The Never-Ending Textile Wall and The Post-Donation Clothing Cycle

Author: Clara Tuckey

Look closely at the photographs from our latest release and you will notice the colourful backdrop. This wall is made up of thousands of pounds of textile waste, a common sight in the thrift industry. Many of us take our unwanted clothing to donation centres throughout the city, province, country and world, never thinking twice about where exactly it all goes. The truth is that these bales are where 70% of all donated clothing and textiles will end up1, and it is only the beginning of their post-donation journey.

Blurred scene of sewing studio

Our All Embracing collection photoshoot in front of a wall of textile bales. Photograph by Bella Brough.

The Post-Donation Clothing Cycle

A little disclaimer before we outline the post-donation cycle; this is a very general outline and does not define every second-hand clothing cycle. There are many entities that make up the second-hand market and all have their own method of processing and managing donated and excess items. Some operate for profit, while others for charity and waste diversion. It is always best to research your local thrift organizations before donating or shopping to truly understand how they function. This description serves to generally outline the process, providing you with an informed outlook on the second-hand clothing industry.

Okay, now that we’ve gone through the formalities, let’s dive in, starting with....

  • Donation and accumulation of second-hand goods: This is likely the most familiar part of the process. Almost all of us have dropped off boxes or garbage bags of clothing to charities or second-hand shops. Once goods are dropped off, they are sorted by category and condition.
  • Priced and posted for sale: After goods have been organized by category, they are priced accordingly and placed on the shop floor or online for sale. Items remain on the shop floor until they sell or are rotated out for newer donations. The reality is that while donations are welcomed and gladly accepted, there is far too much! Our society drives us to consume endlessly, creating an excess of material goods that is beyond the capacity of most retail stores--this is why rotations occur. Items that go unsold are oftentimes (depending on the organization) transported to outlet facilities or pound shops.
  • Outlets and pound shops: If you have never been to a pound shop before, I highly recommend it. Not only does it bring you face-to-face with the reality of overconsumption, but it is a great place to find home goods, clothing, books, art supplies (and so much more) for pennies...if you’re willing to dig! The pound shop gives goods that did not sell on the shop floor a last chance to sell before entering the wider second-hand market. Again, items are organized by category (books, electronics, shoes etc.) and wheeled onto the pound shop floor in large bins. Customers dig through each bin, and purchase their finds by the pound. A new bin of goods is swapped out every 15 minutes, giving shoppers a set amount of time to claim these goods before they are baled and organized to be shipped to a third party market. Outlets or pound shops are not present in every company that specializes in second-hand clothing and goods. In fact, Goodwill Industries is one of the only known organizations to adopt this model, with locations both in Canada and the United States. Goodwill has specifically opened them to further supportdomestic second-hand markets and the local economy, passing these unsold goods to microenterprises, recyclers and bargain hunters before items enter a wider global market.
  • Baling and prepping for the global second-hand market: Items that did not sell in outlets are rounded up, again by type, and prepared to be sold in bulk to sorting and grading facilities or to local buyers and recyclers. Textiles are placed in a baler which compresses them into a 1000 pound bundle sandwiched between reclaimed cardboard boxes and bound by plastic strapping. All other items are placed in massive cardboard boxes called “gaylords” and stacked in the warehouse, ready to be sold. Take a look at the photo below from our All Embracing Collection photoshoot. The background is made up of stacked textile bales waiting to be sold to sorting and grading facilities.
  • Sorting and grading houses: From this point onwards, I will be focusing on the afterlife of textiles and clothing only. Sorting and grading houses are located all over North America, and the world. Here, items are sorted into more specific categories such as men’s jeans, children’s shoes, ladies’ blouses etc. Once sorted, items are graded into six categories: AAA- new clothing with tags intact and quality vintage items, AA- new clothing mixed with clothes that are gently worn, A- gently worn clothes, B- clothing with light stains and small rips, C- very worn clothing, and finally, wipers and rags. Once graded, items are again collected into 1000 pound bales for resale.
  • Enter emerging markets: At this point, sorted and graded bales are sold across the world to second-hand markets and industries. Some bales are sold domestically to industrial markets for rags and to be repurposed into commodities such as insulation, stuffing and more. It is hard to say exactly where each bale ends up, but many enter emerging markets (economic markets that are not fully developed, but quickly developing). In 2020, it was reported that the top three exporters of used clothing and textiles were the United States, China and Germany (Canada ranked 11th), while the top importers of second-hand goods were Ghana, India and Ukraine2. The exported clothing will enter a new second-hand retail market, finding new life overseas but a great deal of it will end up in landfill. We will talk more about textiles in global landfills and the burden that emerging markets take on when importing these bales in part two of this article.

While I have outlined the post-donation clothing cycle in 6 tidy steps, this is not an entirely accurate outline of exact stages for every organization. Many organizations will add sales opportunities after the initial second-hand retail stage and outlet stage in order to divert goods from landfill as well as to support their local economy and community. Worth is a great example of this. In response to thegrowing amount of excess textile and clothing donations, Goodwill Industries, Ontario Great Lakes has invested in many strategies including Worth to divert textile excess and waste from the global second-hand market and landfill while supporting the local economy and enterprise. Goodwill is not alone in this kind of innovation. As we continue to unveil the devastating consequences of over-consumption, more organizations, companies and governmental bodies are investing in waste diversion of all kinds.

A short video of the textile bale wall

Conclusion

Now that you’ve read about the post-donation clothing cycle, has your outlook on the used clothing market changed? Personally, I always felt that my donated clothing was sold or given-away domestically to individuals in need. While this is partially true, the second-hand clothing industry is far larger and more complicated than I could have ever imagined, and it truly makes sense when you think about hyper-consumerism and the sheer amount of clothing and other goods we accumulate in just a year.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article where we will dive into the devastating economic and social effects of excess textiles and clothing on developing markets. We will also talk about how we can help to solve these issues and new innovations that are changing the global second-hand textile market in a positive way.

Blurred scene of sewing studio

Behind the scenes at our All Embracing photoshoot in front of the textile bale wall.

Sources

  •  Fashion Takes Action - A Feasibility Study of Textile Recycling in Canada 
  • UN Comtrade Analytics - 269 Worn Clothing.textl.Artl, 2020

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