EcoSalon Investigates: What Happens to Our Cast Off Clothing?

Undercover writer Louise Lagosi helps us track our cast-off clothing.

Ever wonder what happens to your clothes when you just have to let them go? Maybe you were kind enough to spare them from ending up in a landfill by donating them to a thrift store for a tax credit; maybe you were even clever enough to “new-life” them into cut offs, a mini-skirt or something else relatively simple to make.

There are many ways to keep our clothes from contributing to landfills and pollution, and according to Dr. Jana Hawley, whose focus is on finding solutions to textile waste in fashion, “Our clothing is 100% recyclable.” So why then, according to SMART, a textile recycling organization that partners with Goodwill and The Salvation Army, do roughly 75% of our discarded clothes get put in the trash and end up in landfills?

Clothing has an enormous, toxic, environmental footprint, one that gets bigger when it is unnecessarily wasted and not given the opportunity to live up to its fullest capacity through multiple lives, multiple owners or textile recycling.

While we may never consider our clothes after we’ve discarded them, our cast-offs go on exciting adventures around the globe. Thrift stores are simply the first of many depositing and sorting grounds. Which part of the world they land in really depends on what shape and quality they are in when they leave your hands.

When your clothes arrive at the thrift store they get sorted, and provided they’re not terribly damaged, they are put on the racks. The premium grade used clothing has several possible fates in the drop-off store, one of which is purchase for resale at international vintage shops.

Vintage store owners around the world have been mining American thrift stores for cheap vintage, only to resell our cast offs back to us at premium vintage prices. Americans in particular get rid of some of the nicest digs in the world. In Paris you’d never find designer vintage on sale anywhere outside a pricey vintage shop. But here in the States, mint condition, vintage Gucci dresses on Salvation Army racks sell for $19.99. It’s no wonder that the world comes here for it’s vintage. At $5-$10 a pair, beat up old Levi’s might collect over $500 by a vintage dealer in Japan. And the hat your grandmother painstakingly hand knit you could easily end up in a Swedish or Dutch vintage boutique.

“We get all of our vintage from the States. The store owners take a 4-6 week long summer vacation in the U.S. visiting the same favorite routes to thrift stores year after year. Within a few weeks, they’ve more or less made the annual store inventory,” says an employee from Zipper, a vintage shop in Amsterdam.

Of course, all of this can be found on thrift store floor racks, where meticulous and discerning shoppers have the opportunity to snatch up the premium second hand at thrift store prices before they reach the vintage dealers provided they are willing to dig through racks. Sometimes, this pursuit can seem more like archaeology than shopping, sifting through cross sections of society’s discarded duds to find the rare diamonds in the rough.

A slightly rarer fate for some of our clothes are landing in the hands of crafters and upcycling designers, like JoAnnBerman, DominikaNaziebly, and LuFlux, all of whom choose to pull resources from thrift stores and used markets, upcycling finds into new one-off designs. These designers choose to make couture out of our rags.

Lu Flux

Lauren Lawson, Goodwill’s Media Relations Manager, says an item has about a month’s time to prove its worth on the floor before it is removed and redistributed to lower income sales channels; first at the Goodwill’s most affordable stores, where they provide clothing sold by the pound in American low income communities. If still not sold there, the clothing will get passed onto Goodwill’s partners over at SMART, who help divert two billion pounds of clothes from landfills annually through worldwide distribution and textile recycling. In the SMART sorting facilities, the clothes  are sorted into many different categories: tropicals, cold weather, denim, cotton, mixed rags, A grade and B grade.

While a sliver of thrift store leftovers get cut into rags and sold to mechanics, window washers and the likes, the bulk of all of our discarded clothes get shipped to third world countries for resale. These clothes are sorted, bundled and sold by bale or by the shipping container by companies like TransatlanticMixrags, who export American used clothes in an effort to reduce post consumer landfill mass, to provide affordable clothing to the poor in developing countries’ markets, and all the while making a pretty penny selling our trash.

The international customers take a gamble on what they are getting however. Unable to see the product until their package has landed and is paid for, they must accept whatever they get. The product is then distributed in street markets across the countrysides of impoverished nations and will be consumed and absorbed by people looking for any clothing they can afford.

Which would explain this how this t-shirt landed on this Sierra Leonean.

This can cause quite the controversy. Some believe that exporting westerner’s discarded clothes to poorer developing nations is the same as exporting our consumer culture. The point has been wrestled with over and over by human rights activists and fair-trade advocates alike; hand made, traditional indigenous dress is being replaced by cheap western rags as capitalism spreads across the globe like a rash.

Whether or not we should be passing off our waste products to third world nations is debatable. The devil’s advocates of Capitalism will argue that the poor people in third world nations cannot afford new clothing and want cheap clothing available to them.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and for some in countries like Mexico, Jakarta, Brazil, and Bangladesh, landfills provide a meager income to garbage pickers sifting through trash in search of items that are reusable and recyclable. If old clothes are too ragged to wear, they might make good pillow or mattress stuffing. In countries where resources are scarce, even garbage can be valuable.

Which brings up the second most common use of our discarded clothing: recycled, post-consumer waste products. Forthcoming, green-minded entrepreneurs, like the geniuses behind BondedLogic, a company which makes insulation out of recycled materials sees the issue of post consumer waste as opportunity.

Bonded Logic’s claim to fashion-reuse fame is Ultra Touch denim insulation. Made of 90% domestically sourced post-consumer, recycled content, it is processed and manufactured entirely in the USA, and diverts approximately 300 tons from landfills monthly.

“We’ve been using recycled paper to make a cellulose insulation for over 35 years, and we wanted to make a batting form of insulation out of some post consumer fiber. When we researched the amount of waste available in the garment and textile industries, and especially with the abundance of waste denim available, it just seemed like the perfect solution,” says Sean Desmond, Bonded Logic’s Marketing Manager.  “If you go back even six years ago, a majority of textile waste was being landfilled. We saw this as a viable, abundant, resource and thought, why not use it?”

Insulation is just one of many recycling options for clothing. Textiles can be processed into car flooring and seat filler, roofing materials, punching bag padding for boxing, mattresses, and of course cleaning rags.

Before the 1900’s, most households generally had to make the most of the clothes they wore from scratch, altering and handing down items between family members as they grew out of them. They had to manage every scrap of waste they created to save their resources and energy and to prevent the garbage from piling up around them.

Since the Industrial Revolution took it’s hold on society, we’ve become so free with our fashion consumption habits we scarcely know what to do with all the waste flowing through the doors of our closets. Christina Salvi of GrowNYC, a group that organizes weekly clothing deposit drop-off spots at the New York City green markets was surprised to see how often people would donate from their closets.

“We weren’t expecting to have people returning every week with clothing deposits, but we have regulars who come with something to donate week after week. We also see visitors who will drop off big loads right after the spring cleaning,”says Salvi.

Since the launch of their clothing recycle program in 2007, GrowNYC has collected over 1 million pounds of clothing. With New York City’s annual post-consumer garment waste estimating at around 193,000 tons per year, New Yorkers have their work cut out for them to find alternative ways to divert their “trash.”

One thing is for sure, no clothing should be going into a waste basket.

Images: Brad K., Yikes Machine, Boardroom Eco Apparel,