The Salvation Army Probably Can’t Use Your Clothes

The language of style.
June 18 2012 8:45 AM

The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes

Where do your Target bargains go when you get tired of them? The Salvation Army. Rag bins. And Africa.

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Without textile recyclers, charities would be totally beleaguered and forced to throw away everything that couldn’t be sold. Charities might even have to turn us away. The only benefit to this doomsday scenario is that our clothes would pile up in our house or in landfills, finally forcing us to face down just how much clothing waste we cre­ate.

A woman examines clothes donated by humanitarians to be distributed to displaced people at Hajj Camp in Kaduna on April 26, 2011.
Donated clothes to be distributed to displaced people at Hajj Camp in Kaduna, Nigeria

Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images.

A majority of the clothing processed at Trans-Americas comes from overburdened charities within a thousand-mile radius of New York City. Used clothes come into the warehouse in mixed bales like those I saw at the Quincy Street Salvation Army. “I like to call it the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Stubin said, as we sailed past women separating pants from shirts and sending them down long slides. “We get everything from torn sweaters to spoiled and stained towels to good useable clothing.” Stubin’s sorters separate the wearable stuff into two hundred broad categories like cotton blouses, baby clothes, jackets, sweaters, khaki pants, and denim. “From there, sorters begin to look for quality and start sorting the worn from the torn and mak­ing various grades,” Stubin explains. The higher-skilled employees “develop an eye,” he says, for coveted brands, cashmere, and the gold mine vintage finds. But a lot, at least half of what Trans-America pro­cesses, is “the bad and the ugly.” This is the situation in general in the textile recycling industry today.

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Most of our donated clothing does not end up in vintage shops, as car-seat stuffing, or as an industrial wiping rag. It is sold over­seas. After the prized vintage is plucked out and the outcasts are sent to the fiber and wiping rag companies, the remaining clothing is sorted, shrink-wrapped, tied up, baled, and sold to used-clothing ven­dors around the world. The secondhand clothing industry has been export-oriented almost since the introduction of mass-produced gar­ments. And by one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-Saharan Africa. Tanzanians and Kenyans call used clothing mitumba, which means “bales,” as it comes off the cargo ships in the shrink-wrapped cubes like the ones I saw at Trans-Americas and Salvation Army. The bales are cut open in front of an eager clientele and buyers, who pick through it for higher-value finds.

Once again, while many Americans might like to imagine that there is some poor, underdressed African who wants our worn and tattered duds, the African used clothing market is very particular and is demanding higher quality and more fashion-forward styles. Paben told me that access to the Internet and cellphones has made the con­tinent fiercely fashion-forward in recent years. “There’s been a change in what you can sell there,” he says, and the bales have to be much more carefully sorted based on style, brand, and condition. As incomes rise in Africa, tastes become more savvy, cheap Chinese imports of new clothes flood those countries, and our own high-quality clothing supply is depleted, it’s foreseeable that the African solution to our overconsumption may come to an end. What then?

On a recent Saturday morning, I was back at the Quincy Street Salvation Army shopping for a vintage coat, hoping to find quality and craftsmanship I could actually afford. This particular Salvation Army is roughly the size of an airplane hanger, and deathly quiet in the mornings. I hoped to make a score while the rest of Brooklyn slept off their Friday night. As I flipped through the women’s tops, I noticed a Salvation Army employee in a smock, methodically walking past me. At first I thought she was straightening the racks and hanging clothes back up that had been pulled to the floor, but then I realized she was carrying clothes away. She looked at the color of the price tags stapled onto each garment. Then, she plucked out the ones that had sat there too long unsold, like eggs gone bad, and chucked them into those huge gray dumpsters I saw in the sorting room up­stairs. Soon enough, I thought, they would be shredded or on their way overseas.

Excerpted from Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright Elizabeth L. Cline, 2012.

Elizabeth Cline is a Brooklyn-based journalist who's written for the Etsy Blog, AMCtv.com, New York magazine, and the New Republic, among others. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion is her first book.