Used clothing is a commodity just like other recycled materials.
As summer eases into autumn, many people will be cleaning out their closets, swapping out warm-weather duds for cold-weather gear. In the midst of the swapping process, they will likely be confronted with clothing that has been laying around, unworn for several years. This is when the purge begins. The wonderful feeling of getting rid of items you no longer can use that are taking up valuable space.
Luckily, there are bountiful options for disposing of your unwanted clothing. Unfortunately, what often comes alongside options is confusion about making the right decision. Some of those options are: bring them to a local thrift store, find a local charity that accepts clothing, or dispose of them in the nearest drop box. Many people would like to believe that their donations go directly to someone in need, and sometimes they do, especially when you donate directly to a shelter. The vast majority of donations will be re-sold in markets all along the way.
Though clothing isn’t often mentioned in recycling periodicals with other materials such as glass, metals, or paper, it is a commodity just like each of them and is thus governed by the same economic tenets.
The price of used clothing varies as supply and demand increase and decrease.
I cannot say why textiles lie outside the purview of the recycling industry but it likely has something to do with the fact that the roots of the industry are firmly based around charitable giving. As municipalities become more aware though of the amount of textiles in their waste stream—about 5.3 percent according to the EPA—they are becoming more involved in the diversion of textiles from landfills, and likely a more transparent market will arise.
When you bring your clothing to a local thrift store, they will sort the items into different grades of how they believe the items can sell. They will try to sell what they can in their store, as this is where they can receive the greatest value for the donated clothing. However, these thrift stores often receive much more clothing than they can actually sell at their storefronts. This overage of clothes will then head to exporters, who will pay a wholesale rate and have distribution all around the world.
If you decide to bring it to a local charity—such as a church or community group—they will certainly do their best to distribute it to those in need locally. But these groups have limited space and capacity to handle the volumes of textiles that threaten to enter our wastestream. As they reach their capacity they may rely on large scale collectors to haul their oversupply away, and once again these goods will be destined for exporters who have distribution all around the world.
Another option would be to bring the clothes to a local drop box. These boxes are run by both for-profits and nonprofits and sometimes even for-profits that benefit nonprofits by donating a portion of the proceeds. If you choose this option and are concerned about who benefits, read the fine print on the boxes or websites displayed on the bins, as we all are familiar with some exposé on local news of used clothing collectors misrepresenting themselves.
Once collected, the clothing in these boxes is brought to a sorting facility, either run by the collector or purchased by a third party who will handle the sorting and exporting of the clothing. Each organization handles the proceeds from this sale differently, but the exporters mostly have similar goals, to get the best prices they can for the various goods, first here in the United States, then by entering the international supply chain.
Though there are various intermediate steps, it is clear that the majority of donated items will eventually enter the international used-clothing supply chain.
Some people are disheartened by this news as they would like to think that their donations are used locally by someone in need. One way or another they are, though. It may not be the actual clothing donation that benefits those in needs but often it is the proceeds from the sale of the clothing that supports the charitable missions.
The textile recycling industry creates jobs both in America and abroad. By keeping the clothing out of the waste stream, the industry saves municipalities the cost of hauling and disposing some 3.8 billion pounds of textile waste annually, according to SMART the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textile Association, while creating a $1 billion industry.
These numbers are only the tip of the iceberg. We are all becoming more aware of the value of items in our waste stream and clothing may be the clearest example.
Adam Baruchowitz is founder and CEO of Wearable Collections, an NYC-based clothing recycling company that makes it as easy to recycle clothing as it is to recycle cans, paper, and glass. A former day trader and economics graduate of Brandeis, he began Wearable Collections as a fundraising tool for charities when one of my best friends and founding partners was hit by a car that left him paralyzed below the chest. We divert clothing from landfills and dedicate a portion of the proceeds to our partnering charities.