At least once a year, no doubt like many of you, I realize my closets and dresser drawers are just too full. I do a full sweep through them and, more often than not, drop off what I don’t want at Value Village, thus leaving both myself and my closets and drawers tidy and unencumbered. After all, I think to myself, I donated what I didn’t need rather than throwing it out. Someone else will get good use out of what I no longer need. (The Recycling Council of Ontario says that North Americans will send 9.5 million tonnes of clothes to landfills.)
I am no one’s idea of a clothes horse. Often, when I survey my options while getting dressed, I rue the lack of choices in front of me. And yet, if I can send off at least one green garbage bag of excess attire a year, obviously I have too much. How does that happen?
Every year, I get rid of some of the clothing that I have had hanging around for years but have never worn. Then, there are clothes that I keep hoping I will, some day, fit into once again: when I do my closet clean out, I try to be honest with myself and get rid of the stuff that is just never going to fit, no matter how much I like it. There are clothes I tire of, clothes I bought and then realized I don’t like and clothes I have been given that I don’t want (until my mother’s mind melted into dementia, she insisted on buying me size 6 clothing, a size that has not fit me since I was about 12 years old).
For all of these reasons, getting rid of excess clothing is an exhaustingly emotional experience for me, which I offset in part by thinking I am doing good donating my stuff to charity.
Crisis of stuff
As Kate Bahen of Charity Intelligence says about the world of donated clothing:
“It’s very difficult to see what’s going on. It sort of goes into a murky world, and it’s difficult to follow up what happens to the clothing – how is the clothing actually helping people, how is it charitable?”
First, those donation bins in parking lots may not be the charities they purport to be. Even some with charitable tax numbers stamped on them are, in fact, for-profit endeavours.
Second, while Diabetes Canada is a charity, the retail outlet – Value Village– that sells the donated clothing is not. DC and other charities such as Big Sisters and Big Brothers have contracts with for-profit businesses like Value Village to collect and sort the clothes, which are then sold to the business at a flat fee based on weight.
Third, according to Value Village’s vice president of recycling and reuse, Tony Shumpert, the store sells only about 25% of what it receives. The rest is sold again – this time to a for-profit broker.
Profit, profit and profit
Bank & Vogue, one such broker, is located in Ottawa and moves about 1,000 tonnes of used clothing a week. Some of the clothes find their way to reprocessing plants in North America or farther afield, where the bales are repurposed as rags for industrial use or ground down and reprocessed to be used as insulation of care-seat filling.
But a lot of it is, after yet another sorting and rebundling, sold to second-hand clothing retailers overseas. The global second-hand clothing industry was worth about $3.7 billion in 2015, but it has a lot to answer for. Bahen notes that it can put local textile industries and clothing manufacturers out of business. Clothes that don’t sell wind up in landfills in those countries rather than in ours.
“It has disastrous effects. . . I don’t think we should be exporting our garbage to developing countries, and I would put donated clothing in pretty much the same bucket.”
Most of this clothing – about 70% — ends up in Africa, where, in 2016, a number of countries banded together to ban the importing of used clothing. However, this effort failed because of pressure from the United States, with whom some of the countries had a trade agreement allowing them duty-free access to the U.S. market.
Finding local solutions
So, what, then, are we to do about all of our clothes?
As with garbage generally, the first step has to be to reduce: buy less and use what we buy for longer; perhaps even until it is truly waste, when it should make its way into our landfill not a landfill halfway around the world. Given that the clothing industry is one of the most resource intensive in the world – the production of crops and fibres used to make clothes produces 10 percent of global carbon emissions and the dyes used to colour clothes create almost 20 percent of global industrial water pollution – we should just not buy so many clothes.
Instead of buying something new for a one-time wear, we can check out the growing clothing rental industry although, as with all things fashion-related, those of us of larger size will likely not find much to choose from there.
Second, we need to find ways to reuse more of our clothing. My mother spent regular time mending our clothes – repairing holes and tears, sewing buttons back on, darning socks and letting out hems. I did some of this when my kids were little, but I have to admit that my sewing basket does not get hauled out very often any more.
Toronto’s Long Term Waste Management Strategy offers workshops at sewing repair hubs so people can learn how to repair their clothes. Maybe other communities could follow suit or perhaps those of us who remember how to thread a needle and create a straight hem could teach our friends.
We can “upcycle,” which is just a 21st century word for make over. Take something that no longer suits your needs and turn it into something that does. This could be a new article of clothing (think skirts made from ties or pants turned into shorts) or, in the case of old T-shirts, reuseable produce bags.
Third, if we are going to recycle by donating our used clothes, we need to do so mindfully. Make sure that bin in the parking lot really is a charity and check out its policies so you know where your clothes are going to end up. Donate to a specific charity that you know is local. Give your used clothes to organizations like Kingston’s Dress for Success, (similar charities exist in many cities) which provides good quality, used business clothing to women for job interviews and new employment. Ask the women’s shelter in your community if it is accepting used clothing.
This is our problem to solve. As Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, says:
“The consumer is at fault here. We’re the ones that are buying too much stuff and then we want our unwanted things to somehow be good for the world. It’s really crazy.”