Liz Ricketts has seen where some of your donated used clothes end up.
The fashion designer and cofounder of the University of Cincinnati’s (a zero-waste effort within the university’s fashion program) has spent years shuttling between the U.S. and Ghana since 2011.
There, she’s spent the bulk of her time in the Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana’s capital. Kantamanto is Ghana’s , and possibly the biggest in West Africa, according to Rickett’s nonprofit the OR Foundation, whose website will be up and running soon. (For now, Ricketts has this website, a multimedia research project looking at the second-hand clothing market in Accra.) Her U.S.-based foundation has and aims to challenge consumer behavior by educating people on the fashion industry.
Something a lot of people don’t know is that, when you clean out your closet and donate or sell your clothes to places like Plato’s Closet or Buffalo Exchange, it’s likely your clothes end up being sent abroad. And once they get there, they may not even be sold. Thrift stores typically only resell about 20 percent of donated garments, to the Council for Textile Recycling. The rest will likely end up in a landfill.
Alden Wicker, a journalist who reports on sustainable fashion, some organizations actually sell more than that, with Goodwill at about 30 percent and the Salvation Army at 45 to 75 percent sell-through rates. Wicker notes the discrepancy is likely because of Goodwill and the Salvation Army’s larger size and more advanced infrastructure to process clothing, like sending donations to their outlet stores. The numbers also vary depending on where waste is being measured, but the bottom line is that a lot of clothing ends up trashed.
In Ghana, all of the imported, donated excess has been dubbed or “dead white man’s clothes,” which comes from the idea that a person would have to die to give up so many clothes. Ricketts says that, in Ghana, about 40 percent of the bales of donated clothes are thrown out.
“There is no perfect solution. I cannot with full integrity tell you there is an ethical way to donate your clothing,” says Ricketts.
The crux of the problem lies in the fashion industry’s penchant to overproduce clothes, which goes hand-in-hand with a Western culture that encourages constant consumerism. But there are things everyone can do to help reduce the almost and the strain on countries outside the U.S. that receive our unwanted items.
This waste is problematic, there’s no question about it. And there are other problems, too. While the secondhand clothes market does create jobs, in many countries.
But Wicker believes eliminating the used clothes trade isn’t the solution.
“Should the entire second-hand industry be shut down in the countries that get the most of it, or the least-value stuff, like Ghana? There are people whose livelihoods are supported through this industry, and so the answer is not to cut off the industry but to improve the industry,” says Wicker. “That is up to activists and campaigners who are working in countries like Ghana, in order to formalize the industry and make it better. And to try to put all that weight on your shoulders as someone who’s just trying to figure out where to bring a garbage bag full of clothes, you really risk burning yourself on that decision.”
The full burden isn’t on you, and there may be no perfect solution, but there are things you can do to help. Mashable spoke with experts in sustainable fashion and people who work in textile waste to get their advice on how people can donate a little more ethically.
What clothes to donate
Don’t put limits on what you donate, unless it’s wet (because it can promote bacteria growth) or dirty, says Rachel Kibbe, who works for , a textile and electronic waste recycling company. Most donation centers state clearly on their websites what they do and do not accept, so that’s a good first step before you donate clothes. Definitely wash anything you’re going to donate beforehand, says Ricketts.
“When you give away clothing to someone who is either going to sell it in a thrift store or what-have-you, only a small percent is sold in a retail store,” Kibbe says. “Next, they’re packaged up and sold to sorters. And the sorters go through each piece, one by one, and decide if they have a buyer for it. Your cotton underwear might well be valuable for downcycling.” So don’t disregard anything, it might well have another life — even if it’s just as a dish rag.
Of course, check what donation centers accept, as some may not be OK with taking your intimate clothing.
What clothes to avoid donating
Image: Shutterstock / 22Images Studio
Don’t wait until your clothes are all torn up to donate them. You may have the best intentions, but they don’t have much resale value if they’re in bad shape.
“It [the choice to donate poor-quality clothes] just means it’s going to become waste in another country,” says Ricketts. Try to find another use for it in your own home before simply discarding it or passing it off to another.
Ricketts also cautions against donating stained clothes, as they will likely go in the trash. What you can do is dye stained garments before you donate them to give them a better chance of staying out of the landfill.
And, despite Kibbe’s advice not to limit yourself when considering what to donate, she doesn’t think donating T-shirts is a good idea.
“We call them single-use T-shirts, like single-use plastics, because they are. We print T-shirts for everything in the world …” Ricketts adds that many T-shirts are very context-specific, and someone probably won’t want a shirt with your high school’s name stamped on it. Instead, consider cutting it up to turn it into a dust rag.
Denim can also be problematic, says Ricketts.
“A lot of the denim with the holes in the knees or stuff like that is just going to go to the trash [because it’s not fashionable in Ghana],” says Ricketts. While Ricketts acknowledges she can only speak from a Ghanaian second-hand clothes perspective, she says her input about denim is similar across West Africa.
Well-worn underwear and bras are also no-no’s, as they’re considered unhygienic, says Ricketts. In Ghana, it’s actually illegal to sell second-hand underwear, . But don’t despair. We have a suggestion below for where you can send your unwanted bras.
Organizations to donate to
“If you’re looking at something, and you’re like, ‘this really deserves to go in the trash, but I don’t want it to go into the landfill,’ instead of donating it to a nonprofit — because it actually does cost them money to deal with the worst stuff — put the burden on a corporation,” suggests Wicker. She suggests giving lower-quality garments to a clothes brand like H&M, which has a that takes all clothes of any brand or condition.
That’s better than donating to a nonprofit in some cases, because it costs them money to deal with the worst stuff, she says. “They will pass it into the same [second-hand clothes] system, but you’re basically having a for-profit brand handle your unwearable waste instead of a nonprofit,” she explains.
But Ricketts disagrees.
“[Retailer take-back programs] are pitching it to you as recycling, but it’s not recycling. It’s just entering a second-hand clothing trade,” says Ricketts. So your clothes can end up abroad through these programs too. “You’re [also] bypassing any opportunity for that clothing to go to anyone in need in your community.”
And, many of these programs (like H&M’s) give you more money to shop for new clothes. “That by definition is not solving the problem, which is overproduction, overconsumption,” explains Ricketts.
Ricketts says she wants people to first consider dyeing, hemming, or mending their clothes, instead of ridding themselves of their unwanted garments. If you can’t do that or can’t find a tailor nearby, try to find a charity that gives clothing donations directly to people. Ricketts suggests , a national Catholic network that gives clothes to people in need.
If you strike out with that strategy, Ricketts says to head to your nearest Goodwill or Salvation Army.
Those organizations “at least have a nonprofit mission, where some of the money is going to a local community that’s creating jobs,” says Ricketts.
If you don’t know what to do with your new or gently-used bras, you can donate through . The nonprofit gives the bras to sex trafficking survivors in El Salvador, Mozambique, and Costa Rica to sell in second-hand markets so the women can become financially independent. Find a drop-off location near you .
Free the Girls receives more than 30,000 bras every month, with a little under 10 percent that are unusable, says Courtney Skiera-Vaughn, the nonprofit’s executive director. It sends some of those unsellable bras to a textile recycler.
“Bras are very difficult to truly recycle. I do think some of it [Free the Girls’ unusable bras] do end up in the landfill,” says Skiera-Vaughn.
Still, to date, Free the Girls has kept 1.5 million bras out of the trash.
How to find local clothing donation organizations in your city
Google is your friend here. Search for churches or local nonprofits that give clothes directly to people in need, suggests Ricketts. She also advises looking for homeless shelters or organizations that work with vulnerable populations.
Kibbe says municipal websites can be a gold mine.
“Sometimes you have to poke around them to find their recycling resources,” explains Kibbe.
How to vet organizations
Image: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images for Housing Works
Make sure the values of the organization align with your principles, says Kibbe. You can do some research online to figure this out by checking out their website and reputable news outlets that have written about them.
“It’s less about where your clothing goes and more about ‘do you support the mission of that nonprofit,” says Wicker. “If your main goal is to keep your clothing out of the landfill, Goodwill and Salvation Army would be your best bet because .” (Though it’s important to note that the Salvation Army has been accused of being anti-gay in the past. Do your research to see where you feel most comfortable donating.) There’s also Housing Works in New York City, says Wicker, which takes your clothes and uses the money to provide support for homeless and low-income New Yorkers affected by HIV/AIDS.
If you want to support a smaller charity, that’s your choice and you should donate good-quality clothes as they’ll have a higher-resale value. But know that they’ll likely send a higher percentage of donations to the landfill because they don’t have the resources that larger organizations like Goodwill and Salvation Army have, explains Wicker.
You can also visit the website , which evaluates over 9,000 of America’s nonprofits on their financial health, accountability, and transparency. Though, if the organization is too small to be on charity navigator, you should look and see if it’s a registered 501(c)3, suggests Wicker. “And when you go in, ask them questions.”
Ricketts always advises that people try to donate as locally as possible.
Though at the end of the day, once you relinquish your clothes, you don’t have control of where the end up, and that may be a developing country, says Wicker. Ultimately, many clothes travel thousands of miles just to sit in landfills where they negatively impact that country’s environment.
“It [donated clothes] will be routed to wherever the people working in the second-hand industry see it earning the most money,” says Wicker.
How to donate without creating more waste
Waste is an inevitable part of the clothes donation process, whether it’s the plastic bag full of last season’s outfits or further filling up a landfill (where and produce methane, a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide).
“Clothes need to be protected. The best way they’re protected in the recycling value chain generally is by being in plastic bags,” says Kibbe. “You can’t just hand them to someone, even in a thrift store, without some sort of bag.” Sometimes, the bags are reused, but just as often, they’re thrown away.
But you can minimize some of the waste. Kibbe suggests placing clothes in a tote bag to donate them. And, if you want to eliminate 100 percent of waste, don’t throw anything out, she says. Of course, that’s not realistic for most people.
The best-case scenario, says Kibbe, is to give your clothes to someone who will extend the usefulness of those items.
At the end of the day, the weight of the problem is on the fashion industry.
“If you are a corporation that is creating clothing, you need to be financially and physically responsible for making sure that it is responsibly disposed of at the end of its life,” says Wicker. Those of us who aren’t corporations can start with the list above.