Arthur Christory / Gavel Media

Do You Actually Know Where Your Clothes Go?

If you get up right now and look in your closet, you can most likely identify at least fifteen items that you no longer wear because they don’t fit, no longer interest you, or are out of style. When your next closet clean out comes around, these items will be tossed into a white trash bag, flung into the local donation bin, and then put to better use, right? Probably not.

Despite a massive uptick in thrifting among younger generations, the flow of clothing donations still greatly outpaces demand in thrift stores. Only about 20% of the clothing that makes it to thrift stores is ever sold. Once garments are deemed unsellable at thrift stores, they are most often packed into bales weighing over 100 pounds each and shipped abroad to countries in the global south, offloading Western waste to people who have less capacity to manage it. This influx of largely unwanted clothing creates environmental, human health, and economic catastrophes for the recipient nations. 

In Accra, Ghana’s capital city, 15 million used garments are imported weekly, most of them never to be worn again. Ghana’s waste management systems are vastly unprepared for this overwhelming influx of materials. This leaves our clothing waste to decompose in open-air dumps, often found scattered along once-beautiful shorelines. 

This abundance of unmanageable Western waste has vast environmental and human health consequences for the recipient countries. As garments decompose, they create chemical leachates that seep into the groundwater and are released into the air when they are not contained in a safe landfill. The presence of open-air dumps pollutes drinking water and contributes to an increase in respiratory disease. 

Importing used Western textiles creates an expansive reselling market in West African nations. With an abundance of products being imported daily, local clothing artisans and producers are unable to compete with the resellers, squashing local economies. This system leaves the livelihood of resellers at the mercy of Western donation quality. With many shipments being stained, moldy, or tattered, their inventory is increasingly worthless, making every purchase a gamble. 

The devaluation of clothing due to an abundance of inventory and “nothing to lose” prices makes it easy for us to part with unwanted items, sometimes without ever wearing them. We well-intentioned Americans take our used garments to the donation bin feeling good about ourselves for helping the “needy,” and then never think about those clothes again. This tidy tale leaves our consciences clear, justifying an accelerating cyclical habit of buying and giving away. Unfortunately, the charitable "happily ever after" ending for last season’s American Eagle tank top is mostly fiction. The ugly underbelly of a garment’s post-consumer life reveals much more harmful environmental and social justice consequences. 

Research has found that we are now keeping garments for half as long as we were 15 years ago. This concerning trend has contributed to a 400% increase in clothing consumption in the past two decades with the average American creating 82 pounds of textile waste annually. 

As the public has begun to understand how exploitative the clothing production process is, terms like “fast fashion” and “overproduction” have been integrated into conversations about labor rights and environmentalism. Gen Z has made thrift shopping common practice, and online mega-retailers such as Shein are under frequent fire for their contributions to the current crisis. 

Many fashion brands have recognized that a more conscious consumer is a threat to sales. To mitigate these revenue losses, companies have created “sustainable initiatives,” an attempt to convince consumers that we don’t have to sacrifice the volume of clothing that we buy to solve the textile waste crisis. Unfortunately, no matter how much effort is put into limiting the environmental impacts of the fashion industry, the clothes have to go somewhere when we are done with them. Eco fabrics are not going to solve this problem.

So, if the fashion industry is not going to take it upon themselves to solve this problem, who will? Collective action and legislation must come next. The most essential step is to raise consumer consciousness about the textile waste crisis. From there, consumers can make intentional purchasing decisions. Beyond speaking with their money, consumers must also advocate for extended producer responsibility legislation that holds brands accountable for the environmental impacts of a product throughout its entire lifetime. This legislation would financially disincentivize overproduction and poorly made garments. 

Consumer culture, advertising, and human desire create a perfect storm for this cycle of clothing buying and dumping. My goal is not to make you feel solely responsible for this disaster. I do, however, want everyone to feel responsible enough to interrogate their buying choices. Make the connection between your purchases and where they end up after you are done with them. Instead of tossing them in the Goodwill bin, pass them on to someone you know who will wear them or up-cycle them into something new. 

Consumer complacency allows brands to continue their wasteful habits. Take responsibility for the entire lifetime of your garment, not just the time that it is in your closet.