“Shoddy” in more ways than one

The term “shoddy” originally referred to wool salvaged from used clothing.  Wikipedia describes it as follows:

Benjamin Law invented shoddy and mungo, as such, in England in 1813. He was the first to organise, on a larger scale, the activity of taking old clothes and grinding them down into a fibrous state that could be re-spun into yarn. The shoddy industry was centred on the towns of Batley, Morley, Dewsbury and Ossett in West Yorkshire, and concentrated on the recovery of wool from rags. The importance of the industry can be gauged by the fact that even in 1860 the town of Batley was producing over 7,000 tonnes of shoddy. At the time there were 80 firms employing a total of 550 people sorting the rags. These were then sold to shoddy manufacturers of which there were about 130 in the West Riding. Shoddy is inferior to the original wool; “shoddy” has come to mean “of poor quality” in general (not related to clothing), and the original meaning is largely obsolete.

In the 19th century, it was unusual for anyone except rich people to have more than one or two changes of clothes.  Middle-class families might have three or four.  However, as clothing costs came down in the 20th century, thanks to the invention of artificial cloth made from nylon and polyester, clothes became more and more affordable.  Nowadays it’s unusual to find anyone in the First World with less than a dozen changes of clothing, and most have a lot more than that.  Many homes have built-in closets to make it possible to store so many clothes – and many of them are overflowing.

As usual, with abundance and affluence comes excess supply.  A lot of us have far more clothes than we need, and the fashion industry is eager to make us buy more every year – but what do we do with the old ones?  The answer, for many of us, is to donate them to charities such as Goodwill, the Salvation Army, or other organizations.  However, we seldom think about what happens to them from then onward.  It can be a blessing – or a curse.

According to various estimates, here’s what happens to your clothing giveaways. In most cases, a small amount of the items, the best quality castoffs — less than 10 percent of donations — are kept by the charitable institutions and sold in their thrift shops to other Americans looking for a bargain … The remaining 90 percent or more of what you give away is sold by the charitable institution to textile recycling firms.

. . .

Most of the clothes are recycled into cleaning cloths and other industrial items, for which the recyclers say they make a modest profit.

Twenty-five percent, however, of what the recycling companies purchase from charities is used not as rags, but as a commodity in an international trading economy that many American may not even know about. Brill, from the textile association, picked up the story. “This clothing is processed, sorted and distributed around the world to developing countries,” he said.

Take that pair of bluejeans you may have recently donated. Your jeans are stuffed with others into tightly sealed plastic bales weighing about 120 pounds and containing about 100 pairs of jeans.

The bales are loaded into huge containers and sold to international shippers who put them on ships bound for Africa and other developing regions. Again, the price of your old jeans has increased a bit because the shipper had to buy them.

By the time the bale of jeans is unloaded from a container here in Accra, Ghana, it is worth around $144. That’s $1.30 per pair of jeans. But when the bale is opened up and the jeans are laid out for sale in the so-called “bend over” markets, customers bend over and select their purchases from the ground for an average price of $6.66 per pair of jeans. That’s a 500 percent increase in value just by opening up the bale of clothes.

. . .

There are two ways to look at all this. One view is that … African textile industries are closing their factories and laying people off because they cannot make clothes as cheaply as those American items found in the bend over markets.

. . .

Neil Kearney, general secretary of the Brussels based International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation says the practice is exploitative, “It is neo colonialism in its purest form. It’s exporting poverty to Africa, a continent that is already exceedingly poor.”

. . .

The other view is that the donated clothing market is actually the American way, that your old clothing is used at every step to create new wealth and to help people who are less fortunate.

There’s more at the link.

Two things have now begun to disrupt this trade.  One is that newly manufactured cloth has become so cheap as to make it uneconomical to recycle older clothes into the modern equivalent of “shoddy”.  The other is that new clothing has become so cheap that it undermines the sale of used clothing.  The result may be an environmental nightmare.  Bloomberg reports:

For decades, the donation bin has offered consumers in rich countries a guilt-free way to unload their old clothing. In a virtuous and profitable cycle, a global network of traders would collect these garments, grade them, and transport them around the world to be recycled, worn again, or turned into rags and stuffing.

Now that cycle is breaking down. Fashion trends are accelerating, new clothes are becoming as cheap as used ones, and poor countries are turning their backs on the secondhand trade. Without significant changes in the way that clothes are made and marketed, this could add up to an environmental disaster in the making.

. . .

Between 2000 and 2015, global clothing production doubled, while the average number of times that a garment was worn before disposal declined by 36 percent. In China, it declined by 70 percent.

The rise of “fast fashion” is thus creating a bleak scenario: The tide of secondhand clothes keeps growing even as the markets to reuse them are disappearing. From an environmental standpoint, that’s a big problem. Already, the textile industry accounts for more greenhouse-gas emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined; as recycling markets break down, its contribution could soar.

. . .

The question is what to do about it. Some brands … are experimenting with new fibers made from recycled material, which could help. But longer-term, the industry will have to try to refocus consumers on durability and quality — and charge accordingly. Ways to do this include offering warranties on clothing and making tags that inform consumers of a product’s expected lifespan. To satiate the hunger for fast fashion, meanwhile, brands might also explore subscription-based fashion rental businesses — such as China’s YCloset — or other more sustainable models.

Again, more at the link.

I’ve seen at first hand the impact of used clothing on Third World economies.  In Africa, many who depended on making or fitting clothing to make a living have lost their jobs.  Other jobs, sorting and selling used clothing, have replaced them – but what will replace them in their turn, if used clothing becomes less freely available?  A sophisticated economy may be able to absorb such shocks, but a primitive one is far less resilient.  Many nations have no support networks like welfare or social security.  The loss of a job can literally lead to starvation.

There’s also the question of our own consumption habits.  Some say that if we can afford them, that’s all that matters – anything else is not our problem.  Those “downstream”, who are affected by those problems, might disagree.  With some sources claiming that clothes are worn as few as seven times before being discarded, it’s no wonder that the “affluent society” is producing a downstream “effluent society“, where everything must be either reprocessed or recycled, or discarded altogether.  We already export a large proportion of our garbage to the Third World.  Our used clothes may become part of that garbage in due course, rather than being resold or recycled.  Even the modern equivalent of “shoddy”, until recently used to make things like disaster relief blankets or moving blankets, has to a large extent been replaced by new synthetic fabrics mass-produced in modern factories.  Fleece fabric relief blankets are now manufactured by the tens of thousands for aid agencies and organizations.

As I said earlier, I’ve seen this dilemma playing out in the Third World.  I don’t have any answers, except to be responsible in my own purchasing and disposal of clothes.  I think it at least helps if we’re aware of the problem.



  1. I spent part of my evening yesterday in a thrift shop with my son. He's in (yet another) growth spurt, and had outgrown most of his pants. The day before I'd seen brand new jeans in Walmart for only (!!) ten dollars. But it was half-price day at the local thrift, so for $25 I got him six pairs of pants, most of them jeans with little or no visible wear. Not that he cares. He won't fit into them for long (and I bought some that were too big, knowing he's growing) and then they'll go in a bag and back to the thrift. Even at ten bucks for cheap jeans, used are still a better deal for the growing boy and cost-conscious mom!

  2. I hit thrift shops when I can. I also tend to wear out pants that I wear. Not due to hard use, just due to time. I have noticed that some brands of newer jeans especially aren't as good of quality as they used to be. As in they will wear out faster or are more prone to rips and tears then before.
    When it comes to the Squire, I am buying more and more clothes from the Value Village thrift store as used children clothing stores tend to over price even used clothes. Where it's cheaper to buy newer outfits from Walmart.
    Think it's also time to go through the wardrobe and start bagging clothes that I haven't worn for years.

  3. Clothing cost have came down, but the Western economy has become much richer. The industrial revolution was built around clothing.

  4. Once the Better Sort become aware of the problem – and especially the environmental ramifications – the solution will become ovious: sumptuary laws. Mandatory revival of approved fashions (especially the not-too-revealing ones) at, say, seven-year intervals, will have a salutary (read: disastrous) effect on the processes in Peter's post. Hey, it worked during the Great Leap Forward.

  5. A thing to keep in mind is that while clothes may be worn less often before being discarded, they are also built to last less long.

    Whether that means they can be recycled much easier is another question.

    The modern outdoor industry with their ecologically-conscious target demographic is big on recycling. I find it rather hard to get clothes from Fjällräven and the like that is not using some recycled parts. Patagonia even offers this: http://www.patagonia.com/reuse-recycle.html

    And there are companies that make quite a bit of money on offering stuff that will last long enough to pass to one's children, from boot companies like Redwing and Alden to bag companies like Saddleback Leather (rather well-liked in EDC circles). But similar to healthy foods, most people cannot afford to take the long-term view on such items.

  6. As more clothing fiber becomes polymer based, those fabrics become better candidates for traditional recycling. Soon enough your clothes will go in your recycle bin next to your plastic water bottles…

  7. No self respecting African would want my clothes after I've used them up. To be clear I don't go to town or out in public in rags but at home working on the farm or in the garage or just lounging around the house I have to problem with ragged and patched up clothing. My t shirts get to a point where the wife will give it a yank as I'm walking by and rip the whole back off or tear it in half so there's no choice but to relegate it to the garage wiper bag. Oily rags get used for starting trash fires. Denim gets cut up for patches and other uses. We just don't throw anything marginally usable away. My parents both grew up dirt poor and went through the depression and the whole "use it up, wear it out, make do or do without" thing really filtered down to me. Plus I really hate blowing perfectly good money on clothes. Must be the 8 year old boy in me. I could've bought ammo or a gun with that.

  8. Me too – by the time I'm ready to dump a garment, it's usually in such a state that I feel the "deserving poor" deserve better!

    I have mixed feelings about the export of our used clothes to the Third World. On one hand, as Peter points out, this makes it difficult for textile and clothing industries to get started in underdeveloped countries. On the other hand, surely it's a good thing that clothes are so widely available and so inexpensive? Fifty years ago you might see a kid in a Nairobi slum whose only garment was a stained and patched wife-beater shirt. Now that slum kid can have jeans and a shirt that actually fit. Hard for me to see that as a net loss to the world.

  9. I have always lived by the wear it out philosophy and had assumed the old clothes I set out for the various charities that call us for them used them for rag stock. I was under the impression it was used to make paper products and insulation and things like that. Guess I was wrong.

  10. Sadly the clothes I buy lately seem to afflicted by an "auto-shrink" function. I'm not entirely sure what causes this but I sense a market for clothing that doesn't shrink after a period of time. 🙂

  11. Each pair of my khaki pants probably get worn at least 50 times a year. Each button-down shirt probably gets worn at least 20 times per year. They seldom last less than five years, and some are over ten years old. I have a few shirts and shorts that are old enough to vote.

  12. I recall that back in 1982, when the company had treated us to a Nile Cruise,a srap broke on one of my wife's sandals so sheput the pair in our cabin's rubbish bin. Our steward simply couldn't believe that she meant to throw them away, and asked if he could have them because he could get a repair done. She said yes and made him ery happy – to him that was a great present.

  13. So, someday we’ll no longer see scarecrow militiamen in African wars with duct-taped AK-47s and disco clothes?

  14. I've seen lots of used clothing from the States in Zimbabwe and Mozambique at local markets. Not as much in South Africa, but I was mostly in the larger cities there.

  15. I still have 20 year old sweaters that still fit and still look in good shape.
    Jackets that are the same age.
    Any pants that wear out or rip apart, I cut them up and save the buttons for my other pants (they're all from the same brand) and the fabric for rags.
    Shoes, I'll just put for recycling. The rubber is still expensive to produce.

    I suspect that many people will keep the clothes they buy for a long time. Shoes will still need to be replaced as they wear out and the cobbler is expensive. But then again it's a choice.

    That's a good and bad thing because it means the fashion companies will need to concentrate on clothes that last long, clean easily, dry quickly aren't too heavy and easy to pack. I bet some will even custom fittings and other personal touches for their customers.


  16. A lot of thrift store items have NEVER been worn, or only worn once. I shop for myself almost exclusively at thrift stores. I buy socks and underwear new at Costco…

    I am able to buy very nice, very expensive items with great performance for very little money. For example, modern high tech t shirts are 4-6USD at my favorite shop. Like new Nike, UnderArmor, or other top brands are all there. They are 30-50USD in the retail stores. I used to be all about cotton shirts but these cool-tech shirts ROCK. I buy 'golf shirts' there too. The ones with a company logo on the sleeve are 3-4USD, unaltered are about 6. Most of the company logo shirts were never worn or worn once for some corporate function. I love the cool tech fabric.

    I've bought 5.11 shirts pants and shorts. Under Armor, Propper, other 'tactical' brands, and all the sporting brands. Why buy some bangledashi house brand shirt when you can buy Brooks Brothers for $3? That BB shirt will outlast me.

    Start carrying IWB? Need bigger pants? Thrift store has you covered, and leaves you money for ammo.

    Need cover garments?? Tommy Bahama, Van Husen, Quicksilver, and a host of other short sleeve sport shirts are $6 or $8.

    You won't find what you want at every store or on every visit, but if you keep at it you will find lots of great stuff.


  17. Reminds me that when I got married a few years back I and the new bride were cleaning out my master closet so she could share it aka take it over and I found several jackets that were literally older than she was.

  18. My dad's technique for pants shopping at thrift stores was to carry a dowel cut to fit the buttoned waistband of his size (I think he carried one in every vehicle).

    No need to try to find the sizing tag (which is often wrong), just slip the dowel into or against the pants waistband to check. You don't need to even take it off the rack or hanger to verify it's worth the time for further exam.

  19. We went to thrift stores when we were raising our children.
    My husband teaches business and started of a lecture on the clothing industry and international marketing by asking students to count their tops. One said 60.

    (now, I made a comment that my pants had a hole and himself said "you can fix it." Riiight I work hard, went to college so I could wear patched clothing.)

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