Call it the Forever 21 effect, or fast fashion. Americans are buying, and discarding, clothes more quickly than ever. The average American throws 54 pounds of clothes and shoes into the trash each year. That adds up to about 9 million tons of wearables that are sent into the waste stream, according to the Environmental Protection Agency — a 27% increase in a mere eight years.
Although resale shops are a good option for clothes that still have some fashion value, and charities will take items that are well past their prime, there are still an awful lot of ink-stained dress shirts and moth-eaten sweaters that find their way to the dump.
What to do with that favorite old shirt you ruined by inadvertently spilling a glass of red wine down its front, or that well-worn pair of slacks that finally split at the seams, or that dress you loved last year but now wouldn't wear to save your life?
There are a wide variety of options that are better than the trash bag, including charities (such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army), resale shops (Buffalo Exchange, Give + Take) and the retailers that first sold them to you.
Goodwill and the Salvation Army will not sell defective clothes or shoes, but they do offload them to textile recyclers, who either ship them to Third World countries where they may have a chance of a second life, or sort and resell them to textile "de-manufacturers" who can turn them into materials that can be worked into new materials, whether it's cleaning rags, carpet padding or rubberized playgrounds.
Forty-five percent of recycled clothes are sold to other countries, 30% are turned into cleaning rags and 25% are turned into fibers for stuffing or insulation, according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textile Assn.
Recycling awareness among clothing manufacturers seems to be on the rise. Goodwill, which in Southern California alone sold 14.6 million pounds of textiles to recyclers last year, recently joined with San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co. to educate jeans owners in how to care for their pants so they stand a better chance of reuse through the charity.
The partnership evolved out of a Levi's study of the environmental effect of a pair of 501s, which found that the amount of water used to grow the cotton was rivaled by the amount owners used to wash their jeans. That finding led to Care Tag for Our Planet, which started showing up on Levi's late last year, instructing owners to wash their jeans in cold water, to wash them less often, to air dry them rather than use a clothes dryer and, when they no longer want them, to donate them instead of throwing them away.
The Gap, which last weekend concluded a 10-day blue jean recycling event, collected about a quarter-million jeans that will be turned into insulation.
Patagonia, a pioneer in using recycled materials in its active wear since the '90s, has been running a garment recycling program since 1995 called Common Threads. The program has collected 13,000 pounds of clothes, which are shipped off to Japan, broken down and turned in to new Patagonia items such as rain parkas. Despite their long journey, Patagonia spokeswoman Jen Rapp says that recycling clothes, rather than making them from raw material, saves 72% in energy costs and 76% in CO2 emissions.
Recycling plastic that is used in textiles saves 57% of the energy used to make them from virgin materials, or about 1 ton of CO2 emissions for every ton that is recycled, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Patagonia's goal: that 100% of its clothing either be made from recycled material or be recyclable. Right now, the company says 70% of its offerings are recyclable.
Customers who want to recycle their Patagonia gear can do so by returning items to Patagonia retailers and dealers such as REI, or by mailing items to the company's Nevada-based service center.
Dora Copperthite is doing her own form of clothing recycling. Her Give + Take Boutique in Playa del Rey is like a large public clothing swap that lets people trade their clothes for others. For a $20 monthly membership fee, women who've tired of their Prada handbag or H&M romper can have them valued for points that are then traded for other items.
Open since November, Give + Take has about 124 members and 1,000 items, the latter of which are divided into three categories: designer, cheapies and free.
"For me, it's an environmental cause. We have so much excess," said Copperthite, who donates whatever isn't swapped to Goodwill. "The green movement is big on shopping in your own closet. What I'm doing, you're not only shopping in your own closet but the closets of hundreds of ladies."