What happens to clothes that are donated, left for recycling, and returned?

Donating clothes to charity or handing in clothes for recycling may seem like a good idea. The same goes for returning an item that you are not satisfied with. But this actually has devastating consequences for the environment, as the majority of clothes are thrown away or burned.

That the clothing industry has major consequences for the climate is a well-known fact. What may not be as well known is what often happens to clothes that are donated, handed in, and returned – assurances that this is the most environmentally friendly thing you can do to help the climate.

Returns are sent abroad & thrown away
Shopping online has become increasingly common, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic. Online shopping offers a kind of convenience that is difficult to achieve in physical stores. However, approximately one in three garments bought online is sent back – garments that are rarely resold again. As a way to keep customers' attention, more and more e-commerce companies are offering both free shipping and free returns. This has led to a kind of new buying behavior, where customers buy the same garment in several different sizes and then send back the ones that don't fit.

However, the returned clothes are rarely put up for sale again but are sent abroad or thrown away. Throwing away or sending the clothes abroad is often cheaper than the cost of taking care of the returned item and it also costs to transport the clothes back and forth. The extra transport that is added to returns and/or shipping of returns abroad also means a great strain on the environment in the form of unnecessary emissions.

Donated clothes are burned
It is a common belief that the clothes we donate to charities and second-hand shops will be resold or donated to people who need them. Unfortunately, so much clothing is donated that most of it are sent abroad - and not for charitable purposes. These clothes are instead bought by second-hand importers to be sold on so-called second-hand markets, but because much is in such poor condition, it does not generate any direct income but is instead thrown away in landfills or nature. Many of the clothes that are donated are fast fashion clothes. They are characterized by poor quality and a short lifespan and are often sorted out before they even reach the markets. Due to the huge amounts of clothing sent to these countries, landfills are overflowing and unwanted garments are burned or end up in the ocean. The import of used clothing is not only an environmental problem but also threatens the domestic textile industry. At the same time, the second-hand market of clothes is many people's livelihood.

Submitted textiles are thrown away
Handing in textiles to recycling centers or stores may sound like a simple way to reduce clothing's environmental impact. In practice, however, almost none of the submitted clothes become new clothes. There are several reasons for this: firstly, it costs more to recycle old textiles than to produce new synthetic materials, and secondly, the technology needed to recycle clothes is still developing. Many items of clothing are made from a mix of different materials, which makes it more difficult to create new fabric for new items of clothing. When the clothes are recycled, they are often "downcycled", which means that they are converted into something with a lower value, such as insulation material. And even with this solution, the percentage of recycled clothing is still very low.

With these facts in mind, it may be easier to understand why the outcome of submitted textiles is so poor. Perhaps it is rather clothing stores and recycling centers that need to be clearer in their communication about what happens to the clothes that are handed in.

Tips when handing in clothes for recycling or charity:
- Put the clothes in a box with a name you recognize or do some research beforehand. Many submission boxes contain information about the organization, for example, a website, telephone number, etc.

- Only hand in whole and clean clothes and textiles.

Additional tips:
- Try to buy garments made from natural fibers instead of synthetic fibers (which take years to biodegrade). Also, try to buy clothes that are responsibly produced, especially without toxic chemicals. This means that even if the clothes eventually end up in a landfill, they will have a much lower environmental impact.