A World Hungry for Used Clothes

When did clothes recycling get its start? Did it begin in the 1960s or 70s when "ecology" first became an environmental buzz word? Clothes recycling actually started soon after the wonder of woven fabric was perfected. After learning how plant fibers and animal wool could be spun and fashioned into cloth, ancient civilizations quickly came to prize fabrics the world over. Producing it was labor and resource intensive, so the use and reuse of clothes was not only necessary, but a common activity.

Today, the recycling of clothes and textiles is a multi-billion dollar global enterprise employing millions of people in both advanced and lesser developed countries. With 9 to 12 billion pounds of used fabric generated in the U.S. annually, it's no surprise that used textiles rank as the eighth-largest U.S. export.

U.S. buried under mounting clothes pile

With each American disposing an average of 67 pounds of textiles a year, recycling is the best solution to the mounting pile of unwanted clothing. Not only does recycling protect our environment, it serves to provide usable clothes to the millions who may never own a new garment in their lifetime. Used clothes and shoes also serve as a global source of jobs and income for one-person shops, small businesses, and international firms that employ many more.

The true tale of "traveling pants"

When a clothing item is donated to one of the many U.S. charities, it may be sold locally in a thrift shop. However, the reality is that a relatively small quantity of clothes donated in the United States are used locally or stay within the country's borders. Donated clothing is more often shunted between continents and handled multiple times before worn again or remade into another product.

After collection, clothes may be sold to a grading company to be sorted by material, type, and quality, ranging from "cream of the crop" garments for a high-end vintage shop, to "low-grade" T-shirts that are shredded and remade into polishing cloths. In between are multiple categories -—"tropical mix" wearables for warm climates, or items like belts and caps. Only better items or "shop quality" garments are hung in one of 12,000 thrift stores across the U.S.

Amazingly only 20 percent of all donated clothes are sold in thrift stores or secondhand shops. The bulk of all donations are eventually exported to overseas markets where demand is high. Twenty percent may be remanufactured into industrial wiping cloths, another 25 percent may be converted back to raw fiber for reuse as insulation or paper products. In the U.S. alone, nearly 3,000 recyclers handle the surplus of textile goods.

From international recycling firm to one-person shop

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 railcar. 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.

A perfect business model

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.

It is no surprise that some economic experts have dubbed 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.

Used clothes - the engine behind humanitarian aid

For non-profit organizations, the collection and sales of clothes is equally beneficial. Recycling provides needed cash to fund humanitarian projects. Planet Aid is among the nation's largest charitable clothing recyclers. In 2010, Planet Aid alone collected nearly 100 million pounds of unwanted clothing - the equivalent weight of 254 Boeing jumbo jets. Since 1997, this and other funding has allowed Planet Aid to provide $70 million in direct or in-kind support to programs addressing health, education, job training, disease-prevention, farming, and child aid on three continents.

Activating a powerful synergy

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.