Used Clothes: Not So Charitable

As many of you know, I have been volunteering in Guatemala since 1993. The markets in Guatemala are incredible places to see textiles with vibrant colors and designs.

However over time I started seeing an odd shift in what people were selling. In the early 90’s all children wore the handmade textiles designed by their ancestors. But by the late 90’s boys were wearing t-shirts and sweatshirts that had slogans none of them even understood. They were all surrounding asking for turns in translations (some of which were pretty awkward actually).

I also started hearing mothers lament that their daughters wanted to wear western clothes like the boys. Moms would work over the wood stoves discussing the merits and drawbacks to letting their daughters switch from their traditional ways to more western ways.

Chichicastenango Market in 1996

Chichicastenango Market in 1996

Chichicastenango Market in 2013

Chichicastenango Market in 2013

Little did they (or I) know that there were global trends pressing these decisions.

According to NPR, the average American discards more than 10 pounds of clothes each year. The EPA states that 13.1 million tons of textiles are landfilled. The recovery rate is about 15.3%. Several sources state that about half of that is recovered by going to reuse charities. Charities receive so many donations that they can only keep clothes in retail outlets for a very short time. Goodwill reports that they receive one billion pieces of clothing every year. In order to a log jam, their inventory never stays in their hands more then three weeks.

The vast majority is then exported.

According to NPR, the United States exports 1,000 tons of used clothes every day. The clothes are sold in bulk for 6 to 12 cents per pound to companies that export the clothes to developing countries. According to Oxfam, about 50% of used clothes are shipped over seas to Africa and Latin America. Charities like Goodwill make about a $2 billion in exports every year according to Oxfam.

The assumption is that the clothes help the countries receiving them, but Oxfam and the United Nations want us to think again.

In 2002, the UN estimated that tens of thousands of textile workers in Africa had lost their jobs due to the used clothes industry. Alarmed by this trend, the United Nations encouraged developing nations to ban the sale of used clothes, which 30 countries have adopted today.

The fundamental cause is that garments are made so cheaply that they have essentially become a disposable product. They aren’t meant to last. So as long as we are hungry for cheap textiles, materials will continue to be pumped through at this alarming rate. This trend is drastically affecting the livelihood as well as cultural ways of communities all over the world.

What can we do?

  • Take care of our clothes.
  • Wash them on gentle cycles, with cold water and low dryer level. I even dry my clothes on a clothes line whenever possible to avoid the extremity of the dryer.
  • Fix our clothes. I sew my buttons on my clothes and take tougher jobs to be altered down the street to my local dry cleaner.
  • The Portland area now has Repair PDX where you can participate in repair cafés. Volunteers mend clothing and textiles as part of each event. 
  • All of my clothes come from thrift and consignment shops. I find it more fun then going to the mall and it is a lot closer.
  • But if you are an online shopper, do not despair! These are fun options for you: • Poshmark • Copious • Threadflip • eBay Share your cloth shopping ideas in the comments.