Q. Dear Umbra,
Which is better: Wear something out TOTALLY (shoes, sheets, clothes, etc.) and throw it away, or use an item and then donate it before it’s too worn out?
— Will One Rip be Noticed?
A. Dear WORN,
Compared to some of the scary, complicated environmental topics that have been trending lately — climate nihilism and mass murder! The point at which the planet becomes truly unliveable! Raising children in the age of apocalypse! — I appreciate that you’re inquiring about something so tangible and non-terrifying. Except your question, unfortunately, doesn’t actually have as simple an answer as you might expect. Argh!!! I know.
Many consumers have cottoned on (sorry) to the idea that the clothing and textile industries have a massive carbon footprint. Of course, there’s a very wide spectrum of behavior when it comes to buying and keeping clothes, ranging from Mariah Carey excess to Marie Kondo minimalism. And given that you’re even asking this question, I’d guess that you lean a little more toward the latter end of the spectrum.
It’s no stretch to say that the Western world is driven by profligate consumerism. (That’s not to say that the world is filled with Mariah Careys — there can only be one when it comes to that five-octave range and buttery-smooth tone!) According to Jackie King, executive director of the Secondary Materials And Recycled Textiles Association, only 15 percent of clothing and textiles get reused (resold or donated and worn again) or recycled (manufactured into new fabrics or repurposed into washrags or insulation). That means 85 percent of materials ends up in the landfill, which averages to about 81 pounds per person per year. And that amount is actually trending upward over time; yes, we’re getting more wasteful.
For the purpose of your question, let’s focus on the 15 percent of old clothes that get taken to a donation or recycling center. Only about 45 percent of that actually gets to be worn again. The other half gets recycled into other materials with the small remainder being deemed unusable due to contamination by hazardous materials.
So unless you have a habit of soaking your old clothes in effluent from a copper mine, your definition of “totally worn out” is probably much higher than standard used by the textile reuse industry. That is to say, that Pretty Ricky concert swag from 2007 might have another life as recycled fiber, cran-vodka stains notwithstanding. The difference between wearing your clothes to shreds and recycling them, as it turns out, isn’t that significant.
So how to choose? Certain materials are more useful in a second life than others, and this can guide your original purchases. Cheap poly blends or flimsy fabrics don’t have as much staying power as cotton, which is more desirable from a recycling or repurposing standpoint. (Cotton farming, it must be said, has a huge carbon footprint — again, complications!) The most common-sense wisdom you can take from that is that the better-made your clothes are to begin …read more