Podcast Recap Episode 1: The Many Benefits of Clothing Recycling Programs
In the latest episode of Sustainable Solutions with Planet Aid, Monica and Haley are joined by Themis Toache, Marketing and Personal Relations Manager at Garson & Shaw. The trio discuss all aspects of the clothing circular economy, from fast fashion and clothing recycling programs to economics and sustainable clothing donations.
What is the Clothing Circular Economy?
In the United States, only 15% of clothes are ever reused or recycled, and 85% are dumped into landfills, where they release toxic chemicals, dyes, and microplastics into the soil. The weight of those discarded clothes (81 pounds per person per year) largely comes from “fast fashion”, trendy clothing made very quickly and cheaply, with new designs constantly added into circulation. This trend convinces people to throw away their clothes after only a few uses, sometimes because they don’t survive washing.
How fast is fast fashion? Themis tells us, “In 2022 [clothing manufacturer] Shein produced 300,000 individual styles of clothes. And according to the UN, 8%-10% of carbon emissions are from the fast fashion industry.”
Counter to the concepts of fast fashion, the foundation of the clothing circular economy is the practice of reusing clothes as many times as possible. Reusing clothing is simple - just keep wearing the clothes. If you don’t want to wear the clothes, then give them to friends and family, or donate those clothes to strangers.
When clothes are unwearable because they’ve been damaged or just wear out, the material can be recycled into another item. Shredded clothing can be used to create insulation, for example. Since reusing clothes is so much easier and far more cost-effective than recycling them, reuse is a primary focus in terms of minimizing textile waste and maximizing our natural resources.
But what does the clothing circular economy look like in practice? Nonprofit organizations like Planet Aid run clothing recycling programs that serve as donation drop-off points and collection centers, saving used clothes from becoming land waste. In 2022 alone, Planet Aid received 60 million pounds of donated clothes, with an all-time total of 1.7 billion pounds of sustainable clothing donations.
In turn, Garson & Shaw connects organizations looking to sell these clothes with people who will continue to use them. They bring this apparel to individuals in other countries who can dress their entire family with secondhand clothes at a fraction of the cost of new clothes. To date, Garson & Shaw has delivered some 7 billion pounds of clothing to fuel a used clothing economy that provides livelihoods to millions.
Human Impact of the Clothing Circular Economy
Although it’s easy to think of used clothes as “just” going from owner to owner, it’s important to keep in mind this really is an entire economy. Clothing recycling programs require different organizations all working together to collect clothes, transport them across the ocean, sort and distribute them to wholesalers and retailers, and finally to the person who will wear them again. Every person involved takes part in this circular economy.
In our episode, Themis discusses the impact of the clothing circular economy in greater detail, citing independent research conducted by Garson & Shaw about the positive economic impact that secondhand clothing has had on communities in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua:
- In 2021, the circular clothing economy provided 3 million jobs in the countries studied.
- Guatemala imported 130,000 tons (286 million pounds) of clothes in 2021.
- 80% of people in Nicaragua wear secondhand clothing.
Beyond mere statistics, the human factor cannot be ignored. People are able to dress their family, even if they can’t afford new clothes. Entrepreneurs can run their own business selling these second-hand clothes as a source of income, which can be used to send their children to school. Even the environment benefits from reducing the need to manufacture new clothes which requires a significant amount of water and produces significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
How Can You Support the Clothing Circular Economy?
Anyone and everyone can contribute. For individuals, Themis says, “It’s really easy to get involved. Just start with reusing whatever you have. Instead of throwing away that sweater you don't want anymore… donate it, or give it away to someone who might need it in your family, or do a clothing swap with your friends… It's these really tiny steps that make a big difference.”
Similarly, people should try to buy used products from thrift stores. They frequently have unique and diverse fashion options, giving people new styles without the need to buy brand new clothes.
Beyond the apparel itself, another great way to support the clothing circular economy is to spread the word. People can talk about the problems of fast fashion like textile waste, pollution, and even human rights violations. Convince people to change their mindset on fashion itself from “trendy and disposable” to “classic and timeless.”
Regulators and policy makers also have a role to play, as they wield significant power and influence to craft laws with significant positive or negative impacts. When local, state, and federal policymakers recognize the value of used clothes, they can enact policies to transform used textiles from garbage into an asset that fuels the clothing circular economy, while raising funds for local priorities like education.
Trends and Predictions for the Future
With nearly 25 years of experience in the industry, Garson & Shaw can see how public attitudes towards sustainable clothing donations have shifted over time. Demand for secondhand clothes is increasing, and organizations like Planet Aid help to meet that demand. On the consumer side, there is greater public knowledge of the harms of fast fashion, as well as a growing interest in sustainable fashion efforts.
One of the biggest general goals for the future is to increase the percentage of reused and recycled clothing. Raising the U.S. rate from 15% to 25% would be a huge victory for everyone involved. That would also serve as a great example for other countries to join in the clothing circular economy and reduce their textile consumption.
A big thanks to Themis for talking with us about the importance of the clothing circular economy, and for giving us a glimpse into the real-world results of clothing recycling programs.
To all business owners and professionals who are interested in clothing recycling programs and other green-related solutions, Planet Aid welcomes the opportunity to collaborate on projects that will make a meaningful difference. And don’t forget to take your unwanted clothing to any of our clothing collections bins and donation centers. Find your nearest bin using our interactive map today!See All Blog Posts