Clothing is the first category to be purged in each episode of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, the hit Netflix show featuring the lifestyle expert. Kondo’s clients (and, in turn, millions of American viewers) start by making a mountain of clothes on their beds, pausing to ask if they “spark joy,” and thanking them before casting them out. The show has coincided with unprecedented spikes in clothing sent to thrift shops around the country, with some shops reporting long lines to donate and outdated closet dregs brought in by the suitcase-full.
For more than a century, charities have linked the process of getting rid of stuff with some higher purpose. Now, Kondo has tapped into that long-running and cherished American myth too. She’s recast discarding waste as a virtue, or at least a necessary step in personal reinvention.
The problem is that most of our donated clothing does not reach any sort of higher purpose; it just ends up as waste. Clothing is one of the fastest-growing categories in landfills in the U.S. Almost 24 billion pounds of clothes and shoes are thrown out each year, more than double what we tossed two decades ago. And there’s every reason to believe the show only added to the problem, Adele Meyer, executive director of the Association of Resale Professionals, confirmed to me.
The clothes people end up donating aren’t “necessarily things that were salable,” Meyer said; donation centers “can’t replace zippers, loose buttons, and iron things.” Some of her members have paid to have clothes taken to the dump, she says. Other charities were so inundated by donations that they turned people away or had to pull in workers to do overtime to sort through a backlog of out-of-date and low-quality items.
For most of human history, used clothing has been valued and valuable. But that reality has been turned on its head in the era of fast fashion. The reasons for this are fairly straightforward: Many new clothes are cheaper than used ones, making used clothing less attractive as an option. What’s more, Americans now consume more than 20 billion garments per year, much of it low-quality basics and fast fashion that’s cheap to begin with and close to worthless as secondhand products. High-value clothing items, like designer clothes and handbags, might still find a new home. But the rest of it—most of it—just gets dumped into a global used-clothing system that increasingly doesn’t have solutions for it all.
And yet the coverage of Tidying Up has been overwhelmingly positive, a roundup of charities applauding the huge increase in our generous donations. Most charities won’t complain about a flood of clothes. Like Kondo (and the U.S. recycling market), these institutions’ business models are increasingly dependent on high volumes of consumption and purging, and their fate is tied in a sense to enabling wastefulness.
But even in a typical year, charities reuse only one-fifth of what we donate, on average. As much as 80 percent of the clothes are sold onward to recyclers and exporters for pennies on the pound, and never see the charity shop floor. From there, the worn-out items might get passed on to what’s known as a “downcycler,” where they’ll become rags or insulation. The rest is shipped overseas in one last-ditch effort to find someone to buy it and wear it.
You might again think this is a positive thing—that it’s unequivocally better than throwing old clothes in the garbage. It’s not so clear. Liz Ricketts, a used-clothing researcher, was in Ghana when Tidying Up started streaming on Netflix. That was too soon for Ricketts to document any kind of KonMari effect on secondhand traders there—it takes four to 10 weeks or more for clothes to get from a charity to West Africa. But even though Ghana and much of sub-Saharan Africa have for decades absorbed most of our lowest-value secondhand clothing, that’s already changing. Increases in used clothing, especially anything unstylish or worn out, are already not welcome, says Ricketts. “There is already an incredible oversupply of used clothing, and traders already say they feel pressured to accept containers and bales of clothes.”
If your KonMari’d clothes were donated in pristine condition, crafted out of a breathable material, or from a trendy global brand like Adidas or Nike, they had a chance of surviving as secondhand clothes in Ghana’s capital, Accra. What of the rest of it, the 5K charity run T-shirts, the jacket with a broken zipper, the flare jeans stuck in the back of your closet since 2007? “They will have been carted off to an already overflowing landfill, burned, dumped in the Gulf of Guinea, or, most likely, they will be dumped in informal landfills where people live,” says Ricketts. Her nonprofit, the OR Foundation, found that imported old clothes are now the single largest source of consolidated waste in Accra, amounting to more than 48 million pounds a year.
If we actually saw what happens to our old clothes, we might be more inclined to consider options besides dumping them in the garbage or in huge heaps on a charity’s doorstep. We might put more effort toward reusing, reselling, and swapping clothes and carefully disposing and donating the rest, so as not to overwhelm the systems and people tasked with dealing with our refuse. In other words, we’d clean out our houses the way we’ve done it for ages: slowly, reluctantly, and a little bit at a time.
If Americans can be convinced to do something so tedious as cleaning out their homes top to bottom, there’s hope that we can be convinced to change our consumption habits—to only seek out physical objects that “spark joy” to begin with. Ultimately, that’s what will really move the meter—our ability to eventually turn away from fast fashion from the start and to care for the clothes we buy.
There’s a Japanese concept called mottainai, an expression of regret over being wasteful, that has regained popularity in recent years. Abhorrence of wastefulness is not unique to Japan; it is a human value that is widely embraced.
Many of Kondo’s clients on her TV show express anguish at having to “dump” possessions. Kondo wants us to push past this feeling, to embrace her method of all-at-once purging. We shouldn’t heed her advice. Feeling guilty about garbage functions to remind us to appreciate the finite nature of resources we consume and to remember all the ways our waste can impact others and the environment.