The Cycle Of Secondhand Fashion – What Happens to Our Unwanted Clothes?

Last Updated on March 31, 2022

In my previous piece, I covered the two major problems we’re seeing in the secondhand industry today (that we have full control over). Now it’s time to understand the journey of secondhand clothing post-export: the salvage market.

Where the salvage market thrives is within developing countries that are willing to take in millions of tonnes of “stuff” every year via shipping containers. These items go for resale in street markets and usually small shops run by marginalized communities. Although I must note that with secondhand trending, we’re actually seeing a lot more privileged communities proudly representing and selling more upscale, secondhand finds.

To give you an accessible understanding of the journey of your donated clothing, let me tell you about that old sweater you donated three years ago in North America and how it ended up in India:

You loved that sweater. You wore it every week. But after a few months of washing, the color started to fade. The branded logo on the front began to chip. You upgraded with a new sweater and discarded the old. Twenty years ago, you would have probably mended the sweater, but now sweaters are made half-assed (that 100% cotton sweater ain’t 100% cotton anymore!). It’s much more convenient, and even more affordable for most, to just replace everything.

After all, the three R’s—reduce, reuse, recycle—strategically place “recycle” as the last R. 

Nobody wants to feel shitty about excessive buying and replacing old items with new items so quickly. Recycling was invented to help you feel less guilty about not adhering to the “reduce” and “reuse” concepts of the three Rs.

It’s funny how even a sustainable movement has its loopholes.

So, you dropped that sweater off at a thrift shop. It got a fresh new hanger, a shiny price tag, and was merchandised on a clothing rack. It sat for weeks, maybe months, until the store had discounted it as far as it could before sending it on its next journey: to become a rag or be shipped out to the salvage market across Asia or Africa.

“Approximately 30 percent of the textiles recovered for recycling in the United States are converted to wiping rags, according to Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles, a U.S.-based trade association.” (Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter)

That means the other 70% of textiles are shipped out to developing countries to enter the salvage market, or are dumped into landfills.

So, how do sellers and entrepreneurs get their hands on these fresh “new” finds as they come into port?

They gamble on them.

Really! Unless you are running a corporation—a legal one, that is— you are bidding on shipping containers coming in from the West and China (as the world’s fifth biggest exporter of used clothing), and praying it’s filled with goods that you can sell at a decent price in the local markets.

Why I’ve specifically mentioned a “legal” corporation is because many developing countries have strict laws and regulations on the import of used goods, like India. In some countries, like Nigeria, it’s illegal. Yet, the salvage market finds ways to thrive regardless of restrictions. And in countries with such a large population, especially in lower income communities, the salvage market has many loopholes that make it an easy cash cow for individuals and families in need. For example, many Nigerians will secure secondhand items from neighbouring countries without strict secondhand laws, such as Togo, and bring them back home to sell at hefty prices.

In India, we see the sale of secondhand items everywhere, from Mall Road in Manali to Chor Bazaar in Mumbai. We see entrepreneurs, designers, and individuals mending, repairing, and upcycling. As a historically resourceful country, India seems like the best place to export unwanted textiles. Even the recycled yarn industry is huge!

On top of the sustainable efforts already in place within India, we are also seeing a rise in foreign tourists buying secondhand items and bringing their purchases back to where they once came.

However, do note that most items that end up in India were also made in India, along with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Cambodia (hence completing a full cycle).

But here’s the thing—in fast-paced, growing developing countries like India, the number of people part of the middle-class is rising everyday. Although we should be celebrating this growth, it does pose a problem for the already overwhelming secondhand and salvage markets.

Clothing is being made and consumed faster than ever before. Developing countries that have historically been “dumping grounds” for discarded clothing from the West are now becoming overcrowded with their own waste.

So, what do we do with all the textile waste generated by the growing, global middle-class? 

How do we complete the cycle of secondhand fashion without continually harming our environment in both the West and the East? 

What big changes are we, the consumers, responsible for compared to the big production guys at the top of the industry?

Honestly, we have to take the lead on everything. 

We have to hold everyone accountable.
We have to use our voices.
We have to vote with our dollars.
We have to support local, sustainable, slow, and truly circular fashion movements.

There’s no going back to “fix” the damage that has been done. All we can do is continue to spread awareness, share education, and help consumers stuck in the loop realize they have been looped. Marketing plays a huge role in this as well and YOU have the power to call it out.

When it comes to “needing” new items, secondhand is 100 percent the way to go, but it’s also important that you consider the journey of each item you bring into and remove from your home.

To create a truly cyclical fashion industry, we have to buy based on our values, our true “needs”. If a sustainable world is what we want to live in, we need to make smarter buying decisions that align with manifesting our environments. 

This isn’t like a fad diet. There are no cheat days.

The majority of consumers do not know, understand, or even pause to think about the journey or the story of their clothing.

Conscious living starts from the inside out. If consumers are just looping and looping and looping, only something drastic, influenced by their consumer decisions, will make them stop in their tracks (and unfortunately, those drastic incidents usually look like the Rana Plaza Disaster).

Secondhand clothing and recycling can’t really heal our planet, but with a focus on reducing and reusing we can see a larger impact within the industry. In fact, we’re already seeing it. 

To amplify it, continue your research.

Continue sharing the voices of leaders in the industry.
Continue to support local and share online platforms where consumers can access swaps and secondhand alternatives.

And of course, keep yourself in check. You aren’t just a consumer. You’re a conscious being that has the power to disrupt.

So, go forth and help us lead the way.

Photos from Pexels
Follow Jazzmine Raine:

Jazz is a social entrepreneur, storyteller, and facilitator.

She is the founder of Hara World, an experiential education and impact travel organization for young changemakers, and Hara House, India’s first zero-waste guesthouse. In 2019, she was named 1 of 35 social entrepreneurs to watch for by Causeartist. Jazz is deeply passionate about conscious living, environmental justice, ethical fashion, and responsible travel. Through the power of story, she helps build influential brands that are changing the world and empowers children and young adults to be leaders of change. Jazz resides in the Indian Himalayas with her husband and two fur babies.

3 Responses

  1. Steph
    | Reply

    This duo of articles was so helpful to understanding more of the process! Your work has really inspired me to get more creative with things I own that aren’t quite the right fit. I hope that I’m able to edit more of what I have to avoid offloading it into the loop, which will have the secondary benefit of helping me want for less new stuff!

  2. Jailyn Dyer
    | Reply

    The more I think about it, the more critical I am off capitalism. It prioritizes wealth advice all else and at the expense of others. I wish out system was based on the health of people and the environment instead.

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      I really hope for a society where so much more than just profit and wealth is valued.

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