Photo by Howard Lake

The following is an excerpt from Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (2012, Portfolio/Penguin) by Elizabeth L. Cline

Since the end of the 19th century in both Europe and the United States, philanthropic groups have been involved in the collection and distribution of clothes to the poor. The Salvation Army started up in the United States in 1870, at a time when the U.S. population was less than 40 million and almost all clothing was still handmade. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that charities opened retail outlets, and their income began to come primarily from the sale of used clothing. Charitable clothing donations from that point were used indirectly, by first selling clothes and then using the proceeds to fund charitable works. This is how clothing donations function today.

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SUPPLY MEETS DEMAND

Then consumer culture set in. During the post-war period, growing incomes allowed Americans to buy more clothes. Our wardrobes became diversified, with juniors’ clothes, office clothes, sports clothes, and streetwear becoming common. This was when charities started processing enormous yields of used but still wearable clothing.

Most Americans are convinced that another person truly desires our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

But it wasn’t until clothing prices started declining in recent decades that charities started seeing barely used and even unworn discarded clothing. Throughout the 1990s, donations to Goodwill increased 10 percent per year. In 2000, donors nationwide provided all Goodwill operations with more than 1 billion pounds of clothes. In 2010, Goodwill processed 163 million pounds of used clothing and household goods.

Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes. They started to look for other solutions. A wiping rag industry sprang up to turn unsellable clothing into rags for industrial purposes. Still, anything left over went into the landfill.

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OUT WITH THE OLD

There are thousands of secondhand textile processors in the United States today, mostly small family businesses, many of them several generations old. Without textile recyclers, charities would be totally beleaguered and forced to throw away everything that couldn’t be sold. Charities might even have to turn us away. The only benefit to this doomsday scenario is that our clothes would pile up in our house or in landfills, finally forcing us to face down just how much clothing waste we create.

The dramatic increase in the volume of secondhand clothing has driven down its value by an estimated 71 percent in the last 15 years.

Textile recycling is a tough business. And it’s gotten tougher over time. The dramatic increase in the volume of secondhand clothing has driven down its value by an estimated 71 percent in the last 15 years. But the decreasing quality of donations is also pushing prices through the floor. As the value of used clothing has gone down, textile graders have increasingly relied on the small sliver of well-cared-for vintage clothes that comes through the waste stream.

Most of our donated clothing does not end up in vintage shops, as car-seat stuffing, or as an industrial wiping rag. It is sold overseas. After the prized vintage is plucked out and the outcasts are sent to the fiber and wiping rag companies, the remaining clothing is sorted, shrink-wrapped, tied up, baled, and sold to used-clothing vendors around the world. By one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ No. 1 export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-saharan Africa.

Once again, while many Americans might like to imagine that there is some poor, underdressed African who wants our worn and tattered duds, the African used clothing market is very particular and is demanding higher quality and more fashion-forward styles.

As the quality of clothing Americans buy and donates goes down, the stuff that ends up on Africa’s shores can be quite shoddy. As incomes rise in Africa, tastes become more savvy, cheap Chinese imports of new clothes flood those countries, and our own high-quality clothing supply is depleted, it’s foreseeable that the African solution to our overconsumption may come to an end.

What then?