Tuesday, June 19, 2012


One Man's Trash Is Another Man's Trash, Infinity

Garments that make it into the Salvation Army thrift stores have exactly one month to sell. Then, they’re pulled from their hangers, tossed in bins, and end up back in a room such as this one.

In the rag-cut room, two men were silently pushing T-shirts, dresses, and every other manner of apparel into a compressor that works like the back of a garbage truck, squeezing out neat cubes of rejected clothing that weigh a half ton each... The Quincy Street Salvation Army builds a completed wall made of 18 tons, or 36 bales, of unwanted clothing every three days. And this is just a small portion of the cast-offs of one single Salvation Army location in one city in the United States.

*Pours some out.* Find out where your icky T-shirts go next in this excerpt from Elizabeth L. Cline's book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, over at Slate.

83 Comments / Post A Comment


This makes me sad in the same way that working at my college bookstore did. We did book buybacks at the end of every quarter, and if the book wasn't being used again (and therefore the student got no money back for it), it got sent to the trash. Thousands of these books would get collected by the bookstore and then sent out to some company that basically did to them what is being done to these clothes. I was appalled that the books weren't being donated. There are plenty of people in this world that could benefit from secondhand textbooks. It crushed my soul every damn quarter.


@olivebee my community college has a program that, ostensibly, donates books to global communities in need so that they can get an affordable education. so... it get's better!


I work in academic publishing, and there are actually a lot of legal restrictions on donating textbooks overseas. Permissions have to be cleared for worldwide rights and there are royalties issues and of course the publishers don't want the books getting sold back into the U.S. online...
You're right. It's really sad that these books just get tossed when people could really use them!


@Dancercise legal restrictions, royalties issues, publishers. Things I'd rather be unfamiliar with and gripe about.


You and me both.


@whizz_dumb Also "copyright clearance."


have a good day@j


Nguuuuuhhh. That is all I can manage.


Well, I guess now I know where those 3 bags of clothes I gave to Goodwill yesterday are headed!


@Dancercise Yeah, I donate clothes fairly frequently (I have a shamefully huge amount of clothing), but I always put them in one of those parking lot bins for either a local charity called Connections for the Homeless or the local women's shelter. I always assumed my clothes were being given to homeless/needy Chicago-area women (or teenagers - I'm pretty petite). According to the article, though, those charities overflow in the same way GW/SA does....it makes sense, I guess, since people living in shelter's probably don't want to cart around a suitcase full of clothing with them everywhere. The optimist in me always hoped that my clothes could be used for a job/legal/etc. interview for a woman at the shelter.

Judith Slutler

@olivebee Shelters are probably still one of your best bets, though. Homelessness is really rough on clothes, the director of my local shelter told me that they estimate most people who sleep rough need an entire new wardrobe about every 2 or 3 months.


@olivebee Not all shelters give the clothing to the shelter occupants. A few years ago my friends and I did a clothes swap, and all the clothing no one took was donated to a women's shelter. I brought in a perfectly work-appropriate washable silk dress that was too small for me, and unfortunately, at a size 8, waaaayyy too big for any of my friends, so it ended up getting donated. I was a bit disappointed to see it the next week at the local Value Village, although I guess as long as the shelter got a decent price for it that's something.


I read an article, it might have been in WIRED magazine, about what happens to used clothes. Many many clothes were shipped off to less-developed countries for sale before they were thrown away or recycled. This cheap resale abroad decimated local cotton and fabric producers.
Other than buying less clothing, is there a way to get around it though? I always donate my used clothes because I figure that if someone wants it, why toss it?


@ghechr Yeah, it's such a tough situation. Donate it here -- probably goes in the landfill. Donate it overseas -- and you've killed all the clothing making industries. There are people who make clothes out of cast offs, but they're usually pretty small, niche producers.
Your best option is probably arranging a clothing swap.


@Megano! And to buy fewer clothes to begin with (I do not follow that rule all that well, tho).

Though it is always super-weird to go to a random place in the world and see people wearing t-shirts that say things like "Spokane Youth Softball Tournament 1992" and such.


@Ophelia A couple years ago I went to a Steve McCurry (of "Afghan Girl" fame) photography exhibition. One of the photos was of a group of rebels who had been trapped deep in the jungles of Myanmar for decades, completely cut off by the Burmese Army and desperately trying to survive. One of them was wearing a World Cup 2006 hat.

miss buenos aires


I often leave my unwanted clothes in a box on my stoop that says "Free Stuff." Someone usually snatches up what they want by the next day, and it's out of my hair.


@stuffisthings Woah.


Another option is to post on Facebook or ask around if anyone needs or knows anyone who needs clothes. When that tornado decimated Joplin, MO, a couple years back, a friend of mine asked on FB if anyone had any extra clothes, because she had family in Joplin whose house was completely destroyed. Turns out I had a bunch of clothes waiting to go to Goodwill in the exact size she needed, so I just gave them to her and she shipped them to Joplin. At least I know that the clothes went to people who really needed something rather than sitting in a warehouse or a hanger somewhere.


@ghechr When I was in Guatemala this winter, the spanish teacher I was studying with kept pointing at booths in the markets that sold clothes and saying "clothes the united states doesn't want"


@Ophelia (To be fair, I suspect what happened is he gave the hat to the guy, and the guy was so happy/proud of it that he didn't have the heart to ask him to take it off to make the photo more "authentic.")


@stuffisthings Love the Burma anecdote. I lived in Santiago Chile for a year as a student and I remember seeing a sanitation worker on a garbage truck wearing a t-shirt for the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.


ugh. so depressing and terrible and everywhere. somehow when started approaching thirty i turned into one of those people who has a really hard time turning off the paralyzing knowledge that pretty much everything i eat, wear, do (travel), read, drive, or live in is participating in some kind of serious evil. i try not to talk to other people about it too much, because what a drag...but how do you have time to do anything awesome if you spend your whole life being like a farmer and seamstress and weaver cyclist composter? this is a serious question.


@aintquite not trying to be obtuse, but what about this is "serious evil"? Unwanted clothes is combed over by several tiers of people who might want it or use it, and what's left is thrown away. What is evil about that? There could be bad consequences on local economies in the foreign countries where the clothes end up, but the article doesn't really address them.


@blahstudent right, yeah, i see what you mean. this excerpt is not about the labor issues and pervasive pollution that attend the garment industry worldwide, but those things are at the base of many parts of the fashion economy (which i fully participate in, i'm not trying to be high horsey), and are much much worse at scale. And huge-scale production is a piece of our culture of disposable clothing. So: carcinogenic dyes dumped into rivers in countries w no environmental regulations, child labor, 16 hour work days for unlivable wages...the lowell mill girls were all over the labor issues of the garment industries in the 19th century in Mass, and their working conditions were far superior to what most garment makers now experience. As for the other stuff: agrobusiness pollutes like crazy, organic food is trucked halfway across the country, jet fuel is the absolute worst, dry cleaning is toxic, driving is terrible, my apartment is in a gentrifying neighborhood close to a huge university that has forced people out of their homes under eminent domain...see what I mean? I'M A TOTAL DRAG.


@aintquite I hear you. I culled my wardrobe, which is far too full, thinking much the same thing. Right before I bought two new pairs of shoes.

Maybe I should just quit buying clothes for a while. I probably should.


@PistolPackinMama i know i'm stealing cline's intellectual property by reading every snippet on googlebooks while flipping through the (horrifying horrifying) foreign policy failed states slide show AND a refinery29 slideshow about shoes. wtf is wrong with me writers are the worst hypocrites.

fondue with cheddar

WHAAAT? Why don't they just dump it all in a big pile in the parking lot and invite people to dig through and take what they want?

So people in the African market pick through the bales looking for good-quality stuff. But what happens to the clothing that is discarded there?


They do! It's called the dumpster!

I mean, what did you do on weekends in high school?


@jen325 They refurbish everything. Because labor costs are low, it makes sense for people to spend a long time rendering clothes wearable and ready for sale. And since they're given away free, it's more economical than buying something made in a factory, even locally.

Hence the destruction of the African apparel industry. Here is a paper you can read if you have academic journal access magic.


@stuffisthings And then we spend tons of money on "local economic development" while subsidizing the domestic cotton industry to remain competitive with China and BLERGH. It never ends.

This is just the depressing cherry on top of a frustrating day.

fondue with cheddar

@stuffisthings I do not have academic journal access magic, but I'm glad to hear they refurbish the clothing. I hate to think of it all in a landfill when there are poor people who need to be clothed.

@josiahg I didn't dumpster dive on the weekends in high school! I was an music geek so I spent a lot of my weekends doing that kind of stuff.


@jen325 To be fair, it would actually be better for Africa, economically speaking, if we burned the clothes we didn't want, or sunk them into the ocean or something.

It's a bit like this: imagine you run a coffee shop in a poor neighborhood. You employ some people from the neighborhood, pay rent, buy your coffee beans and other supplies locally, and sell coffee to people in the neighborhood for 50 cents. One day a charity shows up and starts giving away free coffee -- the rationale being "poor people need a pick up in the morning!"

Only instead of needy people getting the free coffee, and the more well-off people buying your coffee, some dude comes by every morning, takes all the free coffee, and resells it for 25 cents a cup. Putting your coffee shop (and the coffee growers and your other suppliers) out of business.

OK, that analogy got a little complicated. But you get the idea?

fondue with cheddar

@stuffisthings Yeah, I do. Jeez, when are they going to start manufacturing bags of holding already?


What about comparative advantage?


@josiahg What about it?


@josiahg That's an OK argument if the US were manufacturing cheaper clothes and selling them in Africa and the African producers couldn't compete. It might still have dire social consequences, but from an economist's point of view it's a signal from the market that Africans should be making something other than clothes, and that it would be inefficient for them to continue to do so.

The reality is, US-based companies are manufacturing clothes cheaply in Asia, investing a great deal in branding and marketing, enabling them to sell them at high prices to American consumers who eventually tire of them and donate them to charity, thinking they are doing good. The volume of donations is so high relative to need in the US that the charities in turn donate them to African countries, thinking that they are doing good. Once the bales of clothes arrive in Africa, they are either given away or bought for pennies a pound (far, far less than the cost of production -- let alone their retail price when new, or their per-garment price in the thrift store) to resellers who refurbish them and sell them at a price that no manufacturer in Africa, Asia, the US, or anywhere else could compete with. This, in turn, has decimated what was once a fairly vibrant sector of the economy, especially in West Africa, and was a few small QA improvements away from being competitive with Asia.


Ohh, that aside about how big closets are these days rings so true. My house was built in the 1950s, and though neither my husband or I are clotheshorse types, he's pretty much had to turn the spare bedroom closet into an annex for his stuff. It makes me wonder, because I really do wear most of this stuff, did people not wash their stuff so frequently back in the day? How were they not running out of outfits every few days?

The Lady of Shalott

@TheBelleWitch @TheBelleWitch Part of it is that in the 1940s and 1950s, there was not so much stress about wearing the same dress (for ladies) or suit (for gents) several times a week. There wasn't "outfits," so much as just clothes, you know? A housewife would probably have one or two "best" dresses, for churchgoing or parties or nice occasions, and maybe four to seven ordinary work-a-day dresses, for looking after the house and kids and running errands and stuff, and maybe a couple pants outfits, depending on how comfortable she was with that.

Slips were WAY more important. If you wear a slip underneath your dress every single day, your dress doesn't get the same odor issues. Also, dress shields! They would fit into the underarms of dresses, so sweat wouldn't impregnate itself into the dress, meaning that the clothes had to be washed much less frequently.

This is restricted to pretty much middle-class 1940s/1950s women in America, but the houses that were being built at that period were mostly targeting that group, so yeah. Today people have a much different concept of clothes than folks in the 50s did.

Judith Slutler

@TheBelleWitch One thing I've noticed as I've started buying more wool and silk garments second-hand... yeah you can definitely air those materials out and wear em again. Plus people used to get dress shields.

Also, hot running water hasn't been the norm for a terribly long time, even in the global North. Berlin flea markets are full of enameled metal basins that people used to heat up on the stove to get warm water for a sponge bath. So you know, hygiene expectations have really changed in recent times.


@The Lady of Shalott

What exactly are dress shields? I've always heard of them but never knew. I wear a lot of vintage, so I'm always interested I this stuff.

Judith Slutler

@l'esprit de l'escalier They are shaped almost like padded inserts for a bikini top, and I believe they can be buttoned into the armpit of your dress, or something. They're still sold in German dept. stores in the sewing findings section, I guess for the little old ladies who still dress like they did back in the day.

The Lady of Shalott

@l'esprit de l'escalier My comment disappeared??? Anyway, they're known today as underarm inserts and they're def still for sale. http://www.kleinerts.com/dress-shields.php

They hang out in the underarm of a dress, or onto a bra side. Newer-style ones stick on with adhesive like pads, or they can be safety-pinned on. They absorb sweat and keep it away from your dress, which is nice. They're really nice for dresses that you might not want to wash a zillion times.


@The Lady of Shalott Interesting! That makes a lot of sense (and makes me wonder if I should invest in more undergarments in an effort to pare down my closet... but then the unwanted clothes would end up in the cycle of rejection in the article, DOOM).

@Emmanuelle Cunt I definitely rewear wool and other difficult-to-clean stuff too. Higher-quality fabrics seem to stand up to that better than my cotton tees.


@The Lady of Shalott Whoa--thank you so much for that link. I hate washing dresses when it's only the pits that need it. It ruins the fabric and texture of a lot of my clothes. I'll be trying those shields out.

The Lady of Shalott

@TheBelleWitch If you're really trying to pare down your closet, you'll have to be selective about it--like, there's really nothing you can wear beneath a silk tank top or whatever to extend its life. But if you wear a lot of dresses, maybe get a good-quality slip that's comfortable to wear, and some cheap dress shields, and see if it's comfortable. If THAT'S comfortable then go forth, wear your clothes more often without having to wash them! And

@lagreen Try searching also for "underarm liners" in sewing stores (even Michaels, et. al.), notions departments at Wal-Mart, and sometimes you can find them at costume places/dance-wear stores/etc.


@ Lady and Cunt: Thank you so much for the info! I realize I, uh, could've googled that myself.

It totally never occurred to me that these were still a thing--they do seem imminently sensible, though.


@The Lady of Shalott Do they feel bulky? I don't have a huge wardrobe, and I tend not to wear my favorite clothes because I don't want to wash them all the time and wear them out, so I kind of want to try these? They look easy to make, too.

The Lady of Shalott

@che It depends on the kind--I think the ones that are fabric are a little bit bulkier than the adhesive ones--kind of like the difference between cloth and disposable pads? If you're handy with a sewing machine they're no sweat to make, but sometimes it can be tricky to make ones that are reasonably absorbent and not just random bulk.

They do take a little getting used to, though! Once you've worn them a few times they're usually not a problem, but the first couple times can be a little weird-feeling.


@The Lady of Shalott Hmm. Maybe I'll get a pair to try with dressy clothes. I have trouble finding dress shirts that cover my tattoos, so it might be worth the weird-feeling to have them last. (Especially the polyester ones. Who decided that was a good material? It's like the fabric just pulls all of the moisture out of my body through my pits.)


How disappointing. It's interesting/depressing to me that even after the whole process, the end result it basically that we just shove our stuff into other countries, making it their problem to deal with. What do they do with the stuff they don't want?

I'm also quite interested in the way that the clothing gets chosen for sale. The fact that the clothes are sorted so judiciously by brand and such makes me wonder if this may be one reason why there is such a dearth of plus-sized options at my local thrift stores? If branding plays a factor into what to keep and stock, then aren't body types that are not catered to by major brands kind of at a disadvantage since those garments might be sorted into the "less than the best" bins due to their lack of a widely-known brand name? Even if the clothes are in good shape? I don't know, I guess I thought that the only factor at play was condition.


@WhiskeySour Google "SWEDOW" to learn more!


Now, I SWEAR I've seen certain things hanging out at my local Goodwill for longer than a month. But maybe that's just me trying to convince myself that it's okay. But cool, it's nice to know that I'm still failing at being an effective human being by (mostly) shopping at/donating to thrift stores instead of buying retail.


Not all thrift stores are as on top of rotating their stock as the Salvation Army described in the article.

Trust me, you aren't failing anybody by shppong at thrift stores, especially your wallet!


@frigwiggin: Yeah, but the article never really got into the upside of thrift stores - how recycling used things through the community keeps usable goods out of the trash, makes for a smaller carbon footprint, benefits the community financially (I live in a small town with an excellent thrift store that puts all the money it earns back into the community)and allows people to afford clothes for their whole family on a small budget. Shopping at/donating to thrift stores does make you an effective human being - unless you're the person who donated those tragically moth-eaten t-shirts to my local thrift store last week - because that person is awful.

Judith Slutler

So speaking of second hand shopping, anybody know how easy it is to get the sleeves of a button-down shirt shortened and tightened by a tailor? I keep on trying on men's button downs that fit me perfectly except that the sleeves are super long and poofy...


@Emmanuelle Cunt My hunch (and I am not a tailor) is that the shortening would be much easier than the tightening (since the width of the sleeve is going to be at least partially determined by the size of the arm hole, so making the sleeve smaller might mean you'd need to change the body of the shirt as well). To shorten a sleeve, you* can just* remove the cuff, remove some fabric, and sew it back on.

*not me, and this would be a difficult undertaking if I tried it.

Tuna Surprise

@Emmanuelle Cunt
Men's tailors definitely shorten the length...I think I paid $15 or so to get it done for an ex's shirt. I agree with Ophelia...the narrowing is going to be harder. Sometimes it depends on how the shirt is constructed. More expensive shirts are easier to tailor - Old Navy, not so much.


@Emmanuelle Cunt You could also try (depending on how much of a seamstress you are) rocking a cute short sleeve. You could use the extra width/volume to do a puff sleeve or try making it into a camp-sleeve shirt!


You can buy the bales of clothes from a lot of charity shops. We used to buy them for fibers classes, since its under $20 for more clothes/fabric than you could imagine. Just start crazy high volume crafting!


I can't wait to read the book (from which this excerpt came)! I also want to read Travels of a Tshirt.


@l'esprit de l'escalier yes, omg, that book...i want it to be a graphic novel.


That's actually a kick-ass idea. The subject matter could lend itself easily to that! But I kind of am into them anyway....


Echoing everyone's "ugh, this is awful" sentiments. When I first read the title of this book though I for some reason thought it was about cheap clothing i.e. used clothing shopping, and started getting mad about how expensive places like Value Village and Salvation Army and trendy "vintage" (i.e. one of the owners bought a $3 top at SA and is selling it for $20) stores are. I'm shopping there because I can't afford $20, what is the point?


This is also reminding me about how I need to learn to use a sewing machine REALLY badly but I have an old one and am all thumbs and not technical and blah blah excuses. I get so mad when I see girls wearing those skirts that are like, hemmed to different lengths because then I just think "I could totally re purpose that peasant skirt I bought in 2006 and sew it like that instead of buying a new one that'll only be in style this summer."


@cosmia I've been doing that so much since I got my sewing maching (which was itself a hand-me-down) - i've completely rejuvenated my work wardrobe by making several old pairs of pants "skinny", and thus fashionable again. It makes me really happy to 1.) not have to spend the money on new things and 2.) know that I've been wearing the same pair of pants (in different iterations) for over 5 years.


@cosmia I would heartily encourage you to learn to sew, if you can swing it. Basic stuff like simple seams (to take clothes in or out) and hemming (to lengthen or shorten) is much easier than you might think, and it totally changes the way you look at clothing. 95% of my wardrobe (like the dress I'm wearing today) is something I bought at a thrift store for $4 and then took in/hemmed/cut the sleeves off of, and 20 minutes later it's like new, when if I couldn't sew, I probably wouldn't have given the garment a second's thought. Many fabric stores (the big ones like Joann as well as the smaller local ones) offer basic sewing classes where they teach you to make a pillowcase or something, which would provide you with all the skills you need to do basic alterations. I would encourage you (and anyone else who's the slightest bit curious) to try it out!

Tuna Surprise

Do it. I taught myself to sew on a hand me down machine. My first projects w/major alterations were on clothes I could afford to lose if I screwed up. I took in the top half of an inexpensive H&M dress, did major alterations to a pair of pants I was going to throw away anyway.

Get a book like Nancy Ziemans. It helps so much to see which alterations are needed to deal with specific problems of fit.



@Tuna Surprise that book looks amazing! I've basically just been "winging it" with pretty good results, like everything is wearable, but there's an item here or there that isn't as awesome as I would like it to be... this looks like just the thing I need!


@Tuna Surprise I definitely need something like this, because I'm not sure what like...a pattern is? Or how to follow them?

Tuna Surprise

@cosmia @teenie

Any book like this is great. You don't need to be making clothes from scratch to use it either. Nancy will discuss a problem (like a shirt being too big in the boob area) and then show you how to alter a pattern to fix. Just make the same alterations on the finished garment. I am super pear shaped and I basically buy all my dresses to fit the bottom half and tailor the top half to fit. You get good at feeling the seam allowances and checking the construction at the store. I only buy it if I can make it work.


@cosmia Where do you live? Or maybe I should say, if you live where I live, I'd be happy to show you around a sewing machine. A pinning Pinup, if you like.

Otherwise, sewing stores and craft groups also will have lessons, as do community centers. It's worth finding one.

Do you have a copy of your machine's manual? If not, check and see if it can be found online in PDF format. That REALLY helps with figuring sewing machines out if you have not a lot of intuition.


@cosmia You are in Toronto, right? I sew on an old machine and can help you out, if you like, or I would highly recommend the sewing classes from the TDSB. I took the intermediate class but I think it's the same teacher and he's really great.


@PistolPackinMama The manual for my sewing machine not only shows how to do the basic things like threading it, but also talks about the different stitches you can use and WHY you would use them, which has been a huge help.


At one point in my high school career, I thrifted an enormous, orange + floral muumuu from the local thrift store. Guess who was the rockin'-est 'brother' on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat? That'd be THIS lady. (Note to my HS drama department: when your female:male ratio for theatre skews 10:1, you might want to consider musicals that have more than two female roles.)

Sadly, that gorgeous gown probably ended up in a clothes bale some years ago. Three or four moves in, you realize that saving a ridiculous muumuu is probably not at the top of your moving priorities.


I'm wearing a ton of muumuus now that I'm enormously pregnant! They have extended use outside the stage, too!


@l'esprit de l'escalier Hah! I think if/when I get pregnant, I will definitely be rockin' the muumuus. However, as a nerdy 15-year-old...pretty much the only time I was brave enough to rock the muumuu was on stage!


@bedeah <3 this.


I read an excerpt on this on Google books, and I'm so glad Hairpin is talking about it. I'm really looking forward to reading it. And it's pretty timely, coming on the heels of that tone-deaf article about buying sweatshirts spun by solid gold by hipsters in Williamsburg or whatever.

I rationalize a lot of my clothing purchases because I buy most of my wardrobe from thrift stores or resale stores, but I'm beginning to realize it may be A Problem and have gone on a clothing diet.


You guys, this is only tangentially relevant, but I really feel like I have to tell everyone to give their stuff away on the Sharepin instead!


If you read this article before bed like I did (or any time), perhaps you should not also jump over to see the reader comments on Dear Prudie's latest column. A shit-ton of rape-trivializing, victim-blaming bullshit that will make your stomach hurt and keep you awake. >:( There were some thoughtful comments as well, but damn. I was pretty upset. The Internet, I guess.

Post a Comment

You must be logged-in to post a comment.

Login To Your Account