Clothes: Exporting the Other Harm

Each year, when I visit the Methodist orphanage in Guatemalan highlands, the first thing kids ask me is to translate English words on their t-shirts. For years, it was only orphans who wore western clothes, but for the past several years, I have seen an increase in this type of apparel. More than 90 percent of Guatemalans are Mayan; most wear brilliant hand-made textiles. Textile workers pass on ancient designs within each community. While Mayan families struggle with whether or not to allow their children to migrate from tradition, western clothes are sold in giant mounds at extremely cheap prices in open markets.

After hearing a story on NPR and reading an article in the magazine Quaker Action about the negative impacts in developing countries from the export of large volumes of clothes, I became more concerned about what I observed in Guatemala.

According to NPR, the average American discards more than 10 pounds of clothes each year. Charities receive so many donations that they can only keep clothes in retail outlets for about three weeks. The US exports 1,000 tons of used clothes every day. The clothes are sold in bulk for 6 to 12 cents per pound to companies that export the clothes to developing countries. One half of the billion pieces of clothes donated to Goodwill each year are sold to exporters. There are no estimates of how much clothing ends up in landfills of receiving nations.

While the export of clothes may not have the toxic effects of exporting electronic waste, the loss of jobs, dignity and indigenous cultural tradition are additional costs of our unchecked consumption on our neighbors. The UN estimates that tens of thousands of textile workers in Africa have lost their jobs due to the used clothes industry.

In 2002, the United Nations encouraged developing nations to ban the sale of used clothes, which 30 countries have adopted today. Despite these bans, clothing smugglers ignore these bans daily.

The solution is not to stop donating clothes to charities. These charities provide a valuable service by offering a reuse option for apparel and affordable clothing to the poor. Instead, we should, first, prevent the volume of used clothes from accumulating. Master Recyclers know, waste prevention is more ecologically beneficial than reuse – clothing is no exception.

Second we must buy reused clothing from these charities instead of buying new. Just like buying recycled content paper closes the recycling loop; buying used clothes offers a local market for that waste stream.

waste prevention ideas for clothing:

  • Only buy used clothes.
  • Organize a garage sale.
  • Have a party to trade clothes with friends. (often called a “naked lady” party)
  • Buy sturdy clothes that will last a long time, are easy to clean, and won’t go out of fashion in one season.
  • Take care of clothes and mend them instead of discarding them.
  • Donate only as much as you consume.
  • Avoid event t-shirts if you don’t plan to wear them.