Responsibly fashionable: stop donating clothes

Mountains of used clothes. (image borrowed from

“Why do we get these mountains of clothes? No one is freezing here…”

Today I want to talk about fashion and what it’s doing to our world. I am far from someone you’d call a fashionista, but I have done my share of shopping in my days (when I still went out in real clothes). And I will admit that I, among many women, buy way to much clothes in the name of fashion or what we think is fashion.

Modern day women have turned shopping into a sort of hunter-gatherer ritual in the great safari we call a “mall.” Instead of hunger, the sport of shopping satiates our vanity, but only until the next new item arrives in the display window. The only problem with this equation is the finite closet space most of us are cursed with… so sometimes we have to strategically do away with ‘old’ (ie last season) clothes. Instead of throwing them away (because that would be just plain wasteful!), we bundle them up in big Hefty bags, and drop them off at our neighborhood thrift shop. You reclaim closet real estate AND earn karma points (and tax deduction if you are an American). Perfect solution for everyone… right?

When you start to take a closer look at what is happening however, the truth is a little more, ugh inconvenient shall we say, than what we’d like to believe.

Molly and Kristen from Stuff Mom Never Told You provide in their podcast a good picture on why donating clothes is not as a good deed as commonly thought. The mountains of donated clothes flood into Africa, ruin the local textile economy, and only serve to ease our conscience to consume more resources. During an interview with the Spiegel, African economics expert James Shikwati exclaims, “Why do we get these mountains of clothes? No one is freezing here. Instead, our tailors lose their livlihoods.” (In fact, they don’t want any of our guilty aid.)  To find the answer to his question we need to travel further upstream, to the retailers at a discount war who pressure the sweatshop workers who kill themselves to make us the next shirt that we didn’t need and that only ends up on an African child whose dad just lost his job.

Is your head hurting yet? Because mine is. It might help to know that other concerned consumers have come up with things we could do to help break this cycle. The Responsible Shopper program from the Great America Org. provides ways to be fashionably green and to stop supporting irresponsible corporations. To really get to the bottom of it all however, we need to look within and examine why we have an incessant need to spend hard earned cash on new clothes only to find ways to get rid of them.

Since I moved to Riyadh, the mandatory abaya has curbed my shopping addiction significantly. I am more or less immune to the urge to run out and buy those studded boots every girl is wearing or all things umbre on I spend less time in the mall, and more time doing things that provide more lasting enjoyment. And when I do want something, I try to find a quality, timeless piece that might cost a little more but can be worn again and again with different accessories and is less likely to be thrown away. You might say I have lost touch with humanity due to my geographic location, or maybe I just outgrew the whole shopping thing. Either way although I can’t say I am totally free from the control of the collective fashion machinery, I do make a conscientious effort to stop mindless purchases (Alan and I use the 10-second rule to reduce impulse buys.)

So when spring cleaning 2013 comes, reevaluate your usual bag-and-drop routine. Re-use, re-purpose, re-distribute (have a cloth swap party with friends or make some money by selling stuff online), or go local and visit the homeless shelter and give the clothes to those who really need them. When it takes a bit of time and creative effort to make our clothes disappear, we are less likely to make impulse purchases that we will only regret later. Besides finishing your food, by not wasting, you might just save some suffering African children after all.

More readings and helpful links:


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