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Donated and forgotten: The problem with second-hand clothes

on December 19, 2019

The Goodwill’s Greater East Bay headquarters on International Boulevard is a clothing reseller’s dream and a garbage system nightmare. This block-long facility is, despite its size, an inconspicuous treasure trove for resellers sifting for secondhand goods they will leave with by the cartload. The white cinderblock interior has an almost clinical feel: Clothes lie sprawled in plastic carts the size of operating tables, pushed together in a maze that only the regulars know how to navigate. This kind of retail isn’t for the faint-hearted—it’s the kind of place where the prevailing logic is everything is up for grabs.

The world of “donated goods retail,” or reselling secondhand clothes and home wares, operates within an unpredictable supply system, but it mimics the rest of the textile world. “Fast fashion,” or cheaply-made, on-trend clothes that are often quickly disposed of, is said to have 52 seasons—a drop of fresh arrivals on a retailer’s webpage and racks every week. In a way, Goodwill has a new season every 30 minutes, when just-donated goods get rolled out to the shop floors. “We never know what we’re going to get, or how much we’re going to get,” says East Bay Goodwill CEO Mike Keenan.

The customers are a mix of leisurely shoppers and resellers for whom browsing is a profession. The pros stick to a tight schedule, scanning the bins before an employee wheels out the next load of goodies. A man in his late 20s wearing distressed combat boots and a mid-rinse denim jacket, his hair pulled back in a loose, neat bun, picks up books and scans their ISBN numbers with his phone, looking for price-fetching titles, flinging others back into the bin.

The back wall is lined with shoes piled on a waist-high shelf, where two men meticulously examine pairs, hunching over like an airport crowd waiting for the luggage carousel to spin into life. They pick up barely-worn hiking shoes, white Fila “marshmallow” sneakers whose soles are still crisp white, and leather loafers neatly stitched across the top, adding them to a cart. All of this—books, shoes, hoodies, shirts, sweaters—will be sold for $1.59 a pound.

This Goodwill unloads masses of clothes everyday—clothes ranging from gently-worn quality items to cheap stuff that’s falling apart at the seams. Others might have minor imperfections, like a missing button or small stain, “because if it has a stain on it, you would never buy it. And if a button was missing, and if you weren’t a seamstress, you wouldn’t fix it,” says Keenan.

But no amount of dedicated secondhand shopping can possibly keep up with the volume of clothes that end up in shops like Goodwill. The average American gets rid of 81 pounds of textiles a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2017, Americans sent 11.2 million tons of textiles to landfills—mostly clothing, although that figure includes sheets, towels, and footwear.

Only three decades ago, that figure was a third of what it now is. The uptick in discarded items isn’t because well-worn items are ready to retire—we are producing more clothes than ever before, expediting the time between buying and dumping. Globally, the textile industry produces 150 billion pieces of clothing a year, according to California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (Cal Recycle). And yet, Californians spend $70 million to send textiles to the landfill every year—95 percent of which are reusable or recyclable.

“The average consumer is purchasing 60 to 70 percent more clothing than in 2000. A large part of that is because of fast fashion,” says Tracey Harper, the textiles expert for Cal Recycle. “When a shirt costs less than a dozen eggs we have a problem. People don’t value what they own. People are not making purchases with the idea, ‘Am I going to wear this 30 times?’”

This single Goodwill’s resellers can only make a small dent in the mountains of discarded clothes that are dropped off there. A lot of the clothes won’t be sold, either in their retail stores or at the Goodwill’s more forgiving outlet store, and will instead get sent abroad to salvage resellers in Eastern Europe and both coasts of Africa. Ultimately, some will be landfilled. This might come as a surprise to many donors, who assume that their cast-off items will be put to good use and stay out of the trash.

Goodwill employees know that not everything that’s donated is truly salvageable. “Some people really just give us literally trash,” says Keenan. Still, he points out, they do their best: Whether they re-sell items in thrift or outlet stores, or abroad as salvage, they keep massive quantities of textiles out of the garbage. His motto is: “If you donate it to us, there’s a good chance it won’t go in the landfill. If you throw it in your garbage can, you know it’s going to landfill.”

The process of which item goes where starts with Daniel Aguilar, who unpacks the donations as they come in, inspecting garments for their condition. Aguilar estimates that the store where he works at MacArthur Boulevard and 35th Street receives over 1,000 donations a day. He sorts the items into their designated piles—some for the retail store and some for the outlet—making sure that 600 items make it to the rack by day’s end.

Aguilar looks for stains, holes, abnormalities, and overall wear. But some of the items are in excellent condition. Too good, in fact. Aguilar looks for designer labels and items that are “new with tags,” and siphons them into a pile headed for Goodwill’s online store, where customers bid for items and pay a slightly higher price.

For the rest, if they pass his inspection, Aguilar will put them on hangers and tag them with the price and date received, using a colored tag for the week. The clothes get filed into the store’s racks, loosely organized by color. Every week, Aguilar flips through the racks, looking at the color of the tags. The Goodwill staff might try to move sales on something that’s been collecting dust for weeks by dropping the price on, say, all yellow-tagged items by 50 percent. If that doesn’t work, the items are sent to the outlet store, where, along with the items that didn’t pass Aguilar’s first inspection, they might be sold in the bargain bins.

Everything that doesn’t sell at any East Bay Goodwill location ends up at the outlet just down the road from Aguilar’s store, where the process is repeated. This is the warehouse of last chance, where garments will meet their final fate: to the bins for a last glance, to the landfill, or to be shipped off to a country where secondhand clothing dominates the market.

Here, Goodwill has a trash container that is steadily filled by a man controlling a large mandible container, moving between pile and bin, pile and bin. In this backyard area, landfill, salvage, and yet-to-be-processed goods are cordoned off into their respective areas. As a crew of men crawl across the yard in forklifts, a large boom box blares radio tunes in the corner.

Inside, a group of ten or so women sort through stacks of clothes piled in gaylords: bulky, open-topped cardboard boxes. They inspect the clothes and neatly fold them into piles: salvage, garbage, outlet bins, online store. As they work, seasoned shoppers gaze into the fluorescent-lit room, separated from it only by a set of plastic sheets milky with age.  Once 30 minutes are up, an employee wheels out a plastic bargain bin filled with the next reveal of fresh goods, sternly telling shoppers to “step back and stay behind the lines” marked in yellow tape on the floor.

The rest of the clothes never make it to a shop floor.  The rejects that are still wearable head to the compressor: a formidable 15-foot tall piece of steel machinery that squishes the clothes into bales, beeping loudly as a comically large metal plate resembling a meat pounder sinks into the clothes. The pile is wrapped in scrap cardboard, tied with packaging string, and lifted onto a floor scale mounted with a wooden pallet. 1246; 1243; 1231—the weight of the bales in pounds. The bales are scooped up by a forklift headed to the row of shipping containers outside, each labeled with their contents: pairs of shoes, single shoes, clothes.

Keenan doesn’t know exactly what ends up where, but he knows that these containers will likely end up in “developing countries.” And he’s right. The exported clothes are part of a thriving global secondhand economy that provides employment to resellers in Eastern European and African countries.

Clothing sits in boxes waiting to be sorted at Goodwill’s outlet center.

The US exported over $675 million of used clothes to countries across the globe in 2018, according to the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Division. The top receiving countries in 2018 included Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Honduras, and India, according to the UN data. The data does not distinguish between new and used textiles.

But although this global trade keeps some textiles from the landfills, it has other difficulties. In 2016, the East African Community (EAC), whose member countries include Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda, proposed a ban to prevent importing used clothes and shoes, which some political leaders have attributed to the decline in local textile economies. The ban passed and was set to take effect this year, but has been hampered by pushback from the office of the US Trade Representative and US exporters, who’ve argued that the ban is a violation of free trade. Even though exporting used clothes continues, it’s raised questions about what would happen to America’s thrift clothing surplus if other countries were no longer willing to take it.

“I can tell you that if somebody just suddenly turned off the spigot and nobody was willing to buy salvage, then we would have to figure something else out,” says Keenan.

*****

On a Monday night, at Denim Unspun’s sparsely decorated retail space in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, fashion journalist Elizabeth Kline sits perched on a stool next to three other women speaking at a panel tasked with the hazy topic of sustainable fashion. Kline is wearing a mid-length, mock-necked dress with modestly puffed long sleeves—the black 1990s floral pattern punctuated by lilac, ochre, verdant green, and cherry red roses. Her dress and black kitten heel booties have a distinctly vintage feel that pops against the shop’s white walls and plywood accents, a millennial aesthetic drawn from Scandinavian minimalism. The topic draws a crowd that’s almost entirely women, nestled into the store’s small quarters, sipping wine and grazing the cheese platter.

Kline is there to promote her new book, The Conscious Closet, which is about building a wardrobe that avoids fast fashion and sources from the abundance of already-existing clothes—all while cultivating personal style and confidence. Contrary to environmental hardliners, Kline argues that updating a wardrobe and minimizing one’s use of virgin resources don’t have to be at odds with each other—she says it’s achievable through secondhand shopping and buying new items from what she calls “Conscious Superstars,” or the most pioneering sustainable brands. Her definition of a sustainable wardrobe includes a combination of “for keeps” clothes—ones that are loved and worn regularly—and new acquisitions from secondhand sources and brands that demonstrate a commitment to ethical practices.

In her book, she writes, “a conscious closet is a wardrobe built with greater intention and awareness of our clothes, where they come from, what they’re made out of, and why they matter.” If people find clothes that they love, she argues, they are less likely to send them to a landfill.

“My closet was overflowing with clothes that I didn’t like or care about. I recycled, shopped for organic food, used reusable shopping bags. And yet I was ignoring the enormous environmental crisis lurking in my closet. I rarely felt confident or happy in what I wore. Despite only 354 items of clothes,” Kline says, reading from her opening chapter. There are nods of agreement from the crowd.

Kline’s book is part factual foray into the fashion industry, part self-help guide aimed at helping readers reject the constant consumption of clothing, and to reduce the environmental drain that the textile industry takes on the world. Her first book, Overdressed: the Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, laid out the scope of the problem. Reading from her new book, she says that Overdressed was“one of the first investigations to draw a straight line between our increasing consumption of fashion in the critical problems of climate change, pollution and poor working conditions.”

After the book came out, countless people turned to me wanting to know how to dress with their values. They asked how should I shop and what’s okay. When the truth is, I was often asking myself the same questions,” she continues. In The Conscious Closet, Kline lays out a step-by-step plan to help readers rebuild their own closets, beginning with a purge of all the items that haven’t been worn in a year, provided the items are disposed of either by donating or reselling them. The next steps take time, and they involve learning what your style is and acquiring well-made staples from sustainable brands along with the occasional “new” vintage piece. After all, Kline writes, even a coordinated wardrobe of just 31 items can be combined to create different outfits for an entire year.

The discussion finishes with a round of audiencequestions, almost all of them asking different iterations of the same frustration: How can I make my wardrobe sustainable?

Kline’s answers are inflected with a tone of ambiguity and resigned defeat as she acknowledges that consumers have limited options. Secondhand consumption, like buying at thrift stores, is an obvious first step, she says, because itsatiates a shopper’s desire for new things while keeping clothes out of landfills and eliminating the need for virgin resources to create new clothes.

And in response to another question, she points out that buying new clothes doesn’t have to be irresponsible; higher-quality items that are made to last generally have a better ecological footprint than fast fashion one-offs.

One woman timidly raises her hand and asks Kline what she thinks about making her own clothes. To that, Kline has an unequivocal answer: “That’s rad.”

*****

As a designer who makes clothing by hand, Geana Sieburger thinks a lot about what it means to be a producer in a world of excess things. But even though she makes new things, she challenges the conventions of production, beginning with the very origin of her materials. Sieburger, whose namesake fashion and home goods label GDS Cloth Goods creates utility items like aprons, runs a sustainable brand by designing with upcycled cloth and no-waste patterns, meaning her patterns won’t leave any unusable scraps when she cuts them out. 

Her studio and retail space is tucked into a cavernous brick warehouse that she shares with other artists on 25th Street in downtown Oakland. The space is eclectic, with projects at different stages of completion and tools stacked against the rich sienna brick—the space reads as atelier meets curiosity shop. Her workspace pushes up against a clean white wall; large cutting tables are lightly littered with patterns and small mounds of grey-blue fabric. She moves between the tables, her sewing machines, and several racks hung with finished aprons and a number of pillows.

A model wears a GDS Cloth Goods apron and uses the ebb reusable coffee filter. Photo courtesy of Geana Sieburger.

Sitting on a stool in front of  her cutting table,she holds up two pieces of recycled denim fabric, in a med-mélange blue that both look like a triangle with a right angle and curved hypotenuse. Ordinarily, odd-shaped pieces like these would go in the trash. But, Sieburger says, “I use these, because I design for it.” The pieces, cut from the top of the initial rectangle to create the classic trapezoidal shape of an apron, will be sewn on the front to make pockets.

Sieburger founded GDS Cloth Goods in 2015, getting her start with sewing reusable coffee filters—a product born from her design philosophy that textiles are an agricultural system. Finished products, she says, start with the raw cotton that was grown in a field. Her collection has expanded to aprons and a no-waste pattern trouser, top, and jumpsuit. Her designs are work wear; clothing that is meant to stand up to movement and the rigor of everyday use in the kitchen, at the café, on the go. Her clothing is available on her website and at the Lake Merritt Farmers Market.

“When I started this, my goal wasn’t to create change of any sort. It just seemed like there was no other option. Adding to the waste, adding to the unethical labor practice, adding to all of that was just never going to be part of the picture for me,” she says.

But her way isn’t typical. Most clothing patterns produce a lot of waste once they get cut. Fabric comes on bolts, as long rectangular pieces that are rolled around a tube of cardboard. After a designer cuts out their pattern pieces, there are a lot of scraps left over. That fabric is thrown away without ever being used.

“I feel—as a designer and business owner—a huge amount of responsibility on me to both educate how I produce and kind of demystify some stuff that’s out there in a way that isn’t judgmental,” says Sieburger.

Textiles are in the top ten of materials sent to landfills by tonnage. Of the 1.5 million tons of textiles sent to the landfill in California within a single year, at least 90 percent of that material is recyclable, according to CalRecycle. So to reduce waste even further, Sieburger also uses fabric made from recycled denim scraps. She gets her fabric from The New Denim Project, an organization that takes scraps from denim mills in Guatemala—factories that sew jeans—and turns them into new fabric. They shred these pure cotton strips of fabric into small fibers that are re-woven into new fabric, using some virgin cotton to give the fabric strength. This process of fiber upcycling is a way of using technology to literally break down old textiles and spin them into something new.

“A few years ago we couldn’t make clothing from used clothing. That’s the Holy Grail for recycling clothing,” says Harper, the textile expert from CalRecycles. Two of the fibers best suited to upcycling arewool and cotton. Unlike fossil fuel derived fibers like polyester and acrylic, which are used in the vast majority of clothes, natural fiber clothing can be effectively recycled. A pure cotton t-shirt could, for example, be fed through a machine that would shred the cloth into tiny strands. These would then be re-spun, using some virgin cotton to connect the strands, and re-woven into new cloth.

Jess Daniels, the researcher and media coordinator of Fibershed, says that growing these two fibers is suited to California’s rangeland ecology, and that they are climate beneficial, meaning they can regenerate the soil and draw down carbon from the atmosphere. Fibershed is a Northern California nonprofit that researches textile production and helps connect farmers with spinning and weaving mills to localize clothing production.The Fibershed network grows, spins, and sews natural fibers that can be easily recycled or composted at the end of their lifespans.A fabric like wool, she says, “could be broken up mechanically and shredded back into 100 percent wool fluff and could be run through another mechanical process.”

Wool cloth from Fibershed’s Community Supported Cloth project. Photo by Paige Green, courtesy of Fibershed.

But this solution has some limitations. “We don’t really have the recycling technology in the industry to capture and make use of a lot of our textiles,” Daniels says, pointing out that current technology can only process pure fibers—that is, clothes that are 100 percent cotton or wool. It won’t work with fabrics that are fiber blends, because they are not homogenous and can’t be easily separated. “A chemically-synthesized fiber is going to need a different process, likely a chemical process, to be reused,” says Daniels. And that’s a problem, because the majority of clothes are some sort of blend, usually cotton and polyester or acrylic.

Daniels argues that clothing production needs to consider end-of-life responsibility because not all donated items are actually reused. “Everything we’re touching is going to be around in some form, and our solution as humans to throwing something away is to bury it in the ground or to incinerate it,” says Daniels. “And so for clothing and shoes in particular, we think sort of, out of sight, out of mind.  We get them out of our closet and send them off, and think that they’re going off to someone else, ideally. But often they’re not. They’re going to a landfill.”

But having the option to responsibly dispose of clothes forces us to consider what happens to them when we get rid of them, she says. “We’re not used to taking accountability for what happens when something goes away—just like we’re not used to taking accountability for what happened before,” says Daniels.

Even though recycling is part of her design process, Sieburger doesn’t think it fixes all of the waste problems created by the fashion industry. The vast majority of clothes are made from conventionally-grown cotton, which requires the use of pesticides and is incredibly water-intensive, and polyester, which is made from fossil fuels. “I think that there are a lot of options that are way better than status quo. Right now, status quo is conventional cotton and polyester. Those two fibers alone make up like 80 percent of all fibers being used. And as long as you’re avoiding those—as a designer and as a consumer—you’re doing good, is the way I see it,” she says.

Choosing recycled denim and using patterns that don’t create waste are two other choices that help her minimize what textiles won’t waste away in the landfill. And while it’s not a complete solution, it’s a start.

*****

Meanwhile, the tide of unwanted clothes flowing into the East Bay’s thrift stores is just picking up.

“Our heaviest time is actually the end of the year,” says Goodwill CEO Mike Keenan. “People are kind of getting ready for the holidays, maybe getting rid of stuff they don’t want, knowing they’re going to get more stuff. And then also they come in to get the tax deductible receipts for the end of the year.”He estimates that about 30 percent of these items will end up being resold in local Goodwill stores. But Keenan points out that even if all of these clothes can’t be resold in the Bay Area, the donations will still do some social good. The Goodwill employs people who have difficulty securing employment because of a criminal record or a history of drug abuse. Earnings from both in-store sales and from salvage ultimately help fulfill Goodwill’s mission. “We’re here to give people jobs,” says Keenan. “Our mission is to turn donations into jobs.”

For many East Bay donors, you don’t have to convince them that Americans buy too many clothes and should adopt more eco-conscious shopping habits.  At the Berkeley Goodwill on University Avenue on a weekday morning, Jennifer Russ is unloading a few bags of home wares, decorations, and clothes. She already does many of the things Kline recommends in her book: She originally bought the clothes secondhand and is a regular thrift shopper. “I like wearing something where I know I’m going to walk into a room and be wearing something nobody else has on,” Russ says.

Her closet is a mix of pieces she’s had for up to 30 years, and some she’s had for just a few months. She’s fine-tuned her shopping criteria. “I think about, how often will I wear it? Do I want to store it? If the answer is ‘no,’ I don’t buy it,” she says.

But even though she shops with intention, not all of the pieces stay in her wardrobe. She has a few pieces she could do without, so she’s dropping them off “because I couldn’t bear to throw them away.”

She sounds hopeful as lets them go. “Somebody else could use them,” she says.

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