The truth about thrift stores // where do our donated clothes actually end up?

Thrift shopping is a great way to keep items out of landfill and in circulation, avoid buying new items and is usually much cheaper as well. I think thrifting is a great eco activity to participate in and normalize, but we need to be careful about where and how we donate our items.

At the present time, Americans recycle or donate only 15% of their unwanted clothing. Yet thrift stores still can’t keep up. Obviously, it would be great to keep 100% of our unwanted items out of the landfill, but thrift stores can’t keep up with that load. This means that 10.5 million tons of clothing get thrown away every single year in the US alone. We will talk more about our overconsumption later.

It is also important to note that not everything that is donated can be resold for a few reasons. Of that 15% of items donated, only around 20% of THAT will make it to the shelves of a thrift store. First, people are donating items that shouldn’t be donated. Things like dirty or broken items or shirts with holes, stains, tears will not be sold and therefore trashed. Try to upcycle these things instead and learn what your local thrift stores will and will not take. Some may also not accept large appliances and furniture.

But, even if every single donator took care to only donate things that are accepted by the store, the stores only have so much storage room and floor space to resell the items. Especially bigger chains like Goodwill and the Salvation Army where most Americans take their unwanted items.

But, where do our unsold items end up?

Goodwill Outlets and Clothing Recycling

In the case of Goodwill, our items usually make a pit stop at Goodwill Outlets. Most major cities have one and this is a place customers can go and buy items by the pound. After this, the garbage is usually a last resort for our unwanted and unsold items. But, that is a hefty trash bill with no return on investment for Goodwill.

Sometimes, Goodwill will send clothing to be recycled not necessarily as new clothing but as things like insulation. Clothing is hard to recycle into new clothing as only like fibers can be recycled with like fibers and clothes are made up of all different combinations of materials. This is still a better step than the landfill, though. The recycling system Goodwill usually gives to is called SMART: Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles. They reported that about 30% of the clothing they receive is turned into industrial rags, 20% is shredded into filling for furniture and insulation, and 5% is sent to the landfill. That’s not a bad number being sent to the landfill…but what about the remaining 45%?

Shipping our unwanted items overseas

They usually recycle and trash the clothing that has holes or tears or is stained. The clothing that remains wearable may be resold in the US but it also may be shipped overseas. This may sound better than the landfill but there are many implications to this. It’s estimated that 700,000 tons of used clothing gets exported every year. It has pros and cons but some big cons are clearly emissions and also impacting the local economies of the countries we give our literal trash to. This puts a huge burden on the local people to then sort and attempt to resell our unwanted items. Not to mention, local textile artists in the region now have to compete with cheaper items. In Kenya, for example, a few decades ago, their garment industry was flourishing with around 500,000 garment workers but now there are only 10s of 1000s. Some people may be able to make a job out of our trash, but it puts many others out of a job. This may also lead to cultural loss because these local textile workers use traditional methods of making cultural clothing.

Many may have thought this was a charitable thing to “give clothing to those in need” but they don’t need our trash. Some other countries that may end up with our waste are Chile, Guatemala, India, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Tanzania, Honduras, Angola, and the Dominican Republic.

And ultimately, just like we see at home, many of the things that are “donated” to these countries still can’t be resold or won’t be resold. They then have to deal with disposing of that waste but they are at the “bottom” of the clothing waste train. They have no choice but to send it to a landfill or burn it. It’s estimated that in Ghana alone, around 110,000 pounds of clothing become trash every day. It may even end up polluting the ocean and other waterways in the region. This is mostly fast fashion made from plastic that will never fully break down anyway and can be toxic when it does break down.

The root of the problem: overconsuming

The more we buy, the more that has to be thrown away or donated. Americans currently buy 5x more clothing than we did in the 1980s. Just because thrift stores exist and you can “give your clothes a new life” is no excuse to continue to buy and buy and buy. Especially fast fashion which you can learn more about here and why it is so detrimental to the planet.

Ultimately, thrift stores receive so much because we buy so much. So, think through your next purchase and think about what you’re going to do with that purchase when it reaches the end of its life. Start with these questions:

  • Do I really need this item?

  • What will I wear it with?

  • Where will I store it?

  • How will I take care of it?

  • How can I reuse or recycle it at the end of its life?

  • If it’s not clothing, where will it go to my house?

  • How often will I use this item?

  • Can I borrow or rent something instead (think of a book, a suit, a power tool, etc)?

And next time you’re thinking about buying something that you think is an impulse, put it down, think about it, and write it down. If you constantly think about it and can answer the above questions, it probably is a true want or need. If you never think about it again, it was likely going to be an impulse buy.

What can we do?

  • Think before you buy as we talked about earlier

  • Still donate! We want to keep the circular economy going. But donate smarter:

  • Give it to homeless shelters or women’s shelters

  • Don’t donate literal trash

  • Donate to smaller thrift stores

  • Resell it yourself on Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, ThreadUp, etc.

  • Have a clothing swap with friends

  • Give them as hand-me-downs to a cousin, friend, sibling, etc

  • Learn to repair small holes, buttons, etc instead of throwing them away

  • Most clothing we donate ends up being recycled anyway, so recycle it yourself! Turn old shirts into rags, makeup removers pads, hankies, napkins, dogs toys, cat toys, rugs, grocery bags, and so much more

  • Check to see what your thrift stores will and will not accept. They are not a trash service, don’t give them your trash

  • Clean your items before donating to give them a higher chance of being accepted and resold

  • Don’t donate anything with missing parts or broken electronics

  • If you’re donating breakable items, pack them carefully so they don’t break in the sorting process

  • Shop second hand! But wait, you told us not to overconsume? Right, shop second hand when you NEED something. Just like any other system, thrift stores operate off of supply and demand. The more we buy second hand, the more they are able to place on the floor to resell instead of throw away. This also keeps us from buying something brand new and no longer perpetuating this endless and destructive cycle

I hope you learned something valuable from this post and think before you donate to thrift store giants next time. Thrifting is a great way to avoid sending stuff to the landfill and buying new items but we need to be smart about it. We can work together to make this system even more sustainable for the planet and the people. Thanks for reading!

As always, remember that your small changes have a big impact in the long run :)


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My name is Emma. I am a 20-year-old new to this sustainable lifestyle. I am here to give you my tips as I learn them and help beginners begin their sustainable life...


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