OP-ED: CLOTHES DONATION? SORRY, BUT IT'S NOT GOING TO WORK ANYMORE
by JUNFANG ZHANG (Singapore)
Issue 1.2 September 2019
Perpetually sitting in a corner of my room is a large carrier bag filled with cast-off clothes. As much as I have tried to avoid needless and impulse purchases, ill-fitting jackets, outdated dresses, and cringe-worthy graphic t-shirts accumulate faster in my room than dust. These are the cheap, dispensable clothes that I always find myself purging my room of whenever festivities roll around to donate to the local charity. For many of us, this process of purging shouldn’t be new. Making charitable donations has become not just the go-to method, but also practically routine for consumers like me who find way too many clothes piling up in our closets, but recoil at the idea of throwing them out. I always figured that my unwanted clothes would find a second life with a thrifty consumer, or at least go to someone who needs them more. Only recently did I realise that the reality of clothes donations is not as simple or romantic as we might believe.
A quick Google search of the warehouses of charities will bring us to many photos depicting plastic bag after plastic bag bursting at the seams with clothes. While it might seem comforting to see so many clothes being recycled, unfortunately today there are so many donated clothes that charities, thrift shops, and international markets combined can no longer keep up. For decades, clothes donation has offered consumers in wealthy nations a guilt-free way of relieving themselves of old clothing. Yet this cycle is quickly breaking down. Fast fashion is thriving, new clothes are becoming as cheap as old ones, and poor countries whom we have donated our clothes to for decades are turning their backs on secondhand trade. There is a need for us to take a closer look at what really happens when we donate clothes today—and to realise that on all fronts, our best efforts to resell and recycle just won’t work anymore.
Contrary to popular belief, less than 20% of clothing donations worldwide made to charities are actually resold there. This is simply because the supply of used clothing now far outweighs demand. Since the advent of fast fashion in the 1990s, our consumption has increased so dramatically that Americans now buy five times as much clothing as they did in the 1980s, and donations to Goodwill increase by 10% each year. As nicely summarised by Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Price of Cheap Fashion, "[With] the advent of cheap, disposable clothing, charities have seen themselves transformed into dumps that accept clothes of varying condition in ever-increasing volumes.” As a result, charities which have limited manpower and resources to sell all these items turn away most of the clothes. Instead, 45% of all clothing donations are exported to developing nations across the globe, most prominently Africa.
Okay, so even though our clothes may not go to someone locally, at least they’re going to someone. Indeed, international markets save over a billion pounds of donated clothing each year. However, there is a huge cost that comes with this trade. To put it bluntly, the inflow of Western clothing threatens the stability of local economies by putting textile workers and factories out of work. As imported secondhand clothing can be sold for dirt-cheap prices, locally produced clothing becomes extremely expensive in comparison. For instance, the average cost of an imported secondhand garment in Kenya is between 5-10% of a locally produced garment. As local textile factories and self-employed tailors struggle to compete, they either close down or face dismal business prospects. As a result, an increasing number of countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda have banned import of secondhand clothing from the West to allow their own clothing industry to thrive.
Yet, the declining attraction of secondhand clothing in developing nations is but a small part of a larger picture— globally, the attraction to purchasing old clothes as a whole is dwindling. This is because new items are becoming as cheap as old ones. We don’t need to look far for a clear illustration of this. In Panipat, India, roughly 200 business there are devoted to recycling clothes into yarn and blankets. For years, these businesses have served as the world’s largest recycler of woolen clothing. However, when Chinese manufacturers came in the early 2000s, their modern mills raised blanket production productivity so much that a new fleece blanket now costs a mere US$2.50 compared to US$2.00 for a recycled one. Everywhere across the globe, the production of new items and clothing is becoming so cheap, it’s more worthwhile for anyone to get new clothes rather than old ones.
So let’s go through all the options we have. We can’t rely on local charities to sell all our old clothing anymore because far too many clothes are coming in. We can’t look towards international markets either, because our old clothes are costing livelihoods and shutting down local textile industries. In fact, we can’t expect anyone to prefer getting our second hand items, because it’s becoming just as cheap to get a brand new one. We need to realise that there just isn’t another way to deal with our excessive amounts of donated clothing anymore. The only way to solve this is if we cut down on the amount of clothing we consume altogether. This means choosing to shop less frequently, instead of believing you’ve done your part by dropping your clothes off at the Salvation Army. This means making that carrier bag in the corner of your room disappear altogether, instead of taking comfort in piling it high with more clothes. Clothes donation was never meant to be a magical pill that cures all our consumption problems. It’s high time we recognised that.
Passionate about a chaotic mix of subjects from philosophy to jurisprudence, Junfang Zhang, 17, is reminded everyday of the power of words to mold and touch people’s lives. She hopes that one day, her stories can move others as she has been moved by great writers before her and that her works can contribute to a larger galaxy of works that support learning, openness, and empathy.