The Afterlife of Used Clothing

As promised, I finally finished Elizabeth Clines Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. Overdressed explores the history of American garment manufacturing, the global effects of China's manufacturing monopoly, and the evolution of social values in relationship to our dress.

Elizabeth also walks us through the product lifecycle—where textiles are sourced from, where they are manufactured and why, and what happens to all of our discarded clothing. This last bit, the "Afterlife" as she calls it, is what I find the most interesting.

When Americans discard a piece of clothing we usually do it one of two ways. We send it to Goodwill (or other local charity) thinking that it will be resold to someone in need. Or, if it's egregiously torn or stained, we throw it away assuming that the lifetime value of the garment is past. Turns out, neither of these assumptions are true. As Elizabeth explains, only 20 percent of clothing we donate to Goodwill will be sold. The rest gets diverted to textile recyclers that use them in a myriad of different ways.

"According to the trade organization Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART), less than half of the clothing processed by textile recycles is of a high enough quality to continue as clothing. About 20 percent of postconsumer apparel is so busted up it is sold to fiber buyers, who break it down into component fibers for reuse in a variety of products from insulation to carpet padding and building materials. Another 30 percent is sold to the industrial wiping-rag industry for about eight cents per pound. Only a small sliver, 5 percent, is thrown away."

While the ultimate solution to our overabundance of post consumer waste is to stop buying things we don't need and that we know will not last, we now know that throwing away clothes is always a last resort. If you think that your clothes do not fall into the Goodwill-worthy 20 percent, donate your clothes directly to your local textile recycler. Visit SMART online to find a recycle center near you.

September 14th, 2012