What Really Happens To The Clothes We Donate To Charity?

As the new year beckons the call of a Mary Kondo wardrobe declutter, we can't help but wonder.. What really does happen to the clothes we choose to donate?

Whether you are a high-flying spender or a savvy saver, it’s safe to say, the chances of you having not one but several ‘donate to charity’ bags in the boot of your car, is almost a given.

Being the sustainably trendy nation we now are, it seems at one point or another we have all been guilty of lugging around those wretched bags filled with pre-loved garments for months — if not years — on end.

When we finally find the time to complete the socially responsible task of offloading our pre-loved items, it’s fair to say — for the majority of us anyway — we don't typically stop to ask what exactly happens to these clothes we so willingly donate.  

Similar to most — said to be — sustainable recycling options in the fashion industry, donating clothing to charity does come with a few not-so sustainable roadblocks. Here at AirRobe, we do suggest seriously considering such concerns prior to making any donations.

What happens once we have dropped off our pre-loved clothing?

Notably the biggest misconception about donating clothing to charities such as the Salvation Army or Vinnies, is that it does not matter where nor how you drop-off your clothing, as long as you actually drop it somewhere. Well, we hate to say it..  but this could not be any further from the truth.  

Dumping clothes out the front of charities — or their clothing bins — is by all means, no way to donate to a charity of any sort. “Unfortunately, when items are left outside, they are often damaged  the next morning, which means they aren’t in a condition that allows them to be re-sold”, The Salvation Army’s customer service manager, Aife O’ Loughlin states.

The Salvation Army spends a portion of its budget on disposing of donations that are not of any use.(ABC News: Penny Timms)

Unfortunately, this leaves charities with no other option than to dispose of the affected garments into landfill — hence it is common for most charities to face a million dollar landfill bill at the end of each year.

The World Economic Forum reports that an estimated 85 per cent of all textiles go to dump each year, which globally is the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles being burned or going into landfill, every second... talk about harmful.

Once charity volunteers have attempted to sort through the mass amount of clothing donated — typically only a very small percentage (between 5-10%) is suitable to be sold in Op-Shop’s — the remaining clothing is bundled, sold and sent offshore for further sorting and redistribution.

Textiles donated to Australian charities are often destined for landfill.(ABC News: Amy Bainbridge)

In the ABC’s 2021 foreign correspondent series, episode 7 titled ‘Dead White Man’s Clothes’ aims to expose viewers to the very-real, yet raw reality of where the majority of our donated clothing actually ends up.

Within the 30 minute episode special, we at home are taken to the banks of Korle Lagoon in the Ghanaian capital of Accra. Sitting some 20 meters high, viewers are shown a large escarpment tower, formed from not earth nor stone, but landfill. With an estimated 60 per cent of the escarpment tower said to be unwanted clothing.

Although it may come as a surprise to many AirRobe consumers, donated clothing sitting in landfill does release harmful toxins into our atmosphere. Due to such garments, being unable to access fresh air and light, over-time they do in-fact release harmful toxins such as methane into our environment.

With around 15 million used garments from the UK, Europe, North America and Australia pouring into the African state of Accra every week,  it’s safe to say, there is definitely more that needs to be done to ensure our donated items are part of the circular solution not situation.

That said, it is of-course great to hear as a nation we are collectively making more of an effort to donate garments that no longer spark joy. In recent times such as now, brands themselves are also making more of a conscious effort to implement processes which encourage consumers to join or support fashion’s circular fashion economy.  

Here at AirRobe, we are always thrilled to welcome new brands into our circular fashion movement. In the last twelve months alone, AirRobe has welcomed over 42 new brands into our Circular Fashion Network.

Words by Phoebe Blogg.