Fashion, Lookbook

Do you know about the ugly afterlife of your clothes?

Donation centers like Goodwill and the Salvation Army sell your clothes to developing overseas markets– and it's not pretty.

During the summer of 2015, I was on a bus visiting a farm in Eastern Province, Rwanda. We were jostling down dirt roads surrounded by small homes, shrubs, and a couple other motorcycles on the road. The sun was shining down on our rural landscape and I was annoyed when our bus had to stop because a car ahead had broken down. Soon word got out that Americans were stuck on the road and young children began to flock to our bus to ask us for spare change. And I noticed one boy in particular, he was staring at us and giggling with his friends, clad in an In-N-Out Burger t-shirt.

The young boy in rural East Africa wearing an In-N-Out Burger t-shirt hadn't gone there himself. So, where did his shirt come from? Click To Tweet

I was stunned. In-N-Out is a burger chain native to the West Coast. And I associate their Animal Fries with California girls and Hollywood stars alike. I concluded that this young boy who laughed at the foreign American women stuck on the road hadn’t gone to In-N-Out himself and probably never would have the opportunity to. And I began to wonder, where did his shirt come from?  The answer for that particular t-shirt is unknown. But I found a lot of unsettling information about the life-cycle of our clothes and the ugly effects of consumer culture.

The afterlife of our clothes reveals our ugly and unsustainable consumer culture. Click To Tweet

Say, I go into a Target, Forever 21 or H&M and buy my cotton t-shirt. Eventually, the t-shirt isn’t trendy anymore and I stop wearing it. First, the piece of clothing will sit in my closet taking up space. Once I decide that I don’t want my piece of clothing, I could sell it directly to a picky second-hand store, sell it to a friend either in person or online, or I could donate my t-shirt to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. If I choose to directly sell to either a second-hand store or another person, that’s great. But eventually they too will get tired of my t-shirt. So more likely than not, my garment will end up at a donation center.

At the donation center, my garment will either be deemed high quality enough to be sold within the U.S. or not. If not, my garment will be shredded into rags? Or, it will go into a bale that weighs a half ton and shipped overseas to a developing economy. These bales will be cut open at an auction and sold to a merchant.These local merchants create stalls of used clothes that line the streets of developing countries worldwide.

According to an Oxfam report, used clothes make up 50% of the clothing sector throughout the sub-Saharan region. And in 2014, East African countries imported more than $300 million worth of clothing. While this may seem like a win-win situation, it’s not.

Exporting use clothes from America to developing countries undermines their local economies and prevents them from growing. Click To Tweet

These used-clothes undermine local economies in developing countries and prevent them from growing. Instead of creating, purchasing, and wearing locally-made and locally-sourced garments, people are wearing old American t-shirts simply because it’s cheaper. 

According to Andrew Brooks, lecturer at King’s College London:“Your t-shirt may be quite cheap for someone to buy, but it would be better if that person could buy a locally manufactured t-shirt, so the money stays within the economy and that helps generate jobs.” If people could make their own clothing, benefit from that clothing, and wear it for a long time, that would certainly be better for people and for planet.

Our unsustainable consumption demands low-quality products that are easily thrown away– all at the expense of people and planet. Click To Tweet

And what happens when these countries no longer need our clothes? This is indicative of unsustainable consumption that demands low-quality products that are made the expensive of the planet and thrown away only to harm more people. Instead of blaming these charitable organizations, we should instead change our habits. 

So the next time you’re shopping, think about the clothing you choose to put on your body and how you plan to get rid of it when the time is right. I suggest buying better instead of buying more. And maybe, we can slowly but surely change the cycle.

Read Next:  5 ethical clothing brands that are absolutely stylish - and saving the planet, too
Grace Wong

Grace Wong

Storyteller and content creator studying Political Science at Wellesley College. Inspired by creative-community building, where ideas become reality with authenticity and kindness. Working towards equality, empathy and kindness, daily.

Our weekly email will change your life.