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.
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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.
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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.
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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.”
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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.
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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.
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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.