What happens to clothes that don’t get sold in thrift store?

Shopping for second-hand clothing is increasingly popular, to the point where the sector’s global market shares are expected to overtake those of fast fashion brands before the end of the decade. It’s a small revolution that is being played out in the shadows. 

Although a percentage of unsold clothing is recycled into new textiles, it is estimated that approximately 700,000 tons of unsold second-hand clothing are shipped abroad annually. The top two exporters of used clothing as of 2019 are the US and the UK.

Second-hand clothes sent overseas

In 2019, 648,000 tonnes of new items (clothing, linens and shoes) were put on the market in France, according to figures from the eco-organization Refashion (formerly Eco-TLC). That year, the French donated nearly 250,000 tons of used parts to more than 46,000 collection points, such as Le Relais.

These second-hand clothes are then sent to sorting centers in France or abroad. In the French centers, the fate of recovered clothing differs depending on their condition and quality. Nearly 34% is recycled (to produce new textiles, to make rags, insulation in buildings, etc.). Nearly 8% is used to manufacture solid fuels. Finally, nearly 58% is intended for resale in second-hand shops,

Excess clothing and its environmental impact

  • The amount of clothing and shoe waste generated by Americans each year has skyrocketed from around 1.4 million tons in 1960 to more than 13 million tons in 2018. About 70% of that clothing ended up in landfills, while only 13% was recycled into new clothes or for other uses. That data may be an underestimate, as donated clothing often ends up in landfills in the US or in countries like Ghana and Chile.
  • Americans threw away 40 per cent more textiles between 1999 and 2009, reports the Textile Recycling Council. That means 18.2 billion pounds of textiles were thrown away in 1999, and the number of wasted textiles increased to 25.46 billion pounds in 2009. By 2019, Americans are projected to have generated 35.4 billion pounds of textile waste.
  • Over the past 20 years or so, the amount of clothing Americans have thrown away has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons (about 80 pounds per person), and in 2012, the EPA reported that 84 per cent of unwanted clothing ended up in landfills and incinerators, Newsweek says.
  • In New York City alone, 400 million pounds of clothing is wasted each year, according to Popular Science.
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How do thrift stores work?

Thrift stores are not a new thing in the market, as for the past decade different people have been selling their unwanted items in order to recoup some of their value. However, these shops of the past were only temporary, they were just places where the owners sold their own goods and when they ran out, they were left with only their shops.

Thrift stores these days operate in a different way. These are places that not only sell but also buy the thrift stores that people bring to them. People who want to rid their wardrobe of things they no longer wear or want can simply walk into a store and negotiate a price for those clothes with the managers.

Increased clothing production

Most of the clothing around the world is made from polyester, a synthetic fibre derived primarily from petroleum. It has surpassed cotton as the main textile fibre of the 21st century, ending hundreds of years of cotton dominance.

The global polyester yarn market is expected to grow from $106 billion in 2022 to $174.7 billion in 2032. Annual polyester fibre production is projected to exceed 92 million tons in the next 10 years, an increase of 47%.

Increased clothing production has significantly contributed to increased clothing exports. In the past, fashion retailers produced two seasons; now retailers are producing up to 52 Micro-seasons a year.

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