than charity shops and textile recyclers can handle, with much of it comprising cheap, low-quality garments that no one can really use. The moral of the story, if there is one, is to buy less and buy better, so that we can guarantee our unwanted threads a decent afterlife beyond the landfill.

  8. macdoodle says:

    Fad clothes and hard to care for materials do get dumped too fast and too often. USA doesn’t recycle as much but rag rugs and quilts are just some of the good reuses. Buying wash and dry and donating “in good condition” clothing direct to homeless shelters and even some hospitals and nursing homes have lowest income patients that can use clothes is the best bet to make a local difference. Donating coats at the beginning of the cold season to shelters and soup kitchens can also help a lot. See if soup kitchens ans foodbanks do seasonal or occasional clothing banks. Many in USA can’t afford Salvation Army pricing. Even your grocery bags can help someone in need.

  9. says:

    As one of those “thrift”ers who upcycle and recycle clothing, fibers, and plastic into everything from tote bags to insane takes on Festival fashion (including steampunk, goth, fantasy) I can say that much of this is only possible because of good thrift stores, and some of us take things that most pass up. It has been interesting to watch the populations at thrift stores and second-hand or consignment stores change during these economic times, from only poor families and designers to obviously pretty much everyone. It is amazing how much of my income depends on rescuing resources that would otherwise be squandered in landfills. Most of us point to our grandmothers who lived through some hard time or other, who taught us how to “mend and make do” in tough times. While I am also someone all too aware of the waste that goes on in american society, I can say that the handmade revolution has changed many minds about thrift. It is cool once again to sport vintage fabrics, vintage material, vintage clothing. Being willing to do the work to of thrifting, willing to see what is in front of you as a cheap (inexpensive), chic resource and find the beauty, show it off. A good recycler makes you fall back in love with your own stuff… I have to believe we’d rather see things on Etsy than in the landfill! So I do have to thank the national charity clothing chains – I’m sort of their first-line benefactor…

  10. terisha says:

    Recycling is good, to make a bargain in a second hand shop is even better. But there is still to much clothing that ends in the landfill. These unworn and unwanted clothes to produce needs energy, chemicals and menpower. The production is everything else than environmental friendly. So better think twice, if you buy.

    Sorry, Im not a native English speaker.

  11. lisaural says:

    This truth has been around for a long time. Check out the NY Times article from 2002, “How Susie Bayer’s T-shirt Ended Up on Yusuf Mama’s Back”

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