GOOD

Ethical Style: Where Do My Used Clothes Go?

Should carting our discarded clothes off to Goodwill make us feel better, or worse?


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Every Thursday, your Ethical Style questions, answered.

Modern dressers buy new fashions faster than we ever have before. That leaves us with an uncomfortable predicament: Closets filled to the brim and nothing to wear. In order to make room, we pick through, mull over, and discard last season’s styles, then shop for more. Today, we only hang on to about 21 percent of the clothing we buy every year.

What happens to the pieces that don’t make the cut? Most of them end up in landfills—only about 15 percent of discarded clothing is recycled or reused, whether by individual or industry. Globally, we trash roughly 2 billion pounds of clothing and textiles a year. Piled onto a football field, the waste would stretch more than two miles high. The textile industry has hooked us so completely on the accelerated fashion cycle that we feel we find ourselves with more and more stuff and few options for ethically discarding it.

Still, we feel like we can assuage our residual guilt with annual trips to the Salvation Army or Goodwill—when we drop off our blue Ikea bags filled with used clothing, we believe that the evidence of our disposable income is being put to good use. From there, only 15 to 20 percent of worthy waste is resold in thrift shops domestically, as the U.S. market simply doesn’t house the demand to absorb more secondhand clothing. The remaining T-shirts, skirts, and jeans follow one of three paths: 30 percent of it is cut and repurposed for industrial wiping rags; roughly 25 percent is recycled into fiber for reuse as stuffing and insulation; and the remaining 45 percent continues life as clothing on a different continent.

Before it heads abroad, so-called “processors” buy charity overages in bulk. These processors used to be in the business of recycling garments for their fibers. But with the decline in quality of the fabrics we wear, this kind of recycling has grown comparatively expensive, and is no longer lucrative. Instead, thousands of pounds of clothing are taken from charities and sorted by category in various facilities across the U.S.

This is big business: The U.N. estimates that the global used clothing trade generates about $1 billion annually. Rag cutters pay about 8 cents a pound for (preferably white) T-shirts with enough clean surface area to cut a 12-by-12 inch square. Remaining tattered or excessively printed clothing becomes what is called “shoddy” in a shredding process—companies pay the processors between 2 and 4 cents a pound for these goods that wind up in carpet pads, mattresses, or as insulation. But your used clothing is most valuable if it is fit to be reworn. Pricing varies, but select closet rejects can be bought for anywhere from 24 to 80 cents a pound. Processors sell them in bales from 500 to 1,000 pounds.

If your clothing is deemed ready to wear again, it’s categorized into one of 300 different groups to figure out where it’s most likely to find a new home somewhere around the world. Collectible items like vintage denim and Disney T-shirts are typically sold to Japan. Winter coats and other heavy winter items are shipped to Eastern Europe or South America. But the bulk—up to 80 percent—of reusable clothing winds up on ships to Africa. Middlemen there buy heaps of clothing from U.S. processors, then resell them to local market stall owners or straight to the costumer in their own retail outlets. In Africa, demand is high for these goods—in 2007, second-hand clothing placed in the top 10 import categories for 15 African countries. In Namibia and Uganda, our secondhand clothing becomes sought-after fashion apparel once it reaches the market. A well-fitting T-shirt can go for $1.20, and a durable coat can cost well over $4, even if the Goodwill tag in the back reads just $1.

As our old clothes transition from American tax write-off to Namibian splurge of the month, a lot of money changes hands. Critics call the clothes donation process the “dumping” of our unwanted clothing, comparing it to food aid handouts and the dependency that comes with them. African textile and garment manufacturing has all but vanished in most countries. Traditional African dress has become reserved for the upper tiers of society. Meanwhile, our donated clothing is converted into the free raw material of someone else’s thriving—and perhaps exploitative—business practices.

Still, it’s difficult to truly place the global effect of American used clothing within the context of broader economic difficulties and changing social norms. Should carting our discarded clothes off to Goodwill make us feel better or worse? Perhaps it’s time to start asking a new question: Why do we have so much junk that we are in the position to inundate the world with our reject piles?

Send all of your ethical style queries to asktabeakay@gmail.com.

Articles

Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

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"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.





Culture
via The Howard Stern Show / YouTube

Former Secretary of State, first lady, and winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, sat own for an epic, two-and-a--half hour interview with Howard Stern on his SiriusXM show Wednesday.

She was there to promote "The Book of Gutsy Women," a book about heroic women co-written with her daughter, Chelsea Clinton.

In the far-reaching conversation, Clinton and the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" and, without a doubt, the best interviewer in America discussed everything from Donald Trump's inauguration to her sexuality.

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Politics

The healthcare systems in the United States and the United Kingdom couldn't be more different.

The UK's National Health Service is the largest government-run healthcare system in the world and the US's is largest private sector system.

Almost all essential health services in the UK are free, whereas in America cost can vary wildly based on insurance, co pays and what the hospitals and physicians choose to charge.

A medical bill in the US

One of the largest differences is cost. The average person in the UK spends £2,989 ($3915) per year on healthcare (most of which is collected through taxes), whereas the average American spends around $10,739 a year.

So Americans should obviously be getting better care, right? Well, the average life expectancy in the UK is higher and infant mortality rate is lower than that in the US.

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Plus, in the U.S., only 84% of people are covered by private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Sixteen percent of the population are forced to pay out of pocket.

In the UK, everyone is covered unless they are visiting the country or an undocumented resident.

Prescription drugs can cost Americans an arm and a leg, but in the UK, prescriptions or either free or capped at £8.60 ($11.27).

via Wikimedia Commons

The one drawback to the NHS system is responsiveness. In the UK people tend to wait longer for inessential surgeries, doctor's appointments, and in emergency rooms. Whereas, the US is ranked as the most responsive country in the world.

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The New York Times printed a fair evaluation of the UK's system:

The service is known for its simplicity: It is free at the point of use to anyone who needs it. Paperwork is minimal, and most patients never see a bill. … No one needs to delay medical treatment until he or she can afford it, and virtually everyone is covered. …

According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States spent 17.2 percent of its economic output on health care in 2016, compared with 9.7 percent in Britain. Yet Britain has a higher life expectancy at birth and lower infant mortality.

Citizens in each country have an interesting perspective on each other's healthcare systems. UK citizens think it's inhumane for Americans have to pay through the nose when they're sick or injured. While Americans are skeptical of socialist medicine.

A reporter from Politics Joe hit the streets of London and asked everyday people what they think Americans pay for healthcare and they were completely shocked.

Health