The True Price of Cheap Clothes

The True Price of Cheap Clothes

Nancy Mitchell
Jun 28, 2012

Where do your clothes go when you're tired of them? Maybe when you were little, you passed your old clothes along to a younger sibling, but now that you're all grown up your old clothes probably go to a charity or thrift shop. And then what happens to them? The answer may surprise you.

Elizabeth Cline is the author of a book, called Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, about the global impact of cheap, disposable fashion. A few excerpts from the book, found on Slate, provide a fascinating look into the industry that's sprung up around our cast-off clothes.

Most of us suppose that when we donate our used clothing to charitable organizations like the Salvation Army, it will make its way to disadvantaged members of our community. In reality, the demand for used clothing in most cities is not nearly high enough to account for the enormous volume of donations.

The Salvation Army distibution center in Brooklyn that Cline visited first sorts donated items based on style, condition and brand. "We keep only the best," the center's director says. Every day, the center processes an average of five tons of clothing, from which exactly 11,200 garments are selected. These items are placed for sale in one of the eight Salvation Army locations served by the center. If the clothes are not sold within a month, they are removed from the racks and sent back to the processing center. Some are donated or given to other charitable organizations that will give them away, and then the clothes that the Salvation Army is unable to use are processed into enormous bales of textiles, weighing half a ton each.

From there, the textile bales meet one of two fates. Either they are sent to a secondhand textile processor in the United States, where saleable clothing will be sorted out and the rest will be recycled into padding for car upholstery, or industrial rags. Or they are sent overseas, mostly to Africa. At any number of African ports, the giant cubes of clothing are opened and then pored over by African clothing resellers, who, fueled by increasing demand for stylish clothing, pick through the bales for the most desirable finds. The flood of used clothing is having a negative effect on local textile industries, who are underpriced by all the cheap exports. And it's possible that as the African market becomes more particular, there may come a time when we're no longer able to export all our used clothing there, meaning the rejected clothes could wind up in landfills.

So what's the lesson here? Should you stick with three-year-old styles, or only wear hand-me-downs from great aunt Mildred? Not necessarily. The takeaway is that we should all think smarter about we buy, keeping in mind that purchases we make have the ability to affect everyone, not just ourselves. And this doesn't mean you should hang on to that pair of jeans that fit perfectly ten years ago, or a moth-eaten sweater that was last worn in 1994. Here, grouped according to the classic three R's of Recycling, are some Apartment Therapy suggestions for ways to reduce the waste of cheap clothing, save money, live stylishly, and be a better global citizen in the process.

1. Reduce. Think before you buy: is this a super-trendy style that I'll be tired of in a year? Am I buying this just because I want to buy something? Making an effort to buy less clothing, and higher-quality, classic styles when you do buy, is earth-friendly and also wallet-friendly.

2. Reuse. "Close the circle" by shopping at thrift stores. Or clean out your closet and organize a clothing swap with friends, or look for an event hosted by an organization like Swapteam. You'll be cleaning out, cutting down on waste and getting new-to-you clothes… for free. Win-win.

3. Recycle. If you have old clothing that's in an unwearable condition (rips, stains, tears), consider ways to re-purpose it at home. For example, old t-shirts can find new life as capes, decorative pom-poms, pillows, a shopping bag, or a quilt. There are even more ideas in this post about 13 ways to re-purpose old clothes.

What about you? Do you have any creative ideas for re-using old clothes?

Read More: The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes on Slate

(Image: Shutterstock)

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