Where Do Your Donated Clothes End Up?

Why you should care

As much as we’d like to think all of our clothes from the 90’s ended up with a vintage loving buyer, the truth is that we send 26 billion pounds of textiles to the landfill each year.


by Cindy J Lin

How often you visit your local clothing donation center is likely related to how often you buy clothes and, let’s be honest, the size of your closet. After famous Zen closet organizer, Marie Kondo, stepped into our lives with her book and the 2019 dropped Netflix episodes,  Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, America saw a 44% increase in clothes and things donated to our local Goodwill and other similar organizations in just the beginning of 2019. 

Americans Are Thinking Differently

This is fantastic because it represents a shift in American consumerism where we are beginning to think about what we really need in our lives. We stand in front of the small mountain pile of shoes we pulled out from the back of our closet and ask if we really need 98 pairs of shoes. 

While we send all this once worn clothes, shoes and accessories to our local donation centers, do we really know what happens to them. In the US, Goodwill operates more than 3,200 individual stores and receives tons of unwanted bags of clothes every day. Here’s what happens to your clothes after they get dropped at the Goodwill Center.

What Happens After You Drop Off Your Clothes?

  1. When a bag of clothes is donated to the store, workers review the contents and determine which items can be sold and which can’t, such as dirty or unwearable clothes. 
  2. Goodwill stores track how long an item stays on its racks, and after four weeks, the unsold item is sent to “Buy the Pound” outlet stores or a 99 Cent Goodwill store.
  3. When clothes can’t be sold at the outlets, Goodwill auctions off bins of donated items, where each bin is sold off for a certain amount. Goodwill and buyers don’t know what’s in the bin and often buy each bin for a really low price.
  4. Various textile recycling organizations send the now thrice unwanted clothes to:
    • Used clothing markets again
    • Overseas to be sold
    • Get cut into rags for industrial use
    • Processed into fiber filling for home insulation, etc.
    • Landfills

Overseas Used Clothing Markets

When unwanted clothes are sent overseas to perceived higher demand markets, this could hinder textile industries growth in other countries, negatively affecting the local jobs economy and income. Furthermore, as our Hey Social Good founder, Cindy J, discovered when she traveled to Cambodia, Malawi, and Zambia, these unwanted, poorly made used clothing then hang on racks in open air local markets where it eventually gets thrown and become other countries trash. And this is confirmed by a firsthand look at where a used t-shirt lands after it goes to a secondhand store. The U.S. exports over a billion pounds of used clothing every year — and much of that winds up in used clothing markets in sub-Saharan Africa.

Eleven percent of donations made to Goodwill in 2014, for example, were deemed unsaleable and carted to landfills — about 22 million pounds in all — costing the organization millions of dollars in transport fees and other expenses.

And although a good percentage of unwanted used clothing gets reused in some way, still a large amount of clothes is thrown in our own US landfills. In the US, we now buy four times more clothes than we did in 1980, according to The State of Reuse Report, Savers in 2017). According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, we send 26 billion pounds of textiles to the landfill each year. Over ten years, that’s 260 billion pounds of textiles filling up our landfills.

What’s the Sustainable Bottom Line?

You probably know this already but buying with purpose is the best approach to living your sustainable lifestyle. 

  • Design a clean closet where you reduce, organize, and redesign for mental wellness.
  • Definitely donate your clothes for them to have a chance at a second and third life (don’t throw them in the trash) at your local thrift stores.
  • Buy from thrift shops so you can have a part in creating many lives for a piece of clothing.
  • Check out companies that offer to take back or give credit for used clothes to help create that closed loop economy such as ThredUp.
  • Buy from sustainable brands such as Reformation (Platinum Sustainability Medal) or Eileen Fisher (Gold Sustainability Medal).

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