This article originally appeared in Philanthropy Daily, April 11, 2018.
It’s a form of recycling that’s over a century old. When Rev. Edgar Helms started the nonprofit that became Goodwill Industries in 1902, he realized that many people didn’t have money to spare for the poor, so he encouraged them to donate old clothes or other goods that could be recycled. He then used the profits from these clothing sales to help the poor.
But Adam Minter, a Bloomberg columnist, thinks that clothes recycling is a business that is on a steady decline. His editor decided to put this scary headline on his piece: “No One Wants Your Used Clothes Anymore.”
I once wrote about a rescue mission in Frederick, Maryland, and saw their clothes recycling process. The best clothes were sold in their thrift stores, and the second-tier selections were bundled and shipped to the Third World. I have read that in some countries these used clothes from the West are known as “who-die clothes,” because the recipients know that the clothes they wear often come from estate sales.
In his Bloomberg piece, Minter isn’t discussing lightly used clothes sold in consignment shops, but rather the clothes that come to Goodwill or the Salvation Army as rags and then get exported abroad. He argues that there are more clothes being made than there used to be, and they don’t last as long before they get tossed.
His chief piece of evidence is A New Textiles Economy, a report from Britain’s Ellen MacArthur Foundation that shows that we tend to buy more clothes, wear them fewer times than in the past, and then don’t try to recycle them.
A New Textiles Economy had some information that was new to me. For example, if you don’t like plastic clothes, here’s a new reason not to like them: plastic clothes when washed shed microfibers, which end up in the oceans as a major source of pollution.
The report doesn’t have much to say about nonprofits recycling clothes, and their principal source on this subject is a 2015 BBC piece by Lucy Rodgers. Rodgers reports that most donors of clothes to British charity shops don’t know that their clothes are exported. She also says that Oxfam was creating a pilot fabrics recycling plant, but the link to the Oxfam site about this no longer works.
Oh, and if you want to buy used clothes in Ghana, ask for “obrani wawu,” which according to Rodgers, means “clothes of the dead white man.”
Minter also discusses how Panipat, India, which used to recycle rags into a product called “shoddy”, which was used for rescue blankets to keep refugees warm. I appreciate Minter’s linking to this piece that explains that “shoddy” was invented in 1813 by a British entrepreneur named Benjamin Law, who realized that he could combine rags with wool scraps to create a cheap but warm fabric. By the 1860s, mills in Yorkshire were recycling 35 million pounds of rags a year to create shoddy and a higher-grade product called “mungo.”
According to an 1888 book called Yorkshire Scene Lore and Legends, these British recycling plants were brought “tatters from pediculous Poland, from the Gipsies of Hungary, from the beggars and scarecrows of Germany, from the frowsy peasants of Muscovy.”
The shoddy production eventually migrated from Britain to India. But in the past decade Chinese mills have been so efficient at producing fleece that the market for shoddy has dried up. The efficient Chinese can produce a polar fleece for $2.50, not much more than the Indian recyclers who produce a comparable recycled product for $2. As a result, the market for shoddy has dried up and the Indians are converting their mills from recycling to producing new products.
That’s good news for the poor, who can get new fleeces for little more than they once paid for recycled old clothes. But it’s bad news for the charities that sell worn out clothes to recyclers.
If clothing manufacturers wanted to expand their charitable activities, sponsoring and encouraging clothes recycling would be a good bet. For example, L.L. Bean famously offered to replace any of their products a customer bought, no matter how old, in return for a new replacement. They changed the policy so that customers can’t return a product that’s more than a year old. That’s understandable, because too many customers were abusing L.L. Bean’s policies. But nothing I’ve read suggests that L.L. Bean does anything to encourage clothes recycling.
I suppose we might applaud the Chinese for creatively destroying the market for worn out clothes. The poor will benefit. But what this means is that a centuries-old income stream for social enterprises has dried up. The charities that depend on clothes donations will have to come up with new ways to bring in revenue.
(Hat tip: The Week)