How online shopping contributes to the global problem of abandoned clothes


Experts say the number one thing you can do to limit the impact of used clothing is to buy fewer clothes.

Getty Images

A few years ago I volunteered at a local bar Saint Vincent de Paul Day center, whose customers included many people who lived on the surrounding streets. My job was to sort through a mountain of donated clothing, looking for colorful blouses, tailored coats and other trinkets that would help those in need supported by the charity.

However, not every item was worth offering to customers. These clothes – a stained Gap T-shirt here, severely ripped pants there – were dumped in a dumpster.

More and more old clothes end up in the garbage. We’re buying more fast fashion, which comes in and goes out of style quickly. Although overall apparel sales fell sharply during the pandemic, e-commerce apparel sales grew steadily. We had to make room for the new stuff and time got stuck at home asked us to clear out our closets, overwhelming some charities With donate.

The donated clothes, which you hoped would have a second life in your community, could also end up being recycled into products like industrial rags, carpet padding or home insulation. Sometimes they are shipped in bales to Ghana, Uganda, Malaysia and other countries where retailers scour the clothing for prices. Some returns from e-commerce are also sent abroad, according to Rest of the World. Every once in a while, an enterprising overseas seller will sell a high-value item to someone in the US by listing it on Etsy or eBay.

E-commerce fuels the cycle. By 2021, online sales accounted for nearly half of all apparel purchases, according to Digital Commerce 360. This year, clothing purchases were made in e-commerce increased 25% to $181 billion.

When ordering online, shoppers tend to buy more clothes than they intend to keep. More than half of shoppers told e-commerce customer service company Narvar in 2021 that they buy multiple sizes of the same product and plan to return what doesn’t fit. Some companies even leave customers with clothes that don’t work and give them even more clothes to donate or throw away.

Although it’s difficult to quantify, e-commerce appears to be driving more clothing purchases, said Neil Saunders, retail analyst at GlobalData. Online shopping has exposed shoppers to more brands than they would see at their local mall and it makes it possible to shop any time of the day, he said.

“When there are more opportunities to shop, there is more impulse buying,” Saunders said of apparel.

Here are four common fates that the clothes you’re getting rid of might encounter.

Recycled but not into new clothes

Your old happy rags could become real rags. The old clothes are bought by recyclers and turned into things like rags for car detailing, upholstery for furniture or soundproofing for cars, they say Association for secondary materials and recycled textiles, or SMART. Fiber recyclers collect old clothes straight from the donation boxes you might see in parking lots, or they buy the clothes from charities.

That may not be the outcome clothing donors envision for their old jeans, said Jackie King, SMART’s director.

“They just expect the clothes to be right back on the shelves,” she said. “It doesn’t always happen that way”

But King emphasized that fiber recycling also has benefits. Less natural resources are used because fewer new textiles are needed to produce these goods. Fiber recycling also keeps these clothes from being incinerated or filling up landfills, and it directs money to the charities that sell clothes to recyclers.

Old clothes are rarely recycled into new clothes. That’s because most items are made from blends of natural and synthetic fibers, making them difficult to disassemble for new fabrics.

For sale in far away street markets

Walk through an outdoor market in Accra, Ghana, and you’ll find second-hand US clothing everywhere. You will see similar goods in other African countries. Importers buy heavy bales of used clothing and sell them to retailers who sort the clothing by quality. The bales come from charities that earn money for their operations by selling the bales, or from textile recyclers.


A used clothes market in Tunisia. Markets like this provide jobs, but they also generate waste that experts say harms surrounding communities.

Getty Images

Not everyone in the importing countries likes the flow of used clothing, in part because it’s competition for local producers. However, a group of four East African countries tried to ban the imports to protect their domestic textile industries only Rwanda maintained the ban after the US government threatened tariffs on countries’ apparel exports.

Clothing can also be a hazard. Research by the OR Foundation, a group campaigning for better fashion practices in the US and Ghana, found these unusable clothes overflowed from landfills and causes pollution when burned in open fires in Accra.

In the trash

American 9 million tons destroyed of clothing and shoes in 2018, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Even if you donate it, the clothes could still end up in landfill.

Clothing going abroad is also thrown away at high rates. Buyers risk every bale; they cannot go through it point by point first. If they don’t like what they get, it will likely end up in the trash. The OR Foundation appreciates that 40% of imported clothing becomes waste. piles of clothes contributed to a huge landfill fire in Accra in 2019according to a report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and long ropes of tangled clothes often wash up on Ghana’s beaches.

“Diverting clothing from landfills in the Global North by disposing of that surplus in the Global South is absurd,” wrote Liz Ricketts, director of the OR Foundation, in an article describing the problems caused by shipping excess clothing to Ghana were caused. “To call this a solution or to call it recycling is even more absurd.”

On Instagram and Etsy

Of course, some of the donated clothing is in good condition. Some Ghanaian business owners are scouring the street market for higher quality used clothing and curating them on social media.

Lia Akuoko, based in Accra, posts used clothes from the city old clothes market on her Instagram account called lias_prettyfinds. Among her finds: a cropped leopard print blazer, a red wrap dress with spaghetti straps, and jeans with a butterfly motif die-cut by Akuoko.

“They mostly love colorful straight dresses,” Akuoko said of her clients, texting via WhatsApp.

In Malaysia, some companies are posting finds from bundles sent from Japan on resale websites aimed at US buyers. Once sold, the clothes make another trip abroad. The New York Times reported in February that many Malaysian vendors Post their listings on Etsy and eBay, and one vendor is discontinuing its luxury Japanese Fashion finds on Graileda US-based men’s clothing resale website.

Alternatives to throwing away clothes

To limit the problems caused by used clothing, advocates first suggest buying fewer clothes. Additionally, there are several choices you can make when you’re ready to part with your clothes, which usually means passing your clothes straight to their next owner.

This can happen on resale sites like eBay and PoshMark where Individuals can list used clothing. It can also happen online Sites like FreeCycle or Buy Nothing groups on Facebook. If you are adventurous you can learn some too Mending and Tailoring Techniques upcycle your own clothes.

When your clothes are unusable, fiber recycling is probably your best bet. Donating through charities or collection boxes is the quickest way to do this. However, one cannot be 100% sure that the fibers will be reused in industrial products instead of ending up as landfill, either here or on the other side of the world.


Comments are closed.