• Taylor Teutsch

Clothing Afterlife: More Harm than Good

Thrifting. An essential means for our way of living right? Generationally, words such as ‘thrift’, ‘ethical’, and ‘sustainable’ are becoming banal. The sad cold truth is that we equate these words with a different medium, one that lacks the originality that it once possessed. Words such as these, have strayed from what they once were because of the exhausted way in which we include them into what we believe they mean within our life.

We tend to make these claims and ask these questions:

‘Is that an ethical brand?’.

‘Oh, my bag is made from sustainable fibers’.

‘I thrifted it! I’ve been thrifting everything’.

‘Is that to-go coffee cup recyclable?’.

‘It’s compostable! I feel so much better about buying these’.

Most times, we don't follow-up with:

‘Yes, the brand only produces garments using dead-stock fabric from Liz Claiborne’.

‘Yes, my bag is made from leftover cutting scraps from our sewing studio!’.

‘I’ve only been thrifting, but I hold myself accountable to only thrifting once every four months’.

‘Yes, it’s recyclable! I forgot my reusable cup today. Knowing our cities’ lack of accepted recyclable materials, I bring my own reusable cup’.

‘It’s compostable, but I make sure I take these compostable pieces to the proper facility in town in order for them to properly get composted’.

So what happens when we don’t respond in these ways? When we don’t know the realities. What do conversations like these transition into? A means for over-use, therefore, a dwindling truth of our own reality. Words such as ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’, and ‘recycled’, used to hold so much power, they were enlightening.

Maybe our intentions are pure with such terminology, but what are our true beliefs? Our true morals? Do they align with the purity ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’, ‘eco-friendly’ encompass?

For example, when I hear ‘thrift’, what first comes to mind is the use of already worn pieces as a means of re-use, rather than purchasing new. According to ThredUp, “thrift: (noun) is the quality of using money and other resources carefully and not wastefully”. The word actually originates from the word ‘thrive’ (verb), which is “to grow or develop well or vigorously”, coming from Middle English.

So,‘carefully and not wastefully’. Does thrifting align with this today? Our perception may be skewed. Thrifting has become an out for holding ourselves accountable in regards to our continuous culture of disposability. We grow our closets into what we believe is enough.

I’ll tell you now that it will never be enough.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the concept of thrifting - reusing, repurposing / up-cycling. Yes! These are great ways to create new from old, to identify with a purposeful ideal. But when does the cycle transform into the mere culture of disposing.

We thrift, we re-use, but then we get tired of these pieces, just like we do when buying new. What do we do? We resell or donate, and some of us have the audacity to throw pieces directly into a waste bin. Regardless of thrifting, this cycle leads to a culture of continuously needing more. Entangled consumerism.

We donate our clothing to Goodwill, to Plato's Closet, to Buffalo Exchange, etc. etc. We become the epitome of a complex: a savior complex.

In June of 2019 in my course at the University of Cincinnati, I had the honor of listening to a presentation from Liz Rickett’s - creator of the non-profit, ‘The OR Foundation’. She spoke about her individual work, waste / the reality of our waste, and the Global North’s Impact on the Global South. “We talk about secondhand clothing in a very classist way. We (donating) are saviors, helping those in need, making other people’s lives better with our unwanted shit. Or as a diversion of waste”, said Liz Rickett’s.

Goodwill was founded in Boston in 1902 by Rev. Edgar J. Helms. “The idea was simple, fight poverty not with charity, but with trade skills—and provide a chance for the poor and the unemployed to do productive work”, from Goodwill. This was a beautiful program at the time, teaching poorer citizens the skills to repair / restore collected goods, and earn a profitable wage.

What is Goodwill’s verity now? Legally, yes, it is still considered a charity to this day. But beyond this identification, corruption exists. From Medium, to name a few “Goodwill actively fights legislative proposals to increase minimum wage, unsafe working conditions have led to many deaths of disabled employees, and less than one-eighth of the company’s profit goes toward its charity work”.

Our donations allow us to feel a sense of self-gratitude, a certain ‘savior complex’. Like we are doing someone a favor, like we are saving them. The real question still remains - where do all of our donations actually go? I think it’s easy for us to assume that all donations do find a home, that they are of purpose.

But think about the amount of clothing you have brought to Goodwill in just one trip. From Liz Ricketts' presentation in June 2019, “Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul, only sells around 10% of donated clothes”. 10%.

So the rest? “On average, 700,000 tons of used clothing gets exported overseas and 2.5 million tons of clothing are recycled. But over three million tons are incinerated, and a staggering 10 million tons get sent to landfills”, according to Green America.

A large portion of clothing is automatically sent to landfill, due to damage and mildew that can contaminate entire bags of donations. Around 14.5% are used for recycling. The garments are shredded and searched for buttons / zippers, and natural fabrics are pulled, where their yarn is re-spun for re-use.

Green America.

But the truth is, there is just too much.

From Recho Omondi’s podcast, The Cutting Room Floor, The Afterlife of Clothing Feat. Liz Rickett’s, "We're producing more than we can consume, we're consuming more than we can use, and we waste. Too much clothing not enough fashion, too much clothing not enough culture, too much clothing not enough innovation".

So, 700,000 tons of used clothing gets exported overseas. Where to? “60-80% (donated clothing) will either be sent to landfill or exported to countries like Ghana'', according to Liz Rickett’s presentation in June 2019. This exportation is considered to be the ever-exceeding Global South clothing dump’ ***. We tend to rely on the ‘deficit myth’, an ideal that "someone else somewhere in the world needs something you no longer want", from The Cutting Room Floor, The Afterlife of Clothing Feat. Liz Rickett’s.

Is anyone claiming to positively be contributing to the progression of this problem? Hmm, well fast fashion companies such as H&M are. Many brands are incorporating ‘recycling programs’ into their brand ethos, identifying the program to be significant enough to be labeled as a ‘sustainable brand’.

Customers are able to toss in old garments, in exchange for a coupon or discount on future purchases. Slogans such as ‘let’s close the loop’ and ‘creating the new’ are marketed to incentivize consumers that H&M actually has something to do with the repurposing and positive aftermath of old clothing.

Ever been skeptical of this take back program? Well, with good reason. According to CBC News, “Of all of the material used to make its estimated half a billion garments a year, only 0.7 per cent is recycled material. The fabrics H&M uses are mostly synthetic and a mix of blended fibers, too difficult and expensive to properly recycle and repurpose”.

Their ‘recycling program’ is inducement enough to 1. Both allow consumers to feel recycling programs are their ‘saviors’, as well as their individual self being a ‘savior’ to someone who will receive their donation. And 2. Drive consumers to crave the ‘give back’ program as means to receive discounts to enable their ‘disposable culture’ purchasing habits and customer-to-brand-trust.

Our accountability is nearly nonexistent.

This all being a lovely cycle that grants H&M a sneaky tactic to create an insurmountable amount of product. “It would take H&M twelve years to recycle 1,000 tonnes of clothing waste, roughly the amount of clothing H&M produces in just two days”, from environmental journalist, Lucy Siegle. What may be even worse? In 2018, H&M released a big quarterly report. Big as in “$4.3 billion dollars of unsold clothing” big, according to Liz Rickett’s presentation in June 2019.

$4.3 billion dollars (!). Personally, I cannot stack up this amount of clothing inside my brain, it’s inconceivable. It’s like trying to count the amount of grains of sand on one beach in California. But it gets better (no, not in a positive way but in a more unnerving way).

What’s most astonishing is that after this said loss, “H&M claimed a market gain in 2018”, according to The Cutting Room Floor, The Afterlife of Clothing Feat. Liz Rickett’s. This is vile. I’m trying to imagine the amount of clothing a loss of $4.3 million dollars could even look like, and then attempting to somehow justify a market gain?

In other words, this ‘loss’ was no loss to H&M. It is a mere sad, lackadaisical, unsatisfactory, number that became lost in the void along with the rest of their un-bought clothing.

Well Made Clothes. Inside one of H&M’s recycling plants.

Yet, what H&M enjoys claiming, versus the reality of the waste and insufficient ‘recycling’ programs, is what we like to call Greenwashing. ”Greenwashing is when a company or organization spends more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than on minimizing their environmental impact”, according to Business News Daily. This essentially equates to spoon-feeding consumers exactly what they want to hear in regards to having a green soul and advocating for environmental change. This happens in more ways than one within marketing itself.

Think about trends - they are inherited from the innovators, or trendsetters. Eventually, their measures spark enough interest for production of knock-offs within the fast fashion industry. Moreover, this then allows for an extended period of time between the innovators and the stragglers, who eventually also want a slice of the cake.

Extended consumerism, for one product, for one style, for one trend. We all want to be a part of the movement. The movement of what exactly? Feeling part of an existence, feeling like we belong.

What can we do as individuals? Wear your clothing for as long as possible! Repurpose and upcycle. Try making it into something new - repurposing a dress into two tops. Cut and make into household rags, a tapestry, or a picnic blanket. Learn the basics of machine or hand sewing. Make your friends gifts - reusable shopping bags, masks, and hand towels. Host a fun get-together and have a clothing swap. Hey, it’s new to you.

Second, re-sell! Orchestrate a good ol' yard sale. Use helpful online apps such as Depop, Vinted, Poshmark, Ebay, Craigslist, etc. You’ll truly be surprised at who wants your Walmart crew neck from 2011.

Thirdly, literally place a box titled ‘free stuff’ on your street, outside your home, or at a local event. Some people drool over the word ‘free’.

Finally, donate clothing. Think of this option as your last resort! Make sure garments / items are in well enough condition where you would be happy receiving it as well. Remember, if garments are extremely dirty they will go straight to the landfill :,(

Be conscious, question your purchases, keep educating yourself on brands / your moral code, and understand just how much impact you can create. Also, for everyone’s sake, just say no to H&M.


*** Stay-tuned for a follow up on our impact within the Global South clothing dump / circular fashion, and unethical mistreatment of garment workers responsible for sewing your $13 crop top.

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