Where Your Clothes Donation Doesn’t Go (and Where It Should)

Where Your Clothes Donation Doesn’t Go (and Where It Should)

Bethany Johnson headshotPosted by Bethany Johnson, guest blogger

Every new season brings an influx of donated items to clothes donation centers nationwide. My family has contributed in the past, and I’m sure yours has too. As children grow, they seem to need a new wardrobe each year; they outgrow seasonally appropriate items every summer and winter up to a certain age. Other factors include rips, stains, and weight gain or loss—things that aren’t specific to kids. It’s no surprise our homes are a revolving door of new clothes and shoes!

What’s surprising, though, is where your preowned items end up when you donate them.

Retail over Resale

According to Pietra Rivoli, author of the popular book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, only about 20 percent of all clothes donated to American charities make it onto resale racks for local shoppers. What happens to the rest of it? Where does it all go? Good question.

clothes-donation---mom-with-kids-clothesContrary to popular belief, thrift stores aren’t as popular as retail stores, and shoppers frequent malls much more than resale shops. That means much more is donated than most used clothing stores can sell.

clothes-donation---clothes-donationIf you’re within 1,000 miles of New York, your castoffs are likely being purchased by the Trans-Americas Trading Co., the largest of about 3,000 American companies that buy, sort, and sell the 80 percent of textile and clothes donation items charities can’t process themselves. There, graders can deem select items as valuable, not based on the condition of the clothing so much as their knowledge of what consumers in other countries prefer. In Tokyo, for example, our used Levis, Nikes, and “anything Disney” will sometimes sell for thousands of dollars.

The rest of the clothing is sold as an export to developing countries. When you recycle clothes, they usually end up overseas. And if you’re like most Americans, your clothing originated overseas as well. This cycle should be a reason for discussion in your home: Does anyone know why clothing may start and end in underprivileged countries? If you think you should play a role in where your clothing originates and ends up, here are three options:

1. Buy Responsibly

Believe it or not, women in the 1950s lived with one bathing suit, rather than the several owned the average American woman today. Buying tons of cheap clothing is tempting, because, well, it’s so cheap! The truth is, however, that it isn’t to everyone else involved in its creation. Because this cost is merely transferred to another resource, consider resisting half of your impulses and opt for organic clothing produced by more socially responsible manufacturers. Doing so can inspire your kids to rethink their own consumerism.

2. Sew and Mend

Annie Leonard, author of The Story of Stuff, illustrates the difference between American perspective and that of other cultures: “In India, I ripped a pair of blue jeans across the knee,” she writes. “I took them to a tailor whose shop was an elevated cement platform, about one square meter, on a side street in Calcutta. All day he sat there cross-legged, mending people’s clothes and sharing tea with his neighboring shopkeepers and customers. I was amazed when I went to pick up my jeans an hour later; he had actually woven the fabric back together, not just patched it.” Leonard says that because we are so far removed from the production process, we simply don’t know how to repair or alter our clothing—so we throw it out.


But you don’t need to be an expert to repair a seam or alter a standard shirt. Consider honing the skill on a rainy day; you may surprise yourself.

3. Start Your Own Swap

For the last seven years, I’ve volunteered a few hours every week to a local clothing swap. It’s not a resale shop, but rather a clothing exchange. Volunteers bring their gently used castoffs, spend a few hours sorting and organizing other donations, and nab anything that might be useful. There’s always a surplus, which is given away to those who don’t have anything to exchange.

clothes-donation---start-somethingNot only have I been able to accommodate the many wardrobe changes accompanying my three (wildly different) pregnancies, but I’ve also lost the need to store any newborn clothing “just in case we have another girl or boy.”

Starting a swap in your area may prove to be easier than you think. When I explain the premise of our nonprofit, moms’ eyes light up at the concept. Gauge the interest in your own circle and start meeting once a month at someone’s home or yard. Dump your tired stuff into the collective pile, and notice how other families rave over what you thought was old news. Likewise, you may notice other people’s castoffs appear perfectly useful to you.

With all the information available to responsible shoppers, it’s getting easier to make good buying choices. Companies are responding to the demand, offering fair trade and organic clothing that benefits both human and environmental health. But once you’re done with the items, what should you do with them? Tell me your ideas in the comments below! Our addiction to fast fashion should instill a responsibility from start to finish, and with a little ingenuity, taking this responsibility can be more fun than you think.

Image sources: Bethany Johnson

This article was brought to you by Tom’s of Maine. The views and opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the position of Tom’s of Maine.