OUT WITH THE OLD
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.