In Chile, a mountain of abandoned clothing covers dunes in the Atacama Desert. In Ghana, discarded clothing is twisted into ropes by waves on the beach. Here at Pass It On Thrift in Tahoe City, where I’ve been going through bags of strangers’ clothing, plucking out the treasure and throwing away the underwear for more than 20 years, I find myself muttering “quit buying internet garbage” again and again throughout the day.
According to Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser, worldwide clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, with more petroleum products than natural fibers since 2008. My own totally unscientific anecdotal research suggests that that increase has been 100% junk. We are drowning in it. It is frustrating from a business point of view — hours spent moving clothing nobody wants from one bag to another, then finding a place for those bags of rejects. But my problem with it is small compared to the havoc it wreaks on the world.
Take one shirt from Shein or Temu or any other cheap brand that pops up in your social media feed. It looks great in the picture and it’s only $5, so why not? Somewhere on the other side of the world, someone who is underpaid and probably underage and works in appalling conditions makes your new shirt. It’s polyester or nylon, so it’s a petroleum product. Then it’s wrapped in plastic (more petroleum) and shipped to you. More petroleum. Then, if you don’t immediately hate it because it looks nothing like the photo and feels awful against your skin, you wear it three times and then it’s worn out. It’s pilly, stretched out, and the seams are ripping. So you toss it in a plastic bag and haul it to the local thrift store because you don’t want to throw it away.
Unfortunately, the thrift store doesn’t want it either. People don’t want to buy a secondhand $5 shirt. So we put it in another bag (also plastic), and then what? In the old days, the Salvation Army would pick up our rejects once a week. When they stopped because they, too, are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of junk they receive, we started taking the bags and bags and bags of rejects to them. The Salvation Army can’t sell them either, so they bale them, which takes lots of human hours and lots of energy, and then what? Best-case scenario is that they sell them to recyclers to be made into carpet padding. Mostly, though, the bales are shipped back around the world (more petroleum) to second-hand markets that also don’t want them, and they end up on fire in the dunes of Chile, or trapping sea life on an African beach.
So what’s to be done? The truth is, I don’t know. I feel like a tiny pebble trying to dam a raging river. But I do have some suggestions. First, don’t buy fast fashion! If it’s never made, it never becomes waste. Second, don’t buy new clothes at all. “Better” brands may pay their workers better, or their clothes may last longer, but then again, they may not. You want a shirt for $5 or $10? There are easily a dozen thrift stores in Tahoe and Truckee. Shopping secondhand bolsters the local economy, saves resources, and makes you look cool.
The flip side, of course, is that if you do buy junk, take responsibility for it. Don’t donate it. You’re not doing a good or charitable thing, you’re just making your problem someone else’s problem. The same goes for your used underpants and the clothing you couldn’t be bothered to wash, but that’s a different rant.
~ Heather Solomon was born in Truckee, spent her formative years in Incline, and has lived in Kings Beach for 24 years. She has a degree in English from UC Berkeley, which comes in handy when organizing the books at Pass It On Thrift, which she and her partner, Courtney, have been running since 2001.