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A Second Life for Unwanted Clothing

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Fashions change every season and when we buy new things we have to get rid of the old, outgrown and out of style. Americans consume 65 pounds of new clothes per person each year and according to the EPA, American households discard a total of 25.4 billion pounds of textiles annually.

So, you clean out your closet. And since you know that these clothes might have a second life elsewhere you haul a couple of big bags of clothing out to the car and drop them in a bin -- one of many around town -- that accepts used clothing. But just where do the clothes go from there? Straight to the rack on the thrift store? What happens in between? How does the second hand clothing market actually work?

Used clothing is collected by a huge variety of organizations and companies: charities, community groups, and clothing recyclers and resale companies. In 2010 USAgain alone saved 56 million pounds of textiles from ending up in landfills. Once all clothes are collected they still have a couple of steps before reaching end markets across the globe.

Used clothing is purchased by three main parties: thrift stores, graders, and wholesalers.

Thrift stores are a huge and growing business -- second-hand clothe sales were up 12.7% in 2009 over 2008. This is a significant increase considering that retail sales overall were down 7.3% in the same period, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce. But thrift stores here in the States are only one of the markets for used clothing. A significant portion of second hand clothing is sold to overseas thrift stores. Between 1980 and 2001, the worldwide trade of second-hand clothing grew more than sevenfold, from $207 million to over a billion dollar industry.

Graders are companies that buy both re-wearable clothing and 'mixed rags,' castoffs from thrift stores that can't be sold are repurposed as wiping rags in various industries. Graders sort collected clothing and textiles into as many as 600 categories by clothing type, fabric, gender, color, size, quality and so forth. They then package them into bales based on type and ship them directly to thrift stores or to wholesalers. Rags may also be sold directly to recycling companies who shred them to make insulation material, furniture padding or reclaim fiber to make new textiles.

Wholesalers buy clothing and mixed rags directly from collection companies or from graders, and then sell them directly to retailers across the globe.

According to 2005 statistics, the United States is the world's largest exporter of second-hand clothing in both volume and value followed by Germany, the United Kingdom and Netherlands. Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe are the largest importers of second-hand clothing. The declared value of American secondhand clothing exported to Africa was $59.3 million in 2002 (most recent figure available), according to the International Trade Commission; probably one of a very short list of items that have seen such solid export growth for the US.

USAgain sells much of our stock internationally and hence contributes substantially to the US export economy. Expanding our reach to the international used clothing markets is important not only to continue finding a new life for clothing that would otherwise be thrown away, but also to promote a sustainable lifestyle and create jobs in the local communities we work in.

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