The Consequences of Clothing: The Dirty Side of Second-hand Clothing Donations (and 4 Helpful Alternatives)

The other day my husband and I were at a local thrift store to scope out some cheap furniture options for our new home. As we drove past the donation collection station at the back of the store, I saw something I hadn’t thought about in a while…

Next to a large delivery truck were huge stacks of t-shirts, packed between pieces of cardboard and tied into bales. These bales were likely being prepped to ship overseas, to distributers in Africa or Asia. They look like this:

Bales of used clothing are seen at Mac Recycling near Baltimore. Source: NPR

I heard about the interesting life of second-hand clothing for the first time in my first anthropology course, Culture and Society. The story of used clothing is a perfect example of political economy and globalization.

The Culture of Used Clothing

In the U.S. (and “the West” in general), used clothing is generally associated with donations and charity. It is a routine practice for many individuals and families to round up the items clogging up their closet, throw them in a garbage bag, and drop them off at the nearest Goodwill. As a result, most Americans view used clothing as easily disposable, but also helpful to those in need. When we drop off our old clothes at a local non-profit, we expect that they will be used by someone who otherwise couldn’t afford to buy them, or sold in a store to help fund charity work.

As this article from explains, this view doesn’t align with the reality of the world outside of the U.S. The U.S. sees second-hand clothes as a gift to the less fortunate, while much of the rest of the world sees these clothes as a business commodity.

The Second-Hand Clothing Economy

The reality is that a large chunk of clothing donations are shipped overseas to be resold. A charity interviewed for this NPR story stated that about 45% of their clothing donations are shipped abroad. This system has mixed consequences—on one hand, it can be an employment opportunity for local resellers, and an affordable clothing option for local customers. On the other hand, the large amounts of used clothing flowing into poorer countries is often harmful to these countries’ local textile industries and perpetuates a cycle of dependence on outside economic forces. The news I have seen on the practice of sending second-hand clothes overseas is mostly negative.

Source: Geographical

However, placing all the blame on the organizations that collect and sell these donations doesn’t completely make sense. Most non-profits are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of donated clothing that is given to them every day. It would be literally impossible for these organizations to sort through and sell every piece of textile that lands in their custody. Many experts on this topic agree that the driving force of this problem is a culture of over-consumption.

Used Clothes and the Environment

While some clothing donations are shipped abroad or sent to textile recyclers, a great deal of these clothing items end up in landfills. Even clothing pieces that are recycled will eventually end up as trash in one way or another. As a result, used clothing is now a significant environmental issue.

There simply isn’t enough demand for used clothes, either to re-wear or recycle, to keep it all from ending up at the dump. Clothing waste takes up increasingly limited space in landfills, and the chemicals and microfibers in the textiles can cause pollution issues as well.

Four Alternatives to Traditional Clothing Donation Practices

None of these alternatives are a complete solution to the problem of overproduction and over-consumption of clothing (that’s a story for an entirely new blog post). However, trying one of these methods when you clean out your closet is a good start!

Sell Your Clothing

Give your used clothes another chance at life by selling them to a retailer that specializes in second-hand clothing. Some retail options in my area include Plato’s Closet and Uptown Cheapskate. Online retailer thredup is another alternative.

Reach Out Virtually

Use your social media connections to find friends, acquaintances, or neighbors who might be willing to buy or take your used clothes. Neighborhood Facebook groups are a great option for finding local people on the hunt for second-hand items. 

Find a Local Charity With Specific Needs

Sometimes non-profits will make requests for specific clothing items, such as seasonal gear, or outfits for certain genders or ages. If you have clothing that matches the specific needs of a local charity, you can bet that your donation is more likely to be used be someone who needs it.

Reuse and Recycle

The coronavirus pandemic has increased the need for a certain textile item—masks. This article from Creative Bloq showcases 4 different ways to make your own masks. The cloth needed for these masks can easily be cut from an old garment. A quick internet search will reveal dozens of other ways to reuse your old clothing at home.


What You Didn’t Know About the Global Secondhand Clothing Industry by Gretchen Brown via Rewire

The hidden cost of second-hand clothing by Andrew Brooks via Geographical

The Global Afterlife of Your Donated Clothes by Jackie Northam via NPR

Fast Fashion Is Creating an Environmental Crisis by Alden Wicker via Newsweek

Here’s where your donated clothing really ends up by Paul Jay via CBC

How second-hand clothing donations are creating a dilemma for Kenya from the Guardian

Are Your Clothes Causing Pollution? From VOA

Further Reading/Watching

African countries ban secondhand clothes imports – Al Jazeera News video

Are You Done With That? Photo collection via NPR

The Clothing Waste Crisis: How Our Shopping Habits Are Hurting the Planet — NBCLX video

Picture credits


One thought on “The Consequences of Clothing: The Dirty Side of Second-hand Clothing Donations (and 4 Helpful Alternatives)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s