COVID-19 Brings Clothes Recycling to a Halt

Photo: Neesa Rajbhandari, Wikimedia CC

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Contributing Writer

The second-hand clothes trade ensures that abandoned clothes don’t pile up in landfills, and at the same time, makes it possible for the fashion industry to introduce new designs for each new season. However, Reuters reports that this system has slowed to a stop as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two factors, in particular, have blocked up the supply chain: textile recyclers not been able to re-sell used clothes; meanwhile, people at home because of COVID have cleared out their closets in record numbers.  Now, second-hand clothes are piling up in warehouses in the U.S., but it is too expensive due to the pandemic to ship them overseas to re-sellers in poorer countries around the world. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Why this matters:  The fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for up to 10% of global carbon emissions. Meanwhile, the US produces 17 million tons of textile waste annually, equivalent to 29 billion pairs of jeans, and two-thirds of this waste ends up in landfills, even with the normal system of exporting secondhand clothing. With clothing recycling becomes less and less viable due to the pandemic, American consumers should consider holding on to their clothes longer until the secondary market can rebound.  

How bad is the backlog?

The consequences of clothing recycling problems have been felt all around the world. While thrift shops here have been inundated with more clothes than they can sell, the recipients of recycled clothes — traders in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America — have seen their supply dwindle. The secondhand clothing trade allowed the fashion industry to double clothing production over the past fifteen years to meet growing consumer demand for “fast fashion.” But that depended on a used clothing market to keep landfills from filling up.  Exporting second-hand clothing flourished in the 1990s, as demand increased for western fashion in Africa and Eastern Europe, and continued into the 21st century: over $4 billion of used clothing was exported globally from 2014-2019. The United States is the largest exporter of clothes — about a third of all clothes donated in the United States is finally sold in secondhand markets in the developing world.

Due to the pandemic, the value of clothes exported from the US fell 45% in the summer compared with the same period last year. Because of this, recyclers are closing clothes banks, firing workers, and emptying stores of clothes more rarely.  Meanwhile, traders in the developing world have seen a shrinking supply, followed by a drop in demand due to people staying home rather than going out to shop. One trader in Nairobi, Nicholas Mutisya, told Reuters: “Before coronavirus came in, I would manage to sell at least 50 (pairs of) trousers a day,” said “But now with coronavirus, even selling one a day has become difficult.”

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