We’ve discussed the notion that clothing isn’t a static object that just hangs in our closet, but rather a dynamic one with a life cycle that includes a beginning, middle, and end. Here, we’ll examine the end stage of the clothing life cycle by answering this question: where does our clothing go when we no longer want it?
In 2010, the fashion industry produced more than 150 billion pieces of clothing—yes, you read that correctly.  Fast fashion has massively accelerated our consumption cycle. We buy more clothing than we ever have, and we pay less and less for it. The result? Never in human history have our clothes been more disposable. The proof of this is that in the US alone, Americans throw away 10.5 million tons of clothing a year.  That works out to 70 pounds of clothing thrown away by each American each year. Although 95% of clothing can be reused or recycled, 85% of it ends up in our landfills.  In Britain, per capita textile waste is a similarly discouraging 66 pounds,  a reflection of the truly global scale of this problem. So what happens to clothing once it’s in a landfill?
Theoretically, natural fibers, including cotton, linen, wool, and alpaca, biodegrade in a relatively short span of time. Biodegrading is defined as the process through which a substance, such as a t-shirt, is decomposed by living organisms, like bacteria. While the biodegradation process is a natural one, many conditions need to be right in order for something to biodegrade, including temperature, moisture content, and the availability of oxygen, which makes substances biodegrade faster. Under good conditions, cotton can biodegrade in around 5 months.  Linen can take just a couple of weeks to biodegrade, while wool can take1-5 years. Synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon, are a different story. Materials such as polyester, take much more time than natural fibers to decompose, if they decompose at all.  Some estimates suggest polyester can take between 20-200 years to decompose. 
In reality, the conditions in landfills do not promote biodegradation, even for natural fibers.8 Landfills are tightly packed, so neither oxygen nor soil are not available to help substances break down. Additionally, the dyes and chemicals used in the textile dyeing and finishing process can seep into the soil, resulting in water contamination, which can impact our drinking water. , This amounts to a massive environmental problem.
Donations flooding developing countries
With donations, there’s much more than meets the eye. The simple act of dropping our clothes off at a local charity or donation bin in a parking lot or school belies the massive, multi-billion dollar global operation that is modern clothing donation. In response to a greater volume of lower quality clothes being donated each year, a largely hidden industry has burgeoned consisting of textile processors, middleman, clothes recyclers, and exporters who ship bales of used clothing around the world. 
In the US, roughly 15% of clothing in gets donated. Of donated clothes, 45% is sold second-hand, 30% is recycled into industrial rags, insulation, and carpet padding, and 20% is reprocessed into fiber.  This of course, diverts tons of textile waste from landfills, and reduces unnecessary industrial reliance on virgin fibers. But the donation process isn’t without its dark side. Sub-Saharan Africa, which is the recipient of a third of all global donations,  is a case in point, demonstrating so much of what is wrong with the industrialization of clothing donation. First, despite the fact that the clothing was donated in the first place, people across Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region, pay for it, with middlemen profiting from the deal.  Second, the influx of cheap clothing is threatening local textile manufacturers  who simply cannot compete on the basis of price. As a result, hundreds of thousands of garment workers and tailors have lost their jobs in the last decade.  Third, because textile manufacturing is an important development stepping-stone for a low-income economy, the failure of the garment industry in Sub-Saharan Africa could have far-reaching implications for the economic and social prosperity of the region. 
Now that we have the facts, how can we make more conscious decisions about parting with clothing we no longer want? Here are a few tips for getting a handle on getting rid of clothes:
- Shop with the end in mind.
The next time you’re about to buy something, ask yourself this: Where will this piece of clothing go after I no longer want it? At first, it may seem strange to think about the end point of your relationship with an item before you’ve even committed to buying it. But we have discovered that asking this simple question has totally changed the way we shop. Why? Because it turns out that what you can do with a piece of clothing when you no longer want it is a very good measure of whether it’s worth buying in the first place.
- Become a fan of secondhand.
By far the best way to part with clothing you no longer want is to sell it to a secondhand retailer. It’s a win for you because you get a return on your investment that you can use to buy something else. It’s a win for the marketplace because it increases the availability of high quality or designer items at a fraction of their original price. And it’s a win for the environment, first, because it averts clothing from landfills. And second, because it increases the stock of second hand clothing, allowing consumers increased access to clothes that already exist, which is always preferable to buying something new from an environmental perspective.
There are many secondhand retail options, both online and off, including consignment, resale, and trade-in. No matter the method, selling something secondhand implies that the item retains value beyond the period of time that you wear it. That value may be indicated by a designer label. But it may also be a handmade dress or a quality shirt without a label whose craftsmanship clearly shows. The bottom line: when you buy something that you can resell, you are essentially shopping for quality and longevity, which are the hallmarks of an item worth buying. It’s worth noting here that resellers seldom accept fast fashion brands, whose high volume, low quality, trendy items don’t have the kind of intrinsic value required for secondhand retail.
- Skip the landfill, always.
Beyond the environmental toll, throwing away clothing is a disservice to us as consumers. If buying to resell implies that an item is of value, buying to dispose can only mean that an item has virtually no value at all. When we exchange our hard-earned resources for an item of clothing that we ultimately throw out, we are also throwing away our money. In short, landfills are a lose-lose. If you’re considering buying something that you will find yourself eventually just throwing away, don’t buy it. Instead, put those resources aside for something you’ll eagerly wear for a long time to come.
- Deliberate on your donations.
Donating unwanted clothes is not a panacea for over-consumption. Once we have made the decision to bring something into our closet, we hope it’s clear that we set about a chain reaction throughout the world that impacts the environment and shapes the lives, positively and negatively, of others. Buying with that awareness in mind is a rich starting point.
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- Connell, K. Y. H., & Kozar, J. M. (2014). Environmentally Sustainable Clothing Consumption: Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behavior. In Roadmap to Sustainable Textiles and Clothing (pp. 41-61). Springer Singapore. Available at: http://www.springer.com/cda/content/document/cda_downloaddocument/9789812871091-c2.pdf?SGWID=0-0-45-1468915-p176774772
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- What Really Happens to Your Donated Clothing?
- The Life Cycle of Secondhand Clothing
- Where do your old clothes go?
- Clothes You Gave Away Are a Hot Item in Africa
- Is your old t-shirt hurting African economies?
- Cast-off UK clothes make Zambia poor
- The African Textile and Clothing Industry: From Import Substitution to Export Orientation