Overall, clothing is cheaper today than it has ever before been. Blame the Walmart effect. Items like T-shirts sometimes sell for just a few dollars at big box stores, inevitably making them disposable, throwaway items. It’s sometimes cheaper to buy new clothes than to properly care for the ones you have. The Fiber Economics Bureau reported that the average American throws out about 68 pounds of textiles per year. The Council for Textile Recycling (CTR) found that of this waste, only about 10 pounds per person is recycled.
Every day, stores like Marshalls, Ross and TJ Maxx receive large shipments of past-season garments sometimes barely a few months old. The idea of clothing as investment is virtually gone, except for that one “it-bag” that you by-the-way have to get a new one every season, because last year’s model that would last you forever is now hopelessly passé, right? High price does not always equal high quality though, as values have shifted from impeccable craftsmanship and materials to big logos and brands.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports that 2008 seizures of counterfeit and pirated goods totaled more than $272.7 million, a 38 percent increase in domestic value over the previous years. These fakes uses not only an enormous amount of cheap synthetic material that will take thousands of years to break down in a landfill, but also employs grossly unethical child labor and is often financing criminal activity.
According to the CTR, textile waste can be classified as either pre-consumer or post-consumer. Pre-consumer textile waste consists of by-product materials from the textile, fiber and cotton industries. Each year 750,000 tons of this waste is recycled into new raw materials for the automotive, furniture, mattress, coarse yarn, home furnishings, paper and other industries. Through the efforts of this industry approximately 75 percent of the pre-consumer textile waste that is generated is diverted from our landfills and recycled.
Post-consumer textile waste consists of any type of garments or household article, made of some manufactured textile, that the owner no longer needs and decides to discard. These articles are discarded either because they are worn out, damaged, outgrown, or have gone out of fashion. They are sometimes given to charities but more typically are disposed of into the trash. How can we make sure that less of this post-consumer textile waste ends up in landfills?
This one is simple, folks. Only buy things that you know you will wear for a long time, that fits you perfectly and ideally will not require dry cleaning (if the item does, just make sure you are ready to put up the money, and use an environmentally responsible cleaner). This is not a matter of buying all expensive clothing, I have just as many cheap thrift store finds that I love just as much as the few designer pieces in my closet. It is that piece that just calls your name and makes you go wow! It’s not that piece that you buy just because it’s on sale for less than you are used to paying for lunch.
Go shopping in your closet. Trust me, if you are anything like most people I know, you have more clothes than you can remember and may just discover something you totally forgot you had. The next time you find yourself in a contemplative state in the fitting room, think about whether you really need this (chances are you don’t). Never buy something thinking you can “just return it.” If that’s what you’re thinking before you even own it, you’ll just end up with yet another piece of fabric taking up space in your closet or the landfill.
Also consider the production. Was it made with eco-friendly materials? Was is made by a worker earning a fair wage? Was it made overseas or locally? What you wear says a lot about you, make sure that you are sending the right message to the world.
In Brooklyn, where I live, freecycling is an established practice. Clothing, shoes and furniture that are no longer needed are placed on the street or hung on the wrought-iron fences for any passersby to grab. I have scored lots of good stuff this way, and every time I have put something out, it has been gone within a few hours. Assuming that the things are put to proper use, their lifecycle is extended and they are kept out of landfill, and by facilitating its reuse you have moved up one step on the 3R-scale.
The good stuff should be sold to a consignment shop, there is surely someone who would die for your brightly colored 1980s DvF wrap dress or studded jeans vest. You can usually choose to get paid in store credit or cash. Just make sure that the clothing you bring is clean and has no holes or tears. If pesky buyers (I’m talking to you, Beacon’s Closet) do not agree with you about what is good stuff that you should be paid for, try listing items on eBay. Take good pictures that clearly show any flaws the items may have. Look at how sellers offering similar clothing list theirs for tips on how to attract the right buyers. Maybe your pink leather skirt will find a new home in Texas?
A fun way to do good and benefit from it is to throw a clothing swap party. Gather a few friends (preferably all roughly the same size) and set up a Reuse shop. Let guests choose one of someone else’s items for every one they bring. You’ll get a new wardrobe without paying a dime. There are companies that organize these clothing swaps as well, search sites like clothingswaps.com for upcoming events near you. Swapstyle.com lets you trade clothing with people everywhere, they charge a one-time fee of $10 for members who wish to become “address verified,” but this is not required. Or why not join a clothing swap meetup group.
Companies that are recognizing this problem are also becoming very inventive. Molly Mutt‘s stuff sacks are essentially pouches that can be filled with your old clothing, blankets, bedding etc. and placed into one of the beautifully designed dog duvets. For someone crafty, this is a project that could easily be replicated at home as well. Another company called Stitch’T will take your old treasured T-shirts and turn them into a quilt, a good way to keep the memories, clear closet space and keep warm.
In NYC alone, around 386 million pounds of textiles enter the waste stream annually, representing close to 6% of total waste. Wearable Collections has recognized this problem and provides free clothing recycling bins to residential buildings in NYC. They do weekly pick-ups and distribute discarded clothing around the world to people who need it and raising money for charitable organizations. They have also recently started placing bins at Farmers Markets around the city. Dress for Success is an organization that “promotes the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, a network of support and the career development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.” Donate your old business duds and help kickstart a woman’s career. Find a DFS affiliate near you and organize a collection at work.
If nobody bids on your eBay listings, you may have to realize that you cannot get paid for your old duds. In that case, bring it in a big bag to a Goodwill, Salvation Army or other second hand store. It is considered a charitable donation and therefore tax deductible. 48% of the Post Consumer textile waste that is recovered is recycled as secondhand clothing, mostly through charities. These charities either give away the clothing, or sell them at discounted prices. About 61% of the clothes recovered for second hand use are sent to foreign countries.
In a survey done by Goodwill, half of the people surveyed preferred having a door to door pickup for their donations. More than half of the people surveyed said they would not go more than ten minutes out of their way to make a donation drop off. Like most other forms of waste and trash, convenience is a huge factor. It needs to be easy to do the right thing. How about a clothing recycling truck that comes around once a week? Or a separate bin (in addition to the paper/cardboard and glass/metal ones) for fabric waste?
A closely related problem is the increasing amount of hangers that stores throw out, because it is simply cheaper for them to have the clothing put on hangers at the (third world) production facility than to do it themselves in the store, reusing the hangers they have. In the US alone, 8 billion hangers made of toxic, often unrecyclable plastic are sent to landfills each year. Ask what the store’s practice is, and if the hangers are simply thrown out, ask to take them home and reuse them.
Even though textile waste is, without a doubt, a huge issue, there are many things you can do right now to help make it better. But first, think twice before you buy that new pair of pants on the sale rack. Do you really need them?