I spend a lot of time thinking about clothes. Specifically, used clothes. Piles of them. Mountains of them. As team leader at GREEN EILEEN’s Seattle recycling program, I work with the women who sort donated EILEEN FISHER clothing. We’re often amazed by the longevity, quality and sheer volume of the incoming items.
But we know that Americans also clear out clothing they purchased from a lot of other brands. Some of it you’d happily buy at a thrift store. Some of it—that ratty college T-shirt—is pretty scary. So what happens to the clothing that isn’t destined for GREEN EILEEN?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American throws out 70 pounds of clothing every year. A staggering 85 percent ends up in a landfill.Let’s say you are part of the savvy 15 percent. You’ve done the right thing and donated your clothes to Goodwill or a similar organization. What happens now?“Most people think their clothes will be sold or given away to help people in their community,” says Pietra Rivoli, author of The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. “That’s very far from the truth.” Only a small portion of clothing donations—just 20 percent—ever hits the sales floor. The other 80 percent has a different, but still useful life. It is sold to professional textile recyclers who assign it one of four fates:
45% is resold to secondhand clothing dealers, primarily in foreign markets.
30% is cut up for the rags or wipes that are used by bartenders, auto mechanics, painters and a multitude of industrial workers.
20% is shredded for carpet padding, acoustical tiles, car sound dampening, denim insulation, recycled fiber for clothing and more.
5% is waste.
That ratty college shirt? Textile recyclers actually want it. “Worn or torn is the message we’re trying to get out,” says Eric Stubin, chairman of the Council for Textile Recycling. “People tell me, ‘Oh, I had a towel with a hole in it or a sock with a hole in it. I thought I had to throw it out.’ They don’t realize that it generates revenue for the charity when it’s sold to a textile recycler.”
Eric is president of a third-generation family recycling business, Trans-Americas Trading Co., which processes 16 million pounds of clothing annually. Sorting the vast quantities of clothes he collects is the key to his profits. Should an item be cut up for an industrial wipe? Does it have the right brand and the right colors to sell in Africa, Asia, Central America or South America?
Though buyers in these foreign markets often live on two dollars a day, they are picky about used clothing—sometimes very picky. As Rivoli reports in her book, Africans want only lightweight cottons, modest cuts (no shorts or miniskirts) and dark colors that don’t get dirty quickly. They’re particular about T-shirt images and slogans. “African customers… are every bit as fashion-conscious as the Americans, and know whether lapels are wide or pants have cuffs this year, and make their demands accordingly,” she writes.
Twenty years of falling clothing prices have created a glut of both new and used clothes. In 1993, the average American bought 30 pieces of clothing per year. Today, that number has doubled to 60.
I don’t buy nearly that many, partly because at the end of a long day at GREEN EILEEN, I am definitely not in the mood for shopping. But when I do need to buy any sort of textile, whether it’s a T-shirt, towel or curtain, I consider: How long will I own it? Is it designed to last? And what will I do with it when I’m ready to clean out my closet?