A “clothing spill” art installation brings attention to textile waste at Seattle’s Alki Beach on April 22, 2016. [Elaine Thompson/AP Photo]
The sun is out, my depression fog has cleared and I’m ready to start paring down the abundance of stuff that has taken over my apartment! But with all the news about textile waste and trashed donations, I know that hauling paper bags of used belongings to Goodwill will no longer cut it.
Inspired to find a more environmental way of spring cleaning, I turned to sustainability advocates Aja Barber, author of Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism; Kristy Drutman, founder of Brown Girl Green; and Amy Nguyen, founder and editor of Sustainable & Social. Here are some takeaways from our conversation.
One man’s trash isn’t anyone’s treasure
In the UK, only 10% to 30% of donations to charity stores are sold over the counter, Nguyen said. The other donations are sent abroad to places like the Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana, where they cause economic and ecological problems.
“Why do we from the West or the Global North feel that we can pat ourselves on the back and send all this stuff away for it to then become someone else’s problem?” Nguyen said.
Barber said that when she takes clothing to charity shops, they must be new or in close-to-new condition. “People are donating that stuff, but nobody wants it. … It’s gonna end up being shipped to Ghana. And then somebody there is gonna buy a pallet [with] clothing that they can’t sell, and that’s just not fair,” she said.
“When we do the types of not-so-thoughtful purges where we just clean house [without] consideration, I think all that does is make space for us to make the same mistakes over and over again,” Barber said. Instead, she suggests slowing down your cleaning process and rehoming as many things as possible by reselling or giving them away.
Barber also recommends using Facebook Marketplace or “buy nothing” Facebook groups to find new homes for belongings, and I’ve found Craigslist and Nextdoor to be similarly reliable. You can also sell clothing on Depop or Vestiaire Collective, and if you want to get crafty, use Instagram Stories or make a new IG account to advertise your wares.
Find a cause
For items like furniture, Barber recommends finding a group that actually needs the items you’re offering. Instead of just leaving them with a charity shop, consider giving them to organizations that resettle refugees or rehome people released from prison.
Keep it simple
If you want to maximize your use of the clothes you do have, Drutman suggests setting up a “capsule wardrobe”: a limited set of clothes (typically basics) that can be layered and interchanged frequently. That way, you can make use of your closet without over-purging.
Drutman also recommends holding an item swap with friends and bringing items you’d like to exchange. And if you have clothes that need a little upkeep, consider adding patches or other upcycled flair to old pieces.
When in doubt, toss it out
Unfortunately the Global North doesn’t have the infrastructure for textile recycling, so if you can’t reuse tattered or stained clothing, don’t donate it. “If you can’t [find a repurposing project], I’d rather [put something] in a landfill in the Global North [than] in someone’s backyard in the Global South,” Barber said.
Sustain your sustainability
“Just because you’re sending all of this stuff to Goodwill … doesn’t give you license to then buy just as much stuff so you can donate the same quantity next year,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen challenges people to not just see themselves as “consumers,” but as citizens first. When you’re shopping in the future, ask yourself: Why am I buying this item? Question the sustainability of what you’re shopping for, especially when it comes to fast fashion: Is this a timeless piece? Am I going to wear this at least 30 times?
“It’s about having that thoughtfulness stay with you the next time you think about buying something,” Barber said. “Now, when I think about buying something, I ask myself, ‘If there’s ever a day where I don’t want this item, will anybody else want it?’”