Newsflash: The majority of your donated clothes aren’t going back to your community

Photo Courtesy of Hugo Clément on Unsplash

Thrifting is all the rage these days; it serves a lot of different needs for a lot of different people.

Some go because it’s cheap, others for the hidden treasures. Some people thrift with their friends, and others thrift because they don’t want to support the environmentally devastating impacts of fast fashion. Maybe for you, it’s all of the above.

And, it’s true—thrifting is the best for a lot of reasons. But when it comes to the donating side, there are a lot of things you may not know. One of the biggest discoveries? The majority of your unsellable-donated clothes aren’t going back to your community; instead, they’re exported out of the country.

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It feels endless. The racks and racks of clothes at thrift stores, all different colors and sizes and materials.

At the Salvation Army store in Boulder, they’re constantly reorganizing and restocking thanks to the constant stream of donations coming through on the daily.

Mary Heinrich, the store manager, says other than an occasional pair of dirty socks or a super-stained T-shirt, the majority of items they receive via donation are things they try to sell in the store.

“However, you know, what I normally tell people is if it’s something you wouldn’t buy, then chances are somebody else is not going to want to buy that. Or people that have a community garage sale, and then we get their donations afterwards. Well, if it didn’t sell at a garage sale for a dollar or two, it’s probably not going to sell at our thrift store,” she said.

If items at Salvation Army don’t sell for an extended period of time, Heinrich says the Salvation Army puts them on sale. If they still don’t get picked up and purchased, they end up in what she calls a ragout bin.

“Our director of operations has wholesaler relationships with folks who buy that in bulk,” she said.

Justin Stockdale of the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM) in Boulder, says what happens to these items that are donated to thrift stores that don’t sell, like the stuff that ends up in the Salvation Army ragout bin, is a huge problem.

He says wholesalers end up selling these items into the global export market to countries considered low and middle-income.

“The textile industry focuses on the fast-fashion problem, which is certainly a component of the issue. The bigger issue is, frankly, taking donated clothes, packaging them up in bales, putting them in shipping containers and sending them off into the world is not an answer, right? We are just truly pushing the problem downstream somewhere else, and not acknowledging the great challenge that that is,” he said.

Over at the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials, which is also known as CHaRM, donors throw their bags of clothes and other hard-to-recycle materials into a large bin, which then gets collected by a partner organization that sends the clothes off for them—largely into the global export market.

Because of this pipeline, CHaRM only accepts reusable items. They don’t want dirty socks, torn up sheets, and more. But Stockdale says that reusable is a subjective term, and that’s where it gets tricky.

“Donation is good. We don’t want people to not donate. We want to encourage more people to donate, but understand, it’s donation of resalable stuff. Your dirty underwear, nobody wants them. Put them in the landfill and be okay with that, which at this extreme, that’s hard. People want to recycle everything. Like, they get, like, viscerally upset that they can’t recycle things,” he said.

Stockdale says that while the thrift store model has environmental and ethical advantages compared to fast fashion, it’s not a solution.

“If it is, this thing has value it retained, this shirt that I’m wearing has value, I donate it, somebody can buy it and wear it. That’s good, responsible use of, you know, produced, manufactured goods” he said.

“That is healthy for the planet. That is the better solution, right? Obviously, reduction, waste, avoidance is the better goal, right? Wear your stuff until it’s not wearable. Like, that would be the ideal. Not everybody is willing to do that.”

From Stockdale’s perspective, we need to export things that have verified value. He views the export donation model as a form of colonialism, and he says we can’t just accept the false belief that we’re helping people by sending all of our discarded clothes worldwide.

“That is where I start to come morally, ethically, personally undone by the whole thing. There’s no part of colonialism that was a good thing, and here we are acting like we’re still doing it, and it’s still a good thing, and it’s just abhorrent, frankly,” he said.

But not everyone I talked to shared Stockdale’s sentiment about the inevitable unethical harm that thrifted clothes into the global export market does to communities worldwide.

“Cultural sustainability or social sustainability. In a lot of countries, secondhand clothes, firstly, provide clothes,” said Hanna Rose Shell, a CU Boulder professor who is also the author of several publications and a film about textile waste and recycling.

She says she’s seen firsthand how places across the globe, like Haiti, make use of globally-exported clothing, depending on how easy and durable the clothing’s material is.

“Secondly, provide job opportunities for a lot of small-time merchants. People that will, like, basically buy up huge bales of secondhand clothes from the pier or the port in Haiti, but, you know, in other ways in other generally developing countries,” she said.

So Shell thinks it isn’t necessarily that people should feel their donation is having an unethical impact on the world, but it’s more that they should be aware that it might not be going directly back to their community.

Back in Boulder, Mary Heinrich with the Salvation Army really wants to create partnerships with different community organizations to get unsellable items to community members.

“I find people have good intentions, but then the follow-through doesn’t happen, so that partnership doesn’t really 100 percent come to fruition,” said Heinrich.

“You know, an example would be, I don’t want to get rid of comforters and blankets that can’t sell. So I would like to partner with a shelter or a nonprofit that could help find a good home for those.”

For now, she hopes donors can continue to bring in good quality products in many different sizes and for all different weather conditions.

Jackie Sedley

Jackie Sedley


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