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The Issues Behind Clothing Donation

Your treasure is someone else’s trash. This is the motto for UpCycle, an organization that I founded recently along with two other teens from New York and Burundi, with the intent of creating a more efficient, technology-based solution for donating clothes. But what really is the issue behind clothing donations? And why should anyone care about it?

Clothing donation is a regular activity in many households, but due to the pandemic, many clothing donation boxes have shut down or have become abandoned, with charities telling individuals to hold off on donations right now. But even before the pandemic, there were tales of donated clothing being transferred from donation boxes to landfills, and never actually fulfilling their original purpose.

A donor’s intention behind donating clothes is to help someone in need. But who is that someone? And how do you know if that someone ever receives what was meant for them? A simple Google search will tell you that clothing donations veer way off from where you intend them to go. According to CBC News’ article, Here's where your donated clothing really ends up about 80 to 90 percent of donated clothes aren’t resold in Canada through second hand or thrift shops. So where do they end up?

“Less than a quarter of clothes given to charities is sold at thrift shops, while the rest is diverted to other countries, sold off as rags or recycled, according to the for-profit Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association.”

These clothes are shipped off to developing countries, where they are used in a variety of ways; reprocessed for insulation or car-seat filling, sold in second-hand shops overseas, or simply end up in landfills! The sad truth is that globally, about 80% of donated clothes are doomed to end up in landfills, on the report of Remake’s Are Our Clothes Doomed for the Landfill?”. Here, the clothing can end up sitting in landfills for more than 200 years, where it releases methane as it decomposes. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is even more potent than carbon dioxide. Obviously, this is extremely harmful to the environment and is just another factor that causes climate change.

Why does this happen?

Now, in order to find the root cause of the problem of clothing ending up in landfills, we need to backtrack as to why this occurs. Charities or second-hand shops, such as the Salvation Army or Goodwill (which receive high volumes of clothing donations) only keep donations on their racks for a short period of time — for example, four weeks. Once this time is up, they need to get rid of these clothes to make space for new donations. As a result, these items of clothing end up being shipped to landfills, where they are left to decompose for decades to come. Of course, this is not to say that clothing donations are necessarily a bad thing. Donations are valuable to many individuals, both in our local and global communities, but when there is an excess of clothing donations, that is where problems start to arise.

Tips for Clothing Sustainability

So how exactly do we avoid an influx of donors who want to donate to make a positive impact, but end up making situations for landfills even worse? Here are some important wardrobe and donating tips to keep in mind the next time you shop:

  • Look out for sustainable clothing stores: Big brands like Zara or Fashion Nova are notorious for promoting “fast fashion”, which are clothing items that are trendy but are at very cheap prices. Unfortunately, this can only be done when employing workers at extremely low wages, which is often done through sweatshops in third world countries. Even if these sweatshops are filled with extremely poor working conditions, employees are still forced to perform their jobs in order to provide for their families, although it usually does not pay close to enough money. So, if you are able to afford it, try to buy clothes from sustainable shops or clothing lines, or even thrift them (though that comes with certain limitations — which is a conversation for a different article!)

  • Choose your clothing wisely: Try to create a wardrobe that includes fewer, but higher quality essentials (which can last for longer periods of time), along with seasonal articles as well. Additionally, look for brands that offer warranty or free repairs with their clothing, or simply try to repair any damaged clothing using simple sewing techniques. There are thousands of videos available showing you how, and it’s much better for the environment to do so.

  • Dispose of clothing responsibly: When clothes can no longer be used for your own purposes, look for other ways to put them to work. If they are still wearable, offer them to younger family members or friends who might be interested in taking them in. You can also reuse the fabric to create your own clothing, and make a DIY project. And if you decide to donate them, take the time to do your research, in order to really help someone in need. Donating to local second-hand shops, thrift stores or charities is better than looking for bigger corporate-based organizations since these stores will usually put more care into the process to give donations a second life.

In the end, the purpose of any kind of donation is to help others and give items a second chance. Dumping your old clothes into a donation box might make you feel good for the next 24 hours, but it will harm the earth for the next hundred years. So the next time you consider donating your clothes, think about how much good will actually come out of it, and always do your best to research the most beneficial ways to dispose of your old items.

Additionally, keep an eye out for the launch of the UpCycle Website, where we will be looking to create a hub for individuals in different countries, where they can find reliable charities and second-hand shops where they can safely donate their clothes. Follow us @upcycle on Instagram to stay updated!

Featured image is courtesy of Pexels via Kai Pilger

Article Author: Asima Hudani

Article Editor: Valerie Shirobokov