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Why Donated Clothes May End up in a Landfill

Dec. 8, 2016We live in an age of fast fashion. Where there used to be four major seasons, with brands releasing new styles with the change in the weather, there are now 11 to 15 seasons in a year, according to the fashion industry. Clothes are being made more quickly – and more cheaply – than ever before.

Following the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh in 2013, where over 1,100 workers were killed, the problems with fast fashion have come into a more mainstream light. Fast fashion is often associated with sweatshops, extremely low wages, and dangerous working conditions. But a less well-known issue is the extreme impact the fashion industry has on our planet.

These days, the average piece of clothing is worn just 7 times, and the world consumes 400% more clothing than it did just 20 years ago. Because of this, we are producing an incredible amount of waste and pollution, both through production processes and garment waste. In fact, the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, second only to oil!


Because of the shear volume of clothing that thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army receive, they simply cannot go through it all quickly enough (they sell about 20%). Most of it either gets shipped in bulk to a third world country, or ends up in a landfill.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2012, 84% of unwanted clothes in the US went into either a landfill or an incinerator. The problem with clothes ending up in a landfill is that both natural and synthetic materials have trouble decomposing. Even clothing that is made with natural fibers has usually been processed, dyed, and chemically treated so much that it can’t break down.

In fact, the EPA says that if we took all of the discarded clothing out of the landfills and put it into a recycling program, it would be the equivalent of taking 7.3 million cars off the road.


Well, not really. We probably donate our clothes to those in need with the best intentions. But in reality, most of the time, dumping our old clothes on developing countries actually does more harm than good.

Donating clothing can create economic problems because doing so takes away from business people in those countries who would be able to make and sell clothing to support themselves and strengthen their local economies. It creates a dependence on places like the US and UK which they’d rather not have.

In fact, some East African countries have recently considered banning importation of second hand clothes.


1. Simply buy less.

Focus on quality over quantity. The majority of our clothes now are not meant to last. They’re meant to fall apart so that you’re led back to the store to buy more. Try to buy from brands that care about the quality of their product (like Patagonia, for example) so they will last longer. Buy timeless pieces that will outlast the changing trends.

The creation of capsule wardrobes are one way some people are combatting clothing waste and overconsumption. Though capsule wardrobes can look different from person to person, the idea is that you only have a certain number of simple, basic pieces that won’t go out of style, which can be easily mixed and matched to create different outfits.

For example, you might strategically keep just twenty or thirty pieces of clothing, including shirts, pants, shoes, and accessories, which will last you the entire season.

If you want to build your own capsule wardrobe, here’s how. Or you can enlist the help of Cladwell, which takes the overwhelm out of the process by helping men and women identify the right color scheme, style, and even pick out the right clothes if you need to buy any.

2. Mend, sew, fix!

Instead of immediately throwing something away because it has a hole, fix your clothes when you can. Don’t know how to sew? We live in a wonderful age of technology where you can learn to do basically anything yourself! Use YouTube to learn how to patch your jeans, repair a hole in a shirt, or sew a button on a suit. Or you can always take your garment to a local dry cleaner, which usually offers mending services.

3. Borrow, swap, or thrift.

Next time you’re in the mood to go shopping, arrange a clothing swap with your friends instead! It’s a great way to add to your wardrobe and save money too. Or, go thrifting! With a little practice and planning, you might just find some treasures. And when all else fails, donating is still better than just straight throwing your clothes in the trash. Then there’s at least a chance that top will find its way to a new owner who will give it a new life.


Abigail Davidson

By Abigail Davidson

 —  Abigail is a passionate writer and advocate of mental health and consumer consciousness. If she's not working, you'll probably find her reading (mostly memoirs), hiking, attending a Reds game, or planning her next travel adventure. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband.

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