5 Myths About Used Clothing
Most people probably believe emptying their closets is a pretty straightforward process. You either donate your unwanted clothes to a charitable organization or throw them in the trash-- end of story. The truth is, it's a little more complicated than that, and your clothes probably don't end up where you think they do. Below are some common myths about what happens to our clothes when we're done wearing them.
#1. Americans donate or recycle most of their used clothing
There are lots of socially-conscious ways to dispose of our unwanted clothing, but in reality Americans opt to throw away most of their old clothes. On average, Americans decide to get rid of about 70 pounds of textiles each year, with 85 percent of our old duds ending up in a landfill. That means we are collectively generating 14 million tons of clothing waste annually, and only 2 million tons are being donated, recycled, or reused.
This large amount of waste might be due to the fact that we don't know what to do with items that have holes or stains (or items that are just so ugly that no one would feasibly want to wear them again). The trash bin seems like the only option, but in reality there are lots of ways to repurpose textiles. While you can't throw your torn shirt in the recycle bin in most communities, there are organizations that will accept these items and make sure that they don't end up in a landfill if they don't need to be.
#2. People in the U.S. have a great need for used clothing
Yes, there are individuals in the U.S. who need used clothing, but the larger truth is that the vast bulk of donated clothing is not needed or wanted here. Remember, we let go of 14 million tons of unwanted clothing every year! That's the same weight as 350 cruise ships! There is simply not enough domestic demand for this huge quantity of clothes.
There are people who want these items, they just happen to live outside our borders. You can find secondhand markets all over the world displaying American castoffs. Used clothing is so deeply woven into the fabric of some cultures (no pun intended) that they even have their own special word for it. For example, in Haiti used clothing is called pepe, in Tanzania it is mitumba, in Zambia it is salaula, and in Central America it is ropa americana.
(All that said, Planet Aid still does donate clothes and other items to the needy in the U.S. on a regular basis. We have given away winter coats to the homeless during the freezing winter, worked with the L.A.Fire Department to supply clothing to victims of fire, and donated clothing care packages for victims of rape to wear after hospital visits.)
#3. Charities give away all the used clothing they receive
It's surprising how this myth persists. The truth is that charities that collect used clothing on a regular basis are not putting all the clothing back into the community. Even nonprofits that run domestic retail stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army only put 20 percent of what they collect in their locations, with the other 80 percent being sold to recyclers. And this isn't a bad thing! As mentioned before, we can't even begin to redistribute the massive amount of donated clothes in this country, so why not sell them and use the proceeds towards a greater good instead of letting them rot in the landfill?
The real question people need to ask themselves when donating their clothes is where they want the proceeds from their clothes to go. There are for-profit clothes collectors out there that pocket the money from your used clothes, but there are also plenty of charities like Planet Aid that will use the money to benefit the less-fortunate.
#4. People in the developing world want used clothing handouts
In general, give things to developing countries for free is not effective aid. The root of poverty stems from a lack of sufficient income, and handouts are just putting a bandaid on a bigger problem. Sure, giving someone a shirt for free means they don't have to spend money on a new shirt, but they still need to worry about funds for their next meal. Plus, if people are getting clothes for free then they will not be buying clothes from local merchants, effectively stifling their own economies.
But, if secondhand clothes are bought and sold under free market principles, communities in developing countries will benefit from the jobs and the cheap source of clothing. Most developing countries will not even accept free used clothing, anyways, setting up rules against this practice, which some consider “dumping.” Operating under supply and demand is the only way that this exchange can sensibly work on a large scale while upholding dignity and respect at the same time.
#5. Used clothes are possessed by the devil
Ok, this is not actually a widespread myth per se, but it's come up before. Televangelist Pat Robertson stated on his program the 700 Club that used clothing could be possessed. “Not every sweater at Goodwill is possessed by demons, but it’s a good idea to pray over secondhand clothes just in case,” said Mr. Robertson. He elaborated by saying that clothing could be possessed just like any other inanimate object.
To be fair, we can't say for sure that donating your clothing won't involve demonic possession, but it certainly prevents another kind of evil- greenhouse gases. Clothes decompose in landfills and release methane, one of the most harmful greenhouse gases. The two million tons of textile waste Americans recycle annually helps reduce greenhouse gases in the same capacity as taking 1.2 million cars off the road! So not only is your bag of old clothes benefitting the less-fortunate all over the world, it's also protecting the environment and helping stop climate change.
Planet Aid collects and sells used clothing and shoes to connect them with new owners and keep them out of the landfills. We accept items with stains and holes as long as they are clean and dry. All proceeds from the sale of gently-used clothing goes toward sustainable development projects in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Click here to find a yellow donation bin to drop off a bag of unwanted clothes.