Be honest: does this sound familiar?
- You see a brand new collection on ultra fast fashion websites like Shein or Boohoo
- Maybe you’ve just watched a clothing haul filmed by an enthusiastic TikTok influencer
- So, you buy dozens of new cheap garments
- Replace some of the ones in your wardrobe (even though they’re perfectly fine)
- A few months or weeks later, the same cycle begins
- You tell yourself it’s all good. After all, you’re donating clothes to charity, not binning them!
Unfortunately, this is just a fairytale to make us feel better about our unsustainable overconsumption.
In reality, donating clothes has a terrible environmental footprint. Not only that: surprisingly unethical consequences, too.
First things first: clothing hauls remain problematic
Regardless of what you then decide to do with these clothes, fashion hauls per se are still unethical:
- They have a dreadful impact on the environment, from their unrecyclable plastic packaging to those deliveries’ carbon emissions
- You’re actively supporting unethical fast fashion brands with your money
- You’re keeping yourself trapped in an addictive cycle of needing to buy new clothes for a short endorphin and dopamine release
What really happens after donating clothes
Photo credit: John Taggart for The New York Times
To justify these hauls, many like to believe that their donated clothes are making more disadvantaged people happy.
But what’s the reality?
- Only 20% of donated clothes are actually sold in charity or thrift shops! First of all, there’s limited demand for low-quality fast fashion garments as they aren’t made to last or be resold. Some clothes are also sent straight to landfills (for example, issues like mildew can contaminate an entire batch!)
- The majority of your donated clothes? It’s sold to textile recyclers or traders
- If textile recycling companies can use these fabrics, that’s actually relatively good news: you’re reducing waste. We said ‘relatively’ because recycling something that hasn’t reached its end of useful life is still rather wasteful. Plus, it involves additional energy and carbon emissions
- What these recycling companies can’t use also ends up with traders (again, additional packaging, transport, and carbon emissions!)
- Sadly, textile trading is a lucrative and exploitative business! After discarding some of the initial clothing, these middle-men sell the rest for profit to other buyers, especially in developing countries
- This grows the environmental footprint of your donated clothes even further… and the fact that a garment has made it oversea doesn’t guarantee it’ll be used!
- Because they’re cheaper than domestic options, your donated clothes sold via these traders actually have a damaging impact on these economies. They undercut local producers, negatively affecting communities and causing several factories in countries like Kenya and Zambia to shut down
Basically, donating clothes isn’t the sustainable solution you’ve been sold.
A more ethical approach: reduce and reuse before you recycle or donate clothes
So, what can you do instead?
- QUIT. FAST. FASHION. HAULS! Stop glorifying overconsumption and question influencers who promote this mindset. We also recommend following more ethical content creators and brands to get inspired (and avoid temptations)
- Start buying fewer but more ethical and durable garments
- Fall in love with them! Break free from this unhealthy cycle
- Look after your clothes to make them last longer and fix them when needed
- If you really need to get rid of them, donating clothes is still better than straight-up binning them. However, choose your charities carefully, and bring them your clothes in person if you can, perhaps asking if they think they can actually use them
Donating clothes isn’t always a solution, but your fashion choices can have a massive impact on communities and the planet.
Learn to make more sustainable ones and discover new ethical brands by receiving our tips.
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