5 Things You Should Know Before Donating Your Old Clothes
By: Deanna Cook, Global Changemaker & Founder of LIYA Collective
For the past half-century, getting rid of last season’s styles in order to buy new, trendier ones has just been a way of life. Retail giants and fast fashion chains encourage us to throw out the old items and purchase the new, and many of us might have thought we were doing the right thing by donating instead of dumping them in the trash. But have you ever stopped to think where your clothes actually go when you drop them in the donation bin?
As a Canadian who spent two years living in a small coastal town in Tanzania, I can confirm that a great deal of our used clothing really does make it overseas. I saw a man with a University of Tennessee sweatshirt, kids with Hockey Canada trackpants, and a boy with an Oregon Ducks jersey. But the path these items took to get there was far from straightforward.
Traditional dhows on the beach in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. Source: Deanna Cook.
It works like this: we donate our clothes, the clothes are packaged and sold in bulk to a middleman, who then exports the clothes (often to a developing country) and resells them with a markup to someone on the ground. The purchaser then takes their collection of items to the market and sells each piece to local consumers for as little as a dollar or two. Usually, these imported, used goods are cheaper than buying new, locally-made clothing, so there’s a steady demand for more shipments.
On the surface, consumers now have access to affordable, second-hand clothes—but like everything, it’s not that simple. Below are 5 of the main problems inherent to the system that you really should know about if you’re thinking about donating:
1. The “profit” from your donation probably goes to a middleman.
Even if you donate your items to a local charity or non-profit, they probably receive a lot more clothing than they can actually process or use. According to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), less than a quarter of clothes donated to local charities actually get resold locally. The excess is then bought by a middleman, or a for-profit broker, who prepares the clothing for export. Usually, it’s these middlemen who profit the most from your donation.
2. Clothes often don’t end up where you think they do.
It’s incredibly difficult to track a certain item to see where it ended up. Statistics Canada reports that used clothing exported from Canada in 2017 alone was worth over CAD$133 million. The importing countries are spread around the world, but with a heavy concentration in India, Pakistan and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Countries that received more than CAD$100,000 worth of worn clothing from Canadian exports in 2017 (Statistics Canada & Global Affairs Canada). Source: CBC News.
3. Importing countries become reliant on donations.
Many countries now rely on imports in order to satisfy domestic clothing demand. In response to this, the East African Community started discussing banning used clothing imports entirely. The original goal was to block all second-hand clothing from entering the region by 2019, which obviously hasn’t happened yet. That being said, East African governments and leaders recognize the reliance on foreign imports is a major problem and something to address moving forward.
4. Donations can undermine the local clothing and textile industry.
Between the rise of Asian manufacturing and Western second-hand clothing imports over the past few decades, many African clothing and textile businesses just can’t keep up. While you’ll still find people wearing traditional fabrics as well as seamstresses and tailors in every community, it’s hard to compete with the rock-bottom prices of a second-hand shirt. Most people only wear locally-made clothes for special occasions and wear cheap used clothing for everything else.
5. Many pieces still get thrown out anyway.
In places like North America, there are lots of great textile recycling programs to collect all the clothing that isn’t resold or exported. These companies take old clothing and fabrics and repurpose them into things like insulation or upholstery. In places like my town in Tanzania however, finding a large-scale textile recycler would be nearly impossible—there isn’t even a municipal waste management or recycling system in place. I often saw fabric scraps and old clothing in the garbage, burned, or washed out with the tide, which is definitely not ideal for anyone.
With this in mind, what can you do with your used clothes? Re-wear the pieces that are already in your closet, or upcycle them into something different. If the clothing is still in good shape, sell it or swap it with a friend. If it’s a little more run-down, DON’T put it in the trash—try and find a responsible textile recycler in your community. There are lots of ways to get creative with your old clothing. Hopefully, now you’ll at least be able to make a more informed decision about where you want it to end up.
About the Author:
Deanna Cook is a global changemaker and development professional with extensive international experience in Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Her latest project, LIYA Collective, is a sustainable accessory brand of minimalist pieces ethically made around the world. She loves yoga, travel, spending time outdoors with her puppy, and all things conscious living.