Day 6 & 7 of this Challenge, and I wanted to talk about thrift stores. Several of the items I have been wearing during the challenge (including a pair of shoes) are thrift store finds. I have been aware for a while now the environmental impact of bringing new items into our world, so for years I have been prioritizing second hand as my go-to instinct. This is why I wanted one of my challenge posts to be about thrift stores.
Not only am I interested in thrifting, a study done in 2018 stated it was seriously gaining in popularity, estimating it would grow to total $41 billion US dollars in the next four years, so of course I wanted to take a closer look!
Donating and buying second hand uses what is already in circulation, therefore reducing the items overall environmental impact, and it saves you money, so win, win, right?! Well, after doing some digging, I wish it was that simple.
As I mentioned in my Day 2 Challenge post: “The average Canadian buys 70 new pieces of clothing each year, about 60 of which ultimately wind up in a landfill. According to a British study, the average article of women’s clothing is worn seven times before it’s discarded” (Globe&Mail). We consume 400% more clothes than we did just 20 years ago. More than 150 billion garments are produced annually, enough to provide 20 new garments to every person on the planet, every year. That’s a lot of clothing!
For those wanting to avoid having their clothes end up in a landfill, it makes sense to want to extend the life of a garment by donating it to the local thrift store. The donor gets to declutter and the new owner gets to purchase clothing at a lower cost. Unfortunately it is not that simple. North Americans send 10 million tonnes of clothing to the landfill every year, and only donate approximately 15% of their clothing to be used second hand.
For the major thrift chains in North America (Salvation Army, Goodwill, and Value Village) only 50% of what’s donated at their stores end up on their racks and shelves, and only 50% of that is purchased. This means only 1 in 4 donated pieces of clothing is sold.
So what happens with the other 75%? The remainder is either resold locally, sold second hand abroad, cut down and used as rags, ground down/reprocessed (at a textile recycling facility), or sent to the landfill.
Some of the unsold clothing in Canada is sent overseas. “In 2017, $173 million in worn or used clothing was exported from Canada to countries and regions around the world” (CBC). According to this same CBC article, the big problem with developing countries receiving our second hand clothing is it suppresses the textile industries in those countries. Countries like Kenya have had their textile industry wiped out because of our “generosity.” This way of “recycling” our clothing also diverts our waste just to another countries landfill, and often they are countries without a formed and structured garbage/recycling system, so it ends up being burned.
Similarly to other avenues of “aid” given to developing countries, the economic impacts of used clothing imports, create a relationship of dependency on the west and in many ways prevent these countries from developing. There are many layers of horror to our economic global system and how it is built to benefit the rich and oppress the poor, and although discontinuing your donations won’t stop the problem, it is beneficial to be aware of how our mass consumption of clothing and booming second hand industry contributes to it.
STEER CLEAR OF DONATION BINS
These are the bins you often see in a parking lot. Some of these bins are run by for-profit companies, often undistinguishable from the for-profit bins. Often the clothes donated here get sent overseas, and are not sent directly to the charity, so it is best to give directly to the charity itself.
The majority of our clothing ends up in the landfill, and only 25% of what’s donated gets a second life. But what is important to know is extending the life of a garment lowers its overall environmental footprint. According to a BBC article, continuing to actively wear a garment for just nine months longer could diminish its environmental impact by 20–30%. Of course of the stats mentioned above, we cannot rely on donating our clothes in order to give it that extra length of time. Seek out other ways of ensuring your items get a longer life. Give your clothing to someone you know will use it, or hold a clothing swap in your community or amongst your friends.
Relying on the thrift system is not sustainable, as it does not address the many other issues that I’ve touched on in previous posts: consumerism, plastic clothing waste, microfibers, and fast fashion. In some ways the success of this system is built upon the consumerism that is slowly killing our planet, and is also perpetuating negative consequences on more vulnerable countries.
There are alternative actions that can be taken to reduce your clothing waste and be more environmentally sustainable, which I will be discussing near the end of the 10×10 Challenge!