The Export of Used Clothing Increases, How Ecological is it to Donate Clothing?

Donating used clothing is seen as a charitable and even ecological act, but behind this practice lies a dark truth about exporting clothing that becomes trash.

clothes hanging on hooks

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LatinAmerican Post | July Vanesa López Romero

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At first, glance, donating used clothing appears to be a kind and charitable act. Millions of people worldwide decide to take out of their closet clothes that have gone out of style or that they no longer use and donate them to foundations in charge of delivering them to the less favored. But although this may seem like an act of goodwill, the truth is that the massive donation of clothing endangers the well-being of particular communities. This problem is a natural part of the climate change crisis.

This is how the most recent report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) reveals it, in which they warn about the growth of the export of used clothing from the European Union. According to the study, this has tripled in recent decades, and the vast majority has ended up in landfills in Africa and Asia, which implies a growing residual problem in these regions. Likewise, a Changing Markets Foundation report called “Trashion” revealed the alarming amounts of second-hand clothing exported to Kenya worldwide.

This is not a new issue. For several years now, the disguised as a benign problem has been denounced, and that, for example, has led to the Atacama desert being recognized as the clothing graveyard of Latin America.

Read also: Atacama Desert: from an astronomical observatory to a clothing dump

Why Donating Used Clothing is Problematic?

If there is one thing that is clear to us in the face of the environmental crisis that we are currently facing, it is that excessive consumption in the last hundreds of years is its main engine. The textile industry is the second most polluting in the world after the livestock industry and is responsible for 10% of CO₂ emissions globally; both clothing and food are basic daily necessities, but their excessive and socially inequitable consumption has positioned both industries as the most harmful to the environment and, in that order of ideas, to human health.

In the case of textiles, excessive use is a consequence of fast fashion, a phenomenon born in the mid-19th century, when the first attempts were made to make discounts on material products, but which had its heyday at the end of century XX with the emergence of brands with very cheap labor and affordable prices to the public, such as H&M, Forever 21, Zara, Primark, etc. Due to demand, these brands can produce dozens of seasons a year (when before only four were made). The amount of clothing that fast fashion has annually is around 665 billion dollars globally.

Thanks to the low-quality standards, clothes wear out quickly, which leads consumers to get rid of their clothes in less time and buy again to repeat a cycle that today only generates around 1 in the European Union 7 million tons of clothing (including footwear), according to the EEA report.

The donation of clothes sneaks into this scenario. It is passed off as an option that even seems ecological because by donating clothes, you are not throwing them away. Still, you allow another person, who usually does not enjoy basic privileges, to use them. Unfortunately, and as we have already said, these clothes are of shallow quality and end up as garbage in the place where they are sent. Thus, under the label of donating clothes, millions of tons of textiles are exported from "first world" regions and become landfills too "third world" territories that are supposedly receiving aid.

It has already been shown that washing clothes carry more than 500,000 tons of microplastics into the oceans. This is exceptionally problematic because the CO₂ emissions produced by this process are not dealt with by the inhabitants of these first-world regions but rather by the vulnerable territories with few possibilities that experience this contamination first-hand. In addition, due to the cheap materials and the use of plastic microfibers in making the garments, extra environmental pressure is produced since it makes their recyclability impossible.

These reports once again emphasize the importance of regulating how the textile industry approaches its production and how governments extend aid to the poorest countries to generate well-being instead of more burdens. That endangers the very lives of its inhabitants. Likewise, it reminds individuals to be part of a more conscious collective thought that chooses not to buy to throw away but to give garments a long life.

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