What's Old Is New Again

by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

In university, I achieved infamy for the fashion crime of wearing far too many yellow shirts. My friends staged an intervention, removing all the offending garments from my closet. Then they sent me on a shopping spree for trendier threads.

Recently, our staffers got together for what's become an annual event -- the office clothing swap. Everyone eagerly rummages through their coworkers cast-offs in search of their new favorite blouse, or pair of jeans.

It made me wonder whatever became of those canary-colored clothes. It also got me thinking about the environmental impact of clothing waste.

In North America, consumers are buying -- and getting rid of -- five times as much clothing as we did 25 years ago, reports Elizabeth Cline in her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (Portfolio, 2013).

A staggering 85 per cent of our collective apparel ends up in a landfill, according to the popular second-hand store Value Village. That's 11 million tons of textiles every year -- equal in weight to 113 navy aircraft carriers.

Reduce, reuse and recycle has become the mantra of socially conscious consumers. Now we need to extend that philosophy to our old clothes.

The most popular solution appears to be donating our unwanted garb. Some thrift stores like Savers are also social enterprises that support community non-profits. Some charities like AMVETS, and charitable enterprises like Charity Clothing Pickup, will even come to your door to collect clothes and household goods, which are resold to fund life-changing work.

But giving away clothes is not without its pitfalls.

Many of the big street-corner donation bins you can spot in any community are not affiliated with a charitable cause. If the bin doesn't clearly belong to an organization, there's a good chance a for-profit company is collecting and reselling the clothing.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. It still keeps waste out of our landfills.

The catch is that only about 20 per cent of donated apparel finds its way to thrift stores and second hand shops. The rest is sold overseas -- most of it in developing countries.

America exports more than one billion pounds of used clothing every year.

Developing countries can use a hand-up but giving them our hand-me-downs can harm their manufacturing and retail businesses. That's why it is best to ensure the skinny jeans you want to trade in for flares go to a charity.

What about clothing that's too worn to donate?

New technologies are recovering textile fibres to make into new fabrics, or other products like insulation.

There are at least 3,000 textile recycling companies across the country that will take your dead duds. You can find them easily with a quick web search. Some cities like San Francisco even take textiles in their municipal recycling programs.

Re-fashionNYC is a partnership project between the city of New York and Housing Works, a community non-profit that puts textile recycling bins in apartment blocks, commercial building, schools, and other public spaces.

Perhaps the best way to reduce the amount of clothing in our landfills is to curb our desire to sport the latest trends. Don't toss those tapered-leg trousers because Vogue says they're "out." Embrace the socially conscious trend of wearing last year's styles.

If you yawn with boredom whenever you open your wardrobe, host a clothing swap with your friends. When your jeans get a little tear in the knee, spend your money on a repair service instead of a new pair.

And the next time you see that guy from the IT department walking around in a wide-lapel sports jacket, don't laugh. Give him a high-five. He's being environmentally responsible, and that never goes out of style.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.