Recycling Clothes: What Happens To Donations?

Let’s get to the bottom of Recycling Clothes.

Clothes are one of the basic needs that most of us could not live without. Well, why not? Clothes are as important as breathing and eating. Clothes provide us comfort. They protect our largest organ which is the skin from other possible damage. They keep us stylish, fashionable, and confident on how we express ourselves to the society. There are different reasons of why need clothes. And the bottom line for all these reasons is the fact that we use clothes.

Given this, we actually purchase. We just do not purchase by just “merely purchasing” them. We purchase for the latest trends, durability, occasions and in accordance to our liking. These clothes that we purchase may be expensive or cheap. And of course, we keep them in our closets, bags, or sometimes somewhere that we want to file them up and set aside because we have more than we can accommodate.

And that is when the problem begins. We ended up having more clothes that we ought to have, because we only wear 20-30 percent of clothes that we have. The number of clothes we keep slowly taking so much of our spaces in our home. Of course, we try to rethink of where to put them somewhere, as much as possible not to the landfills.

Thus, some non-government organizations came up with the solution. They put up recycling clothes bins to aid people who would like to give out their used clothes for donations. This clothing donation aims to provide clothes to the needy and the poor.

However, there are things that we also have to consider even if we are up to the idea of donating used clothes. Although we agree that donating is a high form of generosity and that it felt great whenever we think that the used clothes we donate might be useful to someone where the used clothes could go and utilize, we also have to recognize of whether or not recycling clothes could help our environment.

Why donate used clothes?

Donating used clothes can do wonders. It can help people to widen their perspectives. It saves spaces, especially in small apartments. And it has somehow had a positive impact to the environment.

It goes without doubt that donating clothes can make someone feel great and more humane.  The thought of giving something useful to people who cannot afford and putting smile on their faces brought about by used clothes donation is something precious which at some point that money could not buy. Giving makes someone feel a sense of a little bit morally upright.

For some, it could be a point of reflection of how the disparity between the have and have not is bigger than we expected, hence allowing the minds to think of possibilities and initiatives that could help some issues in the society that the people are facing. With this comes learning that in human society donating is an act which is fundamental in its norm. For instance, when there is a disaster that resulted to damage of properties and leaving people without adequate needs, organizations would come to seek donations and some of these are donation drives on used clothes. This proves that this type of donation plays an important role in addressing such emerging issue.

recycling clothes industry

While recycling clothes, it probably saves spaces as it would help in decluttering or getting rid of clothes in your closets. It can help to sort out things that you wanted to keep and often use and those of you want to donate. This will also make you feel a lot better since you can avoid cluttering your clothes whenever you look for something that you need to wear. And it is fact that you do not want a messy room on top of your busy schedule that used clothes can contribute!

Giving used clothes to people you knew or to organizations is beneficial for the environment. Still, you have to be mindful of where you put your clothes. It is important that you decide whether you prefer your clothes to go to the landfills or somewhere when it is needed that could lessen negative environmental impact. And yes, the latter is much more beneficial because what goes to environment will later come back around.

Impact of Recycling Clothes

Clothing, just like any other products in the market, is also associated to some environmental issues. In fact, there are five environmental issues associated with clothing that have been cited in the work of Sudeshna Mukherjee of Bangalore University, Bangalore, India entitled, “Environmental and Social Impact of Fashion: Towards an Eco-friendly Ethical Fashion“. In her studies, she cited that resources consumption, greenhouse gas emission, land use, toxic production process and landfill are detrimental to the environment.

The need to come up with new raw materials to create textile products requires more resources to be extracted from the environment. For instance, the need to grow cotton requires fertilizer and pesticides which sometimes pack with harmful chemicals since not all farmer used the organic counterpart of them. Also, in 1 tons of cotton, it needs 650 kWh of electricity and 250 000 liters of water. This is why donating your clothes or recycling clothes could somehow lessen these given scenarios.

Although recycling clothes will not totally solve the problem associated with textiles, there are things that must be put into consideration of why supporting it could still make a difference. According to France 24, 8 million of tons of second hand clothes or an estimated 50 billion of T-shirt comes from the West annually. So, imagine that these clothes instead of going to the recycling facilities would end up in the landfill and this might double for the coming years as the population will increases, this would basically consume more spaces and post environmental hazard that could affect not just the environment but also the public health.

Thus, instead of putting it to the landfill, supporting recycling clothes programs is the second best option. According to a La Porte County Solid Waste Management District in Indiana, United States, about 20 percent of the donated clothing goes to places such as shelters while the remaining clothes is sold to textile recycling company. The obtained money from selling donated clothes would be used as funds for running initiatives that would help the needy. 

This is the same with what a particular organization in France is doing. These organizations turn the used clothes into monetary resources to be able to continue and fund their program that will provide food, shelter and other necessities to the marginalized or specific sectors that they are catering. And there is much money in the market for used clothes, for instance, the global used clothing trade rings up over 4 billion dollars annually. Most of these – between 2 million and 4 million tonnes a year – are traded internationally, mainly to low- and middle-income markets. Estimates vary about the value of this trade – between $1.5 billion and $3.4 billion, just a tiny fraction of the $1.3 trillion market for new apparel.

Further, as the discussion on environmental and sustainable impacts goes on, recycling clothes pushes innovation to address the issue brought the fashion industry. In fact, in the article published by CORDIS, it was stated that Resyntex (a textile recycling plant that recycles 100 tons of waste per year) would apply changes in its innovative project by using holistic approach that would address the fragmented nature of textile waste processing through chemicals pathway in which the use of technology to sort out fiber composition to contribute extra features through the near-infrared-spectroscopy technology.

Thermo Fisher defines near-infrared-spectroscopy or NIR spectroscopy as “the unknown substance is illuminated with a broad-spectrum (many wavelengths or frequencies) of near infrared light, which can be absorbed, transmitted, reflected or scattered by the sample of interest. The illumination is typically in the wavelength range of 0.8 to 2.5 microns (800 to 2500nm)”.

The application of such technology and for looking other possible ways would create possible changes to that the businesses in the textile industry would follow soon since consumer behavior is also changing. Consumers would patronize eco-friendly products if companies would introduce product lines that would fit into consumers’ styles and is along the same brand position.

Recycling clothes also encourage the companies to come up with programs that would address the issues of used clothes to avoid them in ending in landfills. In fact, big stores are accepting old clothes and help them get recycled, among these stores are Levi Strauss & Co., H&M, and The North Face. They also provide rewards for those customers who participate on it. Other businesses also adopted some ways of recycling clothes into new stylish products or output that would be of use in other industry.

However, the downside of donating used clothes is also inevitable. Because there are private companies take advantage of it. For instance, people are donating used clothes to charities or putting it in the recycling clothes bin believing that it would go to the needy, but the fact is some of these organizations putting clothes recycling bin are not actually helping the needy. Rather they are making a business out of this act of generosity. Tons of these used clothes are being exported and sorted to be sold to the needy at the cheaper price, when in fact it should be given for free.

And even at the sorting procedure where the used clothes are being segregated comes the discrimination of who can afford to purchase it. For instance, in the sorting facility the so called high-quality and expensive clothes should not be shipped to countries which cannot afford the price. This is ironic because it is defying the fact that the clothes are being donated to those actually who cannot afford it. So, basically the used clothes obtained through donations would not actually go to those who need them but rather go as products need to be purchased.

Economically, this kind of trading affects the local textile industry. Since, second hand clothes come cheaper than the new one, locals cannot compete with it. This will result to dependency of the local to second hand clothes and loss of opportunities to the locals to produce jobs and local textiles.  Although, the governments of these countries are imposing rules, regulations and even prohibitions on importing second hand clothes, corruption, dirty politics and influence on these countries are paving the way of imported used clothes to their markets.

Moreover, the said issues that hinder the full implementation regulations also result to environmental degradations to these countries. Because, if some of the used clothes cannot be sold as second hand or cannot go to recycling plants, the said clothes would also ended up in these countries’ landfills. While as for the used clothes going to the recycling plants, the toxins from the processing of recycling clothes would also go to the environment, due to the lack of support of their governments in treating waste water and solid waste management.

Recycling clothes companies may provide job opportunities but workers are also being paid less. Because they carry the cost cut from those textiles to be sold cheaper than its counterpart. And most workers of these companies are actually women who even did not know where the used clothes came from.  And most of them are actually working in uncomfortable work spaces that do not have proper ventilation and proper gear when they are shredding these clothes.

The sad reality of the recycling clothes and clothes donation is that it feeds exploitation and may not always help the needy.

Where do our used clothes end up?

Aside from the used clothes end up to the landfills, clothes that are being donated to recycling clothes bins find their way to other continents. Most of these used clothes can be found in other parts of Europe and developing countries in Africa and Asia.

In Europe, most of these clothes can be found in Ukraine. In fact, according to VICE, “the country’s second hand stores and flea markets are a well-known destination among the country’s visitors, and probably one of the secrets of Ukrainian youth, within their burgeoning rave scene especially, immaculate style”. These clothes are way cheaper and branded at the same time, compared to their new counterparts that can be bought at the market.

Meanwhile in Africa, these donated clothes can be found in markets of Tunisia and Tanzania  among other African countries. About 30 percent of Tunisian population buy secondhand clothes and it has been recorded by the Trade Union Chamber of the Import, Export and Transformation of Second-hand Clothes in Tunisia that 10,500 tons of second-hand clothes per year are being sold due to cheaper prices; and there are 1,600 stores that sell second-hand clothes and between 150,000 and 200,000 street sellers. This is quite a big number and again, a proof that merchandising second hand clothes is gaining profit, even if it is not dominating the global trade of textiles.

On the other hand, on a documentary entitled, “The Dirty Business With Old Clothes”, it featured Tanzania, another African country, as one of the biggest secondhand clothes importer where more than 20,000 tons of used clothes per month where most of these clothes came from Europe and United States. In the documentary, it showed that the clothes from Germany reached the Tanzanian market which made the local textile producer suffer wherein a textile manufacturer reduced its workers from 80,000 down to 5,000 workers. This actually hurt the local textile economy of Tanzania that also affect the lives and livelihood of people.

Another destinations of used clothes are countries in Asia such as the India and Philippines. In the documentary “Untold Journey of Recycled Clothes-Unravel“, it showed how Indian women sorted out the used clothes starting from segregating the clothes according to their colors, removing zippers and beads attached to it, and slashing the clothes. After the said process, the clothes found its way to the recycling clothes plant where it would be made into fabric that could be used in making blankets and products out of textiles.

Whereas, in the Philippines, used clothes can be found in stalls, streets and stores selling secondhand clothes. During this pandemic, these used clothes find their way into the digital platform such as the social media where live selling of these secondhand clothes take place. The popularity of secondhand clothes in the Philippines is undeniable because even if there was a directive to monitor non-food products such as clothing issued to customs personnel last January of this year due to the threat of Covid-19, the business of recycling clothes still continue. This trend is prevalent because they are cheaper and imported, carrying known brand names.

Although, in some cases, importing these secondhand clothes is met with restrictions, secondhand clothes can still find its way to these countries not as donations. But as form of merchandise that are bought by people at the lower prices which to the poor mean affordable clothing that they can use for different purposes. These cases of secondhand clothes in Ukraine, Tunisia, Tanzania, India and Philippines are cases that might be also happening in other countries.

What happens in these mentioned countries is also a reflection of how donations as way of recycling clothes can endanger some of the sectors of these countries. Also, it is a reflection that donating clothes to recycling clothes bins does not totally relate to the idea of environmental conservation and sustainability. Because, the fact that some companies and organizations are taking advantage both on the donors and the countries who received these clothes as the practices defy the very essence of donating – because of profit and exploitation.

What can be done to address the recycling clothes industry?

While there are realities of donating used clothes that are hard to swallow, there still things that we can do to address it in our own little way.  Take time to check on the following 5Bs below:

Buy less, use more

Buying only what you need and avoid purchasing more clothes. Remember that only 20-30 percent of clothes are actually what you use. So buying less of the clothes for your wardrobe and use more of it will lessen the number of clothes that you need to give away. It may be a little bit awkward at first, but considering the issues of the recycling clothes programs will help you grounded plus it can help you save money.

Be creative

If you have less clothes and yet want to look fashionable and stylish, your creativity will help you do it. You can mix and match your clothes according to your liking and see how far your imagination can go. And talking about imagination, you can also use it recycling your old clothes into something new such as a t-shirt into a crop top or even a beautiful pot for your lovely side table plants.

Browse the internet

Yes, you got it right; browsing can help you accommodate new ideas and latest updates on almost everything. Thus, ideas on how to sustain your zero waste lifestyle are actually there. These ideas can give you prototypes or do-it-yourself projects on how to recreate your old clothes into something useful.

Be informed

While the downside of donating is crystal clear, you should not also stop donating. You can donate directly to people who need it the most by knowing where they are located or donate it to people who were affected by the disasters such as typhoon or fires. Also, being informed means you are checking out organizations that are ethically doing their mission.

Be supportive

Your support to industries that prioritize eco-friendly recycled textiles and organic fibers means a lot even if it is just a small step. Also, your support to campaigns and policies that will help address issues on recycling clothes could truly make a difference because a little pressure can contribute to a collective action.


There might always be a downside of everything. There are decisions and actions that we thought could help but turned out the other way around. However, it is not too late to act more than ever. We can still strive for the betterment both for the environment and for our people by simply taking a step to look at how we live our lifestyle and do some changes of where we can adjust on our habit. And a good idea that we can start with is not buying new clothes this month or this year.

One way you can shop clothes more sustainably (instead of recycling clothes by donations) is to swap clothes. Swap clothes with your family or with others. One such wonderful company for swapping clothes is Swap Society.

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