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Alexis Petru headshot

Levi Strauss & Co Sponsored Series

Sustainably Attired

After the Thrift Store: What Happens to Your Donated Clothes?

By Alexis Petru

This past weekend, thousands of fans crowded Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, to watch the San Francisco 49ers play the St. Louis Rams. Many of these attendees showed up to the game with old jeans and other unwanted articles of clothing, donating them in exchange for a special Levi’s discount coupon, as part of a used clothing drive sponsored by Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co) and Goodwill.

Since Levi Strauss announced the collection event in late October, the iconic jeans maker has received 15,500 unwanted pairs of jeans – 10 tons of denim – dropped off at Goodwill stores for this campaign and at this weekend’s game. Goodwill will sell those jeans and other donations to fund its job training program.

Later this month, LS&Co will cover the field of its stadium with the donated denim, creating a “Field of Jeans" to visually express the enormity of the country’s textile waste – 26 billion pounds sent to the landfill every year, according to the denim giant – as well as to demonstrate an example of how we can find a new use for that material. LS&Co’s partner Goodwill will be responsible for sorting and reselling all jeans and clothes collected through the “Field of Jeans” event.

But what happens to used clothing that can’t be resold – not just from this “Field of Jeans” clothes drive, but from other nonprofit charities, for-profit thrift stores and collection events?

Both for-profit and nonprofit secondhand stores, including Goodwill, have a strong financial incentive to sell as much of the used clothing as they can. Goodwill operates 3,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada where it attempts to do just that, raising revenue to fund its job training and other community-based programs, such as financial education and youth mentoring, according to Michael Meyer, Goodwill’s vice president of donated retail goods and marketing.

When an old T-shirt or blazer sits on the shelf for too long, it is sent to a nearby Goodwill clearance center or outlet store, where clothing is sold by the pound.

“Not all of the 165 local Goodwill organizations have such centers,” Meyer said, “but where present, this is a good way to squeeze more value from donations to fund our mission of helping people find jobs.”

Any leftover clothing items are sold to textile recycling companies – again, raising money for Goodwill’s work, as well as keeping this material out of the landfill. About 30 percent of used clothing that end up with textile recyclers is cut into rags or cloths used for wiping or polishing in commercial and industrial settings, according to SMART (Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles), a nonprofit trade group of used clothing and fiber industry companies.

Approximately 20 percent of unwanted clothing and textiles is processed back into basic fiber, which is then remanufactured to make furniture stuffing, upholstery, residential insulation and more, SMART reported. Only 5 percent is completely unusable and discarded – because the material is wet, moldy or contaminated with solvents or chemicals.

But the largest percentage of unwanted clothes and textiles handled by textile recyclers – 45 percent – is packaged into large bales and sold to the secondhand clothing market, either here in the U.S. or in developing countries, where demand for quality used clothes is high, according to SMART.

In fact, the global trade of secondhand clothing is a multi-billion dollar industry: Used clothing exports from OECD countries were worth about $1.9 billion in 2009, according to the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database, CNN reported. But Andrew Brooks, lecturer at King’s College London and co-author of the report Unraveling the Relationships between Used Clothing Imports and the Decline of African Clothing Industries, told CNN that the figure should actually be much higher – closer to $3 billion, when you account for smuggling and trans-shipments that aren’t documented in official records. And once you factor in the retail price these items fetch, Brooks said, that amount could double.

The export of secondhand clothing from North America and Europe to emerging economies, particularly nations in West Africa, has become controversial in recent years, with critics charging that the influx of cheap clothes quashes local textile industries.

"The long-term effect is that countries such as Malawi or Mozambique or Zambia can't really establish or protect their own clothing industries if they are importing secondhand goods," Brooks told CNN. "Your T-shirt may be quite cheap for someone to buy, but it would be better if that person could buy a locally manufactured T-shirt, so the money stays within the economy and that helps generate jobs.”

Local textile industries can provide substantial economic growth, creating jobs and generating tax revenue, detractors of secondhand clothing exports say; this sector could potentially lift millions of people out of poverty.

It’s a fair criticism, but used clothes from the West are hardly the only competitor to local clothing industries in West Africa: New clothes made in China are even cheaper than both imported secondhand clothing and clothing made locally, CNN reported.

It’s also unclear just how much individual Africans would benefit from a local textile industry, given the garment sector’s poor record on human rights, fair wages and environmental health.

The secondhand clothing market, on the other hand, does have advantages: employing thousands of people (24,000 in Senegal alone, according to an Oxfam report), as well as furnishing impoverished individuals with quality, inexpensive clothing.

The root of the problem is not selling your unwanted clothes to a local thrift shop or donating them to a nonprofit charity or a collection event like Levi’s and Goodwill’s "Field of Jeans"; the problem is 'fast fashion' – clothes that are cheap, low-quality and designed to be in style for a season or two. These disposable clothes are the reason why so many secondhand clothes from the West end up in Africa and why cheap Chinese imports displace African-made goods.

Whether or not you think the global trade of secondhand clothes is positive or negative, your best bet for making more eco-friendly choices when you purchase and donate clothes is to look for high-quality, classic styles you will wear for years, and, when you decide to finally retire clothing from your closet, take it to a well-respected secondhand store or charity that will do its best to make sure your old clothes will have a second life here in the states.

Image credit: Goodwill Industries International

Alexis Petru headshot

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

Read more stories by Alexis Petru