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Second Hand Clothes, Textile Waste and Choosing Well

Swati Argade

Posted on June 27 2014

A few months ago, Autumn Newell visited Bhoomki from Ithaca, NY to tell us about her graduate work at Cornell University focusing on landfills filling with increasing clothing waste. I asked Autumn to share with us her insights on this global crisis.

by Autumn Newell

In recent decades, with the rise of the fast fashion model, the cycle of consumption and disposal has been sped up at an alarming rate. Pressures to produce and consume cheaper garments faster than ever before has contributed to the shortening of fashion lifecycles resulting in a decline in the relationship we have with our clothing.

Bales of second hand clothing waiting to be sorted for distribution, in a privately owned sorting facility in Miami, Florida.

Photo Credit: Autumn S. Newell

According to United States Environmental Protection Agency an estimated 14.3 million tons of textiles enter into municipal solid waste streams annually, making up 5.7 percent of the total solid waste generation1. The Council for Textile Recycling— a non-profit organization dedicated to raising public awareness of the importance of recycling textiles—estimates that in the United States 25 billion pounds of textiles are thrown out each year, the equivalent of 82 lbs per person annually 2. This number has been steadily increasing year over year. Further, it is estimated that approximately 12 lbs—about 15%–of discarded textiles get donated for reuse and recycling, leaving the remaining 70lbs to be discarded directly into the landfill. Textiles that are destined for the landfill are also significant producers of harmful greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and methane. While natural fibers can break down and compost if given enough oxygen and moisture to assist in anaerobic digestion, petroleum based synthetic fibers may take centuries to break down.

Today, overconsumption of cheap, poorly made clothing is contributing to epic waste generation. Items are often available at prices so low one can purchase a new piece of clothing for the same price as a bottled of water. These prices are so irresistible to consumers that more often than not people have more clothing than they know what to do with. Problems with quality, fit and durability are turning the habitual overconsumption of apparel into a less satisfying experience and creating a growing waste stream of textiles when consumers clean out their closets. As a result, landfills are filling up with unwanted clothing and other textiles that are nearly 100% recyclable, either for direct reuse or for down-cycling into items such as insulation, stuffing for automobiles and mattresses, or carpet padding.

Certainly, diverting clothing as well as other reusable and recyclable textiles from landfill is an important concept. However, the textile recycling industry is not free from controversy either. The United States is the largest exporter of second-hand clothing in the world, both in terms of economic value and volume 3. Post-consumer textile waste—referring mostly to second hand clothing, but also linens and household textiles— is collected, sorted and graded by both not-for profit and for-profit businesses, and has become a global enterprise. Depending on demand and regulation in individual markets, specific parts of the world receive different items and quantities of our textile waste.

The export of second hand clothing to Africa alone generates nearly $1 Billion US4. Critics of the textile recycling industry argue that the due to global transport improvements, rising disposal costs and increased environmental regulations, it is often most cost effective to export large quantities of used clothing to nations where there is little or no regulation on these imports. However, studies have shown that the export of American second-hand clothing has both positive and negative effects on the economy and culture of developing nations. For example in some African nations the increasing presence of the developed world’s textile waste has contributed to a decline in local textile manufacturing, while simultaneously providing inexpensive clothing options for many impoverished people 4. Some countries strictly forbid second-hand clothing imports, while others try to restrict its volume and limit imports for charitable purposes instead of resale 5.

After being sorted and graded into categories including women’s tops, bottoms, vintage, children’s wear, sheets, pillow cases and more, these bails await shipment to both domestic retailers and export markets including Haiti, Dominican Republic and Philippines.

Photo Credit: Autumn S. Newell 

What happens to our old clothing has become a hot topic recently and examining textile waste provides an opportunity to look at some of the wasteful behaviors of both fashion consumers and the industry alike that have become acceptable common practice. Along with many others advocating for change, I believe that as fashion enthusiasts and apparel consumers we need to find ways to reestablish meaningful relationships with our clothing. The emergence and rise of eco-fashion provides us with ways to better understand where our clothing is coming from, who is making it and what it is made from to inform our purchasing choices.  The abundance of second hand shops, vintage boutiques and buy-sell-trade stores also provide us with an opportunity to reuse perfectly good garments. Mending, altering and tailoring garments are also ways to extend garment lifecycles. By deepening our relationships with our clothing we are able to improve environmental and human impact, reduce waste and break habits of overconsumption. In the words the iconic fashion designer Vivian Westwood “Buy less, choose well, and make it last”! 

About Autumn S. Newell:

Autumn is currently graduate student at Cornell University, researching textile waste in the department of fiber science and apparel design. She is a lifelong sewer, fashion enthusiast, and advocate of social justice, sustainability and youth mentoring, with a passion for nature and the outdoors, She studied Fashion Design the Fashion Institute of Technology, and then went on to get her BS in Business from SUNY Empire State College. She has been a champion of eco-fashion and reuse for the past decade. Prior to her graduate studies at Cornell she owned and operated an eco-fashion for several years and then went onto run a fashion design apprentice program for youth that strived to cultivate environmental stewardship and career exploration through teen’s interest in fashion. Upon completion of her graduate program at Cornell, she intends to work within the fashion industry to continue to engage strategies for sustainability, waste reduction, and textile landfill diversion efforts.

References:

1. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2014). Municipal solid waste generation, recycling, and disposal in the United States: facts and figures for 2012. Washington, DC. Retrieved from: http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/MSWcharacterization_508_053113_fs.pdf

2. Council for Textile Recycling. (2014) The issue. Retrieved from: http://www.weardonaterecycle.org/about/issue.html.

3. Hansen, K. T. (2004). Helping or hindering? Controversies around the international second-hand clothing trade. Anthropology Today, 20, 4, 3-9.

4. Hawley, J.M. (2011) Textile recycling options: Exploring what could be. In Gwilt, A & Rissanen, T. (Eds) Shaping sustainable fashion: Changing the way we make and use clothes. (pp. 143-155) London: Earthscan.

5. Brooks, A., & Simon, D. (2012). Unraveling the relationships between used clothing imports and the decline of African clothing industries. Development and Change, 43, 6, 1265-1290. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-

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