Other people’s discards are my treasures. Every year, pre-pandemic, the town next to mine holds a gigantic sale of used clothing, furniture, housewares, bed linens, gym equipment, old records, and even wedding dresses. It’s a two-week shopping spree and everyone near and far lines up around the corner of the site anticipating what they’ll find.
You see shoppers leaving with bags filled with recycled clothing. Others help friends load furniture or lawn equipment into their cars. Part of the fun is you never know what you’ll find. The clothes I buy are in excellent condition and less than half of the original price. Most importantly, buying secondhand clothing benefits the planet.
Secondhand, used, or more attractively labelled vintage clothing extends the life of what we wear and keeps clothing out of landfills. According to Jackie King, executive director of Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), “the used clothing industry is more sustainable than fast fashion.”
Fast fashion is a term used by clothing manufacturers to describe rapidly produced cheap clothing. Think Forever 21, H&M, The Gap, and other stores that introduce new styles almost every week, instead of the traditional seasonal garments. If you shop in a traditional department store in August, the bathing suits and beachwear are long gone and replaced by fall sweaters, scarfs, and styles suited to cooler climes.
Fast fashion is a major source of pollution
Stores like Forever 21 and H&M have 52 style seasons instead of four. “It’s quantity over quality and it’s based on impulse shopping,” King says. “The problem is it’s not sustainable.”
In fact, fast fashion takes second place, right behind big oil, as the dirtiest industry in terms of pollution. H&M offers a recycling program to its customers. Unfortunately, if the majority of their customers returned to the stores to recycle their purchases, it would take H&M 12 years to recycle the amount of clothing they produce in 48 hours.
Reuse, recycle, repurpose
- 45 percent of clothing and textiles are sold for reuse.
- 30 percent is turned into wiping rags.
- 20 percent is ground up and made into new products.
- 5 percent is thrown out.
“The used clothing industry has a far-reaching and positive social, economic, and environmental impact,” King says. “The highest use for clothing is reuse.”
“There is a common misconception that secondhand clothing exported to developing countries partially ends up being discarded right away. The fact is clothing not sold directly in the market simply gets passed down the supply chain and ends up selling in other smaller markets through the region.”
Many of us are familiar with Goodwill. A number of trendy secondhand shops are located throughout the country. We have three that I know of in the town next to mine. One sells baby and toddler clothes. If you have kids, you know they grow fast and the clothing they wear a handful or more times is usually in excellent condition. Customers can even sell used clothing to the store for money or store credit.
Stacy Henderson, founder and chief executive officer of ForZilch, an online platform where people can connect with others to give away their free items with free classified ads, says, “I used to be a supervisor at a thrift store but unfortunately lost my job due to the pandemic. The used clothing industry is good for the planet. It enables society to recycle items, reuse items, live green, and it decreases the number of items going into landfills.”
Consider making repairs
The clothing you find in most secondhand stores are like new. “If an item has missing buttons, a slight tear, or a stain, it can be recycled,” King says. “Broken zippers or missing buttons can be repaired. Other items can be repurposed into wiping rags.”
She points to the shortage of paper towels and other paper goods during the start of the pandemic. “A worn cotton T-shirt with a wine stain can be turned into several wiping rags used for cleaning in automotive shops, hotels, and other places where cleaning supplies are used.”
A new product
Manufacturers are even creating new products from formerly worn clothing. King points to Converse’s Chuck Taylor shoes made from discarded jeans. “Textile reuse and recycling is the solution, not the problem,” King explains. “It’s not a fad. Many millennials love shopping for secondhand clothing. They don’t want to wear the same dress from Forever 21. What you find at vintage clothing stores are one-of-a-kind items.”
“And if you Google ‘clothing made from recycled materials,’ a few million sites pop up. Whether it’s clothing made from recycled textiles or recycled clothing, the planet wins.”
Sorting and grading
To determine where clothing winds up, workers sort and grade each item. “Suppliers do not ship waste,” King says. “It’s not cost-effective. Customers demand quality clothing for resale, not waste; the semantics of ‘waste’ really means what they couldn’t sell. The reality is if clothing doesn’t sell, it is often shipped to other worldwide markets for resale or recycling – not thrown away.”
Follow the supply chain
Clothing not sold directly in the market gets passed down the supply chain and ends up selling in other smaller markets throughout the region. “If you follow simple rationale,” King says, “it is easy to understand that no profitable business will spend money on packing, shipping, and distributing a product only to have it end up in a landfill. The used clothing industry is growing right now in response to the increasing demand for affordable products and environmentally conscious consumers. In many cases, used garments are also higher quality and last longer than cheaper new products. This downstream effort is a win-win situation for people looking for a place to reuse their clothing and for consumers searching for good value.”
Kenya and other countries
Clothing that winds up in Kenya and other countries benefit the people economically. A report from the Institute of Economic Affairs, “found 91.5 percent of households in Kenya buy secondhand clothes.”
The report also found Kenya imported 185,000 metric tons of secondhand clothing in 2019. As a result, businesses pay license fees to national and local governments, which translates into millions of dollars to support the economy. The industry reduces poverty levels because it employs about two million people.
The used clothing industry in Kenya also promotes gender equality because many women in Kenya run used clothing businesses. “The extreme benefits of the used clothing industry, which are impacting Kenya, can have the same effect globally,” says Alan Wheeler, chief executive officer at the United Kingdom’s Textile Recycling Association. “The used clothing industry will continue to underpin the viability of circular business models for decades to come and supplying used clothing to markets and people wherever they are in the world will be fundamental to achieving the maximum environmental benefits as well as social and economic benefits.”
Used clothing reduces greenhouse gas emissions
For every 100 used garments purchased, between 60 and 85 new garments are not. That translates to a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
“In the 1970s, people knew about plastic recycling,” King says. “We had bins for our plastic and glass recycling. Some of us have been recycling textiles for years. The truth is that the used clothing industry is gaining momentum with tremendous environmental, social, and economic benefits. The industry is working towards a circular economy by offering sustainable solutions for used textiles that will benefit everyone and help to reduce the major environmental impacts caused by the fashion industry.”Click here to see a list of clothing and textiles that you can recycle.
Great article! I am a huge fan of used clothing, and using rags instead of paper towels.
Inspirational article. Well written and interesting. I have shopped at thrift stores since high school. Then it was the ‘hippee’ thing, at times because I was short of money, but mostly because I refused to spend over-the-top costs for clothing.
~ Great article. As a former New Yorker and graduate of the Fashion Institute Of Technology, my major was Fashion Design. As a college student, I was surreptitiously programmed to have the latest clothing yet, the clothes in my closet weren’t being worn. Ridiculous! Fast forward 2009, having left city life for good, my desire for new clothes waned. After marrying the cowboy of my dreams in early 2011, I became pragmatic. Living in the mountains for almost 12 years now, it gets very cold in winter so one needs a durable wardrobe. Last fall my closet was curated of clothes I no longer wanted/needed. I found ThredUp online, read their Mission Statement and opened an account. Two Clean Out Kits were ordered and filled with unwanted items [hardly worn]. BTW, Jeff Reinhart, co-founder of thredUp said most people don’t wear 70% of the clothes in their closets!
Second, April 2021, I became conscious of impulse buying decisions, the money wasted and started buying vintage (on an “as needed basis”). Pledging to never be stupid again, now every item in my closet is worn continually. My cowgirl closet has everything I need including cowgirl boots, cowgirl hats and turquoise jewelry. With fall around the corner, I have a vintage dark brown suede fringe jacket (circa 1974) that my husband bought for me years ago. It’s warm/cozy and gets worn so much even into winter (I get compliments all the time). I don’t care what’s in fashion. The beauty of owning a few vintage items is [that] I have something unique that no other woman has (no cheap imports/better quality/made in U.S.). It’s a shame how much clothing, cars, food & electronics Americans throw away each year (without really thinking through their decisions). We need to be ashamed of the wastefulness of ALL our resources; be thankful and stop lusting for what we don’t have. And not allow the fashion industry to bamboozle us into thinking we need stuff we don’t need.
Last, milliennials are buying in the secondary market which will be HUGE by 2024! Logic dictates that trends in women’s clothing don’t change much from season to season. So this B.S. about having new clothes every season is poppycock. I’m proud to wear vintage clothing along with what’s in my closet. As the owner of a small but busy real estate investment company, I’m well over 60 and wear what works for me. So when my husband and I are out and about, I always get compliments on my outfits, paired with different items all the time. I even wear vintage cowgirl boots year round. Long live the West! ~