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Wonder Where Your Donated Clothes End Up? Not Where You Think Wonder Where Your Donated Clothes End Up? Not Where You Think

Wonder Where Your Donated Clothes End Up? Not Where You Think

by Yasha Wallin

May 24, 2013

Most of us have, at one point or another, donated unwanted clothes to charity, a Salvation Army, or a local drop box. The hope is that we'll help clothe needy people in our communities. But a recent report from NPR reveals that while we think we are helping locally, most of our garments are being sent elsewhere—much farther elsewhere. 

When donation centers reach capacity, they turn to textile recyclers, which end up taking away about 80 percent of all donations made. From this, 30 percent goes to make wiping cloth for commercial and industrial use; 20 percent is converted into fiber for carpet padding, auto insulation and pillows; and then about 45 percent of the clothes are exported to international buyers to resell throughout the world, like in Central and South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe.

With the latter, it's big business—and competition is fierce. That said, it's also harder and harder these days for these wholesalers to find good donated clothing to resell because of the quality of our clothes these days, with a large portion of them made in factories like the ones in Bangladesh, where standards aren't high. NPR spoke to Jackie King, the executive director of Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART), a trade association for textile recyclers, who said that because of this, about "85 percent of all the clothing sold each year ends up in landfills."

Those are pretty shocking numbers. It's daunting to think about the life a piece of clothing: made in Bangladesh; exported to the U.S.; when unwanted, donated in the U.S.; shipped back to Asia; put in a landfill. That means the carbon footprint of your name brand t-shirt will likely be higher than the price you paid for it.

This is not to say you shouldn't donate your clothes. There are plenty of people in need. However, you should ask questions. Wherever you are thinking of discarding your unwanted duds, find out from the organization exactly where your garment will end up. And when buying new items, keep this supply chain cycle in mind, seeking out quality, locally made clothes whenever possible.

What you can do: Join Vivienne Westwood's Climate Revolution 

Clothing pile image via Shutterstock

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