Second-hand clothing is becoming more popular across the world, especially among the younger generations. Both online and traditional retail spaces for used clothing are growing in size as consumers seek more sustainable and affordable fashion.
Although it’s seen as the default way to deal with unwanted clothes by most people, excessive amounts of donations can cause problems at collection centers and the final destinations. Although a relatively low amount of donated clothing ends up in landfills, a high percentage is exported to low-income and developing countries, potentially harming their apparel and textiles industries and their environment.
- How many clothes are donated each year?
- How many people donate?
- Environmental impact
- What happens to secondhand clothes that don’t sell?
- How much is thrown away?
- The popularity of used clothes
- Market size
- Users of second-hand clothes
How many clothes are donated each year?
- According to Goodwill’s sustainability manager, Goodwill received about 107 million pieces of donated goods including second-hand clothes, shoes, accessories, and home goods in 2021. The approximate total weight of these donations is 5.7 billion pounds. (Dickinson, 2023)
- Goodwill locations in New York and New Jersey alone collected over 85.7 million pounds of clothing donations in 2021. This region is only one of 164 regional Goodwill locations across North America. (Goodwill NY/NJ, source)
What percent of people donate their clothes?
- According to Goodwill New York / New Jersey’s 2021 impact report, 1,002,623 individual donors donated their clothes to Goodwill locations in these two states, which was a 39% increase from the previous year. As the combined population of these two states in 2021 is 17.6 million people, this amounts to about 5.6% of the population donating their used clothing to Goodwill. (Goodwill NY/NJ, Annual Report for 2021)
- It is estimated that only 15% of clothing and other textiles are collected for repurposing or recycling in the US, while the remaining 85% is landfilled or incinerated. A large portion of the clothes that enter the second-hand market do so through donations to thrift shops and curbside collection programs. (NIST, 2022, Facilitating a Circular Economy for Textiles Workshop Report)
Does donating clothes actually help the environment?
- Clothing donations and second-hand clothing usage can help reduce the staggering amounts of textile waste. According to data from Goodwill, the largest thrift shop in North America, around 3.8 billion pounds of used goods were redirected from landfills and were rehomed as second-hand items in 2021. (Goodwill Annual Report, 2021)
- According to ThredUp’s 2023 resale report (which uses data from Green Story Inc.’s Life Cycle Assessment report of 2022) buying and wearing second-hand clothing can reduce carbon emissions by 25% on average. It also reduces water and energy usage, helping reduce the environmental harm caused by producing and purchasing new clothes. (ThredUp, 2023)
Benefits of donating clothes
- A research report prepared for OXFAM in 2005 found that the global second-hand clothing trade creates employment opportunities in the developing countries that import used clothing, such as jobs in transporting, cleaning, repairing, grading, and sorting. The existing system also provides low-cost clothing options for those living in poverty. (Baden & Barber for OXFAM, 2005)
Disadvantages of donating clothes
- The existing technological, economic, social, and political infrastructures are not equipped to handle the sorting, grading, and recycling processes. Efficient textile circularity requires expensive and extensive labor and transportation. Because these systems are not currently in place and/or insufficient, the donation and resale sector is not capable of handling the massive amounts of discarded or “donated” clothing. These challenges were identified in the “Facilitating a Circular Economy for Textiles Workshop” organized by the National Institute of Standards and Technology of the United States. (NIST, 2022)
- Not all donated clothing is locally rehomed, in fact, only about 20% of donations to thrift shops are sold in retail locations. The remaining majority of used clothes are handled in numerous ways, including being exported to lower-income countries and landfilled. This contributes to environmental harm. This number is even higher when we consider the fact that large numbers of low-quality or damaged items are discarded at the first sorting. (NIST, 2022)
- Second-hand clothes that go to developing regions (like Sub-Saharan Africa) cause a serious issue for the local textile and apparel industries. Although these countries raised their tariffs in an attempt to control the number of used clothes that entered their countries and harmed their local economies, they had to lower their tariffs back to the original numbers in the face of backlash from the US government (Bearak & Lynch for Washington Post, 2018; Chiu for Washington Post, 2022). These imports also accumulate a lot of textile waste in the countries that receive the most, such as Ghana and Chile (Mull for the Atlantic, 2022; Besser for ABC, 2021; Aljazeera, 2021).
- Andrew Brooks, a Senior Lecturer in Development and Environment at King’s College London, highlights the case of Ghana. Ghana is among the biggest receivers of exported second-hand clothing, and according to Brooks’ research, textile and clothing employment in Ghana fell by 80% between the years 1975 and 2000 due to the high volumes of used textile imports. He mentions a similar case from Nigeria, another important receiver of second-hand textiles. Their 200,000-strong workforce in the textile industry has almost completely disappeared. (Brooks, 2015; Rodgers for BBC, 2015)
What happens to secondhand clothes that don’t sell?
- Estimates from the United States show that only about 20% of textile donations are sold through thrift shops, while the remaining 80% are sold to resellers, sorters, and graders, repurposed into low-quality textile materials for stuffing or rags, and sent for disposal. 45% of this remaining amount is domestically and internationally reused and resold, 50% is used for low-grade textile needs, and 5% is landfilled or incinerated. The fiber-to-fiber recycling only amounts to about 1% of this amount. (NIST, 2022, Facilitating a Circular Economy for Textiles Workshop Report)
- Almost half of all second-hand clothing donations that don’t sell are exported to different countries. While African countries receive the majority of low-quality items, Latin America receives the medium-quality pieces, and the high-quality, branded items are exported to Japan which has a rich second-hand clothing market. (Hansen, 2010)
- It is estimated that between 40-75% of textile donations that don’t sell are resold in bulk to textile sorters, graders, and brokers by charitable donations like thrift shops. These textile recyclers across the United States and Northwestern Europe transport their bulk second-hand textile purchases to warehouses and sorting plants, where the textiles are sorted according to different properties like fiber content, weight, quality, fabric type, and garment type. This intensive sorting labor is often done by underpaid immigrant workers in poor working conditions. (Hansen, 2010)
- According to Southern California Goodwill’s vice president of retail operations Ray Tellez, Goodwill locations across the Southern Californian region track how long each piece is displayed for sale in the retail locations and the pieces that aren’t sold in 4 weeks are sent to Goodwill outlet stores. These outlet stores usually sell items for lower prices and per weight (i.e. 99 cents per pound of clothing) in an effort to keep donated and second-hand textiles out of landfills. While there are regional differences in how Goodwills across North America handle this process, this general outline of the process is the same in different regions. (Strutner, 2021) (Goodwill Outlet Store Locator)
- According to Brittany Dickinson, who is the manager of sustainability for Goodwill Industries International, only half of all donated clothing is suitable for sale to retail customers through online or offline stores. The remaining half of donations are either sold to Goodwill outlets or to salvage dealers. Of the 50% that’s approved for sale to retail customers, only 38-48% of pieces are sold within the approved time frame. The rest is first sent to Goodwill outlets and later sold in bulk to salvage dealers. (Chiu, 2023)
- Buffalo Exchange, which is another popular thrift store in North America, purchases second-hand clothes from their owners rather than accepting donations. For pieces that aren’t in a good enough condition to be bought by Buffalo Exchange and resold, they collect donations for local non-profits. The second-hand pieces that do not get sold in their regular retail locations are sent to their outlet stores in Texas and Arizona. (Porter, 2019)
How much donated clothing is thrown away?
- In the United States, of the 15% of clothing that gets donated to thrift shops and other second-hand resellers, 80% of donations are not sold directly to customers. 5% of this unsold amount is sent to landfills or incinerated. (NIST, 2022, Facilitating a Circular Economy for Textiles Workshop Report)
How popular is second-hand clothing?
- More than half of all US-based consumers shopped for second-hand clothing items in 2022. Younger Gen Z consumers seem more open to shopping for used clothing, with 83% of them reporting they have bought second-hand clothing or they are open to doing so. In the general population, this number sits at 75%, which is still very high. A third of all clothing pieces purchased within the year 2022 are predicted to be second-hand purchases. (ThredUp’s Resale Report, 2023, based on a survey of 3012 US adults and using data from GlobalDta’s Consumer Resale Survey)
- ThredUp projects that new shoppers will be the major drivers of the growth of the US’s future second-hand clothing market. They estimate that by 2027, 60% of second-hand clothing consumers will be new shoppers, and the remaining 40% will be existing consumers. Younger generations (Gen Z and Millenials) are projected to account for over 60% of the entire second-hand clothing customer base. (ThredUp, 2023)
- 40% of all pieces in Gen Z consumers’ wardrobes are second-hand in origin. This is based on GlobalData’s Consumer Resale Survey (which is comprised of data collected from 3012 US consumers in December 2022). (ThredUp, 2023)
How large is the online and offline second-hand clothing market?
- According to estimates from ThredUp, the largest online consignment and thrift shop in North America, the second-hand clothing market saw a 28% increase in 2022, reaching 177 billion US dollars. They also estimate that the global second-hand clothing market will nearly double by 2027 and reach 350 billion US dollars. (ThredUp, 2023)
- The online resale market is projected to grow by 21% each year for the next 5 years in the United States. This is double the growth projected for the offline second-hand market. This is evident in Gen Z consumers’ shopping habits: 58% of Gen Z shoppers who purchased second-hand clothing items in the past year reported making one or more purchases through online resellers. (ThredUp, 2023)
- ThredUp also estimates that the US resale market will reach 70 billion US dollars by 2027, with a strong growth pattern predicted in the online resale market. In 2022, the resale market grew 5 times as much as the traditional retail clothing sector. (ThredUp, 2023)
- Based on GlobalData’s Market Sizing and Growth Estimates from 2023, the market shares of different apparel business models show a dramatic increase in the growth of the second-hand market. While second-hand clothing businesses like ThredUp or Goodwill were capturing 3% of the market share in 2012, this number tripled to 9% in 10 years, and it’s projected to double again to 18% in another 10 years. (ThredUp, 2023)
- In Europe, the second-hand clothing market is estimated to be worth over 18 billion US dollars in 2022. It is projected that there will be an 8.4% growth, with the value reaching over 40.5 billion US dollars in the next 10 years. (Future Market Insights, 2022)
Who is the largest user of second-hand clothes?
- Sub-Saharan African countries are by far the largest importers of second-hand clothes. According to data from Texpro, the second-hand clothing imported to Sub-Saharan Africa surpassed 1.7 billion US dollars in value, making up almost 34% of the total global exports of used clothing and textiles. The 4 largest exporters of used clothes to Africa are China, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Combines, China and the EU are responsible for over 1.1 billion US dollars worth of second-hand clothing exports to Sub-Saharan Africa. Of the 46 countries that make up Sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Angola, and Nigeria are the 5 largest importers of used clothes. (Fibre2Fashion, TexPro, 2022)
- According to the GlobalData’s Consumer Resale Survey, Gen Z shoppers are the biggest consumers of second-hand clothes. 64% look for a second-hand alternative before purchasing a new item, 40% of their wardrobes are composed of second-hand clothes, and 83% of them are existing second-hand clothing consumers or are open to the idea of buying used clothing. (ThredUp, 2023)
What to read next:
- 22 Worldwide Statistics About Clothing & Textile Waste
- Do People Still Repair Clothes? 35 Myth-Busting Statistics
This article was written by Nisan Aktürk and edited by Sara Maker.
Nisan Aktürk (author)
Nisan started her sewing journey in December 2019 and already has a fully handmade wardrobe. She’s made 50+ trousers, 20+ buttoned shirts, and a wide array of coats, jackets, t-shirts, and jeans. She’s currently studying for her Sociology Master’s degree and is writing a thesis about sewing. So she spends a lot of her time either sewing or thinking/writing about sewing! Read more…