A World Hungry for Used Clothing
More than 60 percent of all donated clothes received by U.S. charities are exported to overseas markets where demand for secondhand clothing is high. Most of this clothing (approximately 45 percent) is resold as is and worn again. Thirty percent may be remanufactured into industrial wiping cloths, another twenty percent may be converted back to raw fiber for reuse as insulation or paper products.
When ready for export, clothes are pressed into 1,000 pound bales, either sorted or unsorted, depending on the next buyer’s needs. Bales are typically shipped in sea-going, 40-foot containers. Upon reaching a destination port in Africa, Asia, Europe, India, China, South or Central America, bales are routed to overland locations by truck or rail car. Along the way numerous transactions may occur. Bales may be divided into smaller bundles for sale to wholesalers or distributors down the line. Ultimately, an aspiring entrepreneur in a Mozambique village may buy a 100-lb sack for resale to his friends and neighbors. A wearable pair of work shoes originally purchased new for $50 may protect the feet of a farmer in Malawi for just a couple of dollars. A used children’s polo shirt re-bought for 45 cents may serve as daily wear for a student attending a school in India.
The used textile trade is truly international. A “mixed rag” bale from the U.S. or the U.K. for example, may travel directly to Dubai to be graded or sorted before it is repackaged for a distributor in Mozambique, or an industrial grade shipment may be routed to an Indian or Chinese factory to be remanufactured into seat upholstery for cars made in South Korea.
The global used clothes trade a perfect business model, which transforms something otherwise unwanted into an income-generating source for millions. At the same time, the environment gets a double reprieve: used clothes are diverted from landfills or incinerators and valuable natural resources (water and land) are spared by reducing demand for new clothes.
And to think it all starts with a simple donation of a kid’s shirt or a pair of too tight designer jeans. It is this small act repeated by many across the nation that sets in motion a synergistic ripple effect, creating multiple benefits for people and the planet.