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The collapse of a textile factory in Bangladesh last month has heightened awareness about cheap clothes and the conditions under which they're made. Many Americans are used to inexpensive clothing but the garments are also discarded at a remarkable rate. Billions of pounds of shirts, dresses, and trousers are donated, given away, each year. NPR's Jackie Northam examines what happens to some of those clothes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: How you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hi. I have some stuff to drop off.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK. Do you want to keep your bag or...?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No. I'm going to give the bag.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: It's a bright and warm Saturday morning and there's a steady flow of people dropping off donations at Martha's Table, a charity in downtown Washington D.C. There's a growing mountain of plastic and paper bags stuffed with used skirts, dresses, scarves and footwear in one corner of the room. Volunteers sort and put clothes on hangers. They'll go on sale next door, the proceeds of which will help the needy in the area.

It's a scene played out across the U.S. - people donating their old clothes, whether through collection bins or through large charities - to help others. Melissa Vanouse donates clothes a couple times a year.

MELISSA VANOUSE: I think it all pretty much stays local. So that's kind of the idea.

NORTHAM: But it doesn't. Martha's Table, like other charities, only have so much room and can only keep clothes for so long. And at some point, they call in a textile recycling company. About 80 percent of the donations are carted away by textile recyclers, says Jackie King, the executive director of SMART, Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles, a trade association for textile recyclers. She says that means about 3.8 billion pounds of clothing that's donated each year is recycled.

JACKIE KING: Thirty percent of the materials are made into wiping cloths that are used in commercial and industrial use, and then about 20 percent are converted into fibers that are then basically recycled into something else - carpet padding, insulation for automobiles, as well as insulation in homes; pillow stuffing.

NORTHAM: King says most of the donated clothes are exported.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FORKLIFT BEEPING)

NORTHAM: A forklift shuttles large pallets stacked with bins of donated clothes at Mac Recycling, on the outskirts of Baltimore. A large section of the warehouse is packed with colorful 800-pound bales of clothing ready to ship out. Robert Goode, the owner of Mac Recycling, says textile recycling is a huge international industry. He says his small warehouse alone ships about 80 tons of clothes each week to buyers throughout the world.

ROBERT GOODE: Central America, South America, Asia, Africa, Europe. Pretty much you can pick any country and there's a market for these items.

NORTHAM: Goode says when the shipment arrives overseas, a wholesaler will break down the bales and send the clothes into different markets. And at each step along the way in this process, someone makes money from the donated clothes. Goode says it is a cutthroat business.

GOODE: It is an extremely competitive business where items are bought and sold by the pound, and you can literally make or lose a deal over half a cent a pound, quarter of a cent a pound.

NORTHAM: Goode says the business has changed dramatically over the years. Customers in foreign markets are now setting up their own operations in the U.S., cutting out a middleman. SMART's executive director King says textile recyclers are still finding strong demand for used clothing. But she says, selling cheap garments, like those made in Bangladesh, is becoming increasingly difficult.

KING: I think one of the problems when they're trying to sell the clothing abroad is the distinction between what's good-quality used clothing, versus clothing that has maybe not been manufactured to the highest standards. So there is a big demand, internationally, for used clothing. And I think what will probably happen eventually is that they will not have as great of sources for it as the clothes are being made in a cheaper fashion.

NORTHAM: King says ultimately she hopes that more clothes of good quality are donated each year. Her organization, SMART, says that 85 percent of all the clothing sold each year ends up in landfill.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

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