A change in season brings a change of wardrobe, causing many of us to rummage through our closets, filling trash bags with mounds of clothing to donate. After going to the trouble of dragging those garbage bags to the Salvation Army or a Goodwill, we hope that our donation helps a good cause. We assume that our goods make it to the racks to be sold for a profit that benefits a charitable organization; however, that isn’t always the case.
An article in GOOD reports that only a shocking 15 to 20 percent of clothing donations are resold in U.S. thrift shops. The rest is either sold to become industrial wiping rags, recycled into insulation, or shipped to other countries. While the most desirable vintage items are sold to Japan, Africa receives the bulk of our secondhand clothing, making it one of the continent’s top imports. This exchange is documented in films like T-Shirt Travels, which shows how imported American used clothing is responsible for killing off the Zamibian clothing manufacturing industry.
Perhaps the most surprising statistic in the article is that Americans only keep 21 percent of the clothing we buy each year. The facts are astonishing: not only does America export the majority of its donated clothing, we simply can’t reabsorb the amount of clothing we give away. We have an overwhelming excess of garments. No longer a hand-me-down culture, cheap clothing prices have made it affordable to buy into new trends and toss out last season’s look. If every clothing manufacturer in the U.S. shuttered today, it’s not farfetched to believe that we’d still be able to clothe every person in the country for several years. However we decide to deal with our wardrobe rejections, they present us with an opportunity to reflect on how we value our possessions, providing a chance to improve our personal understanding of our consumption habits.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.