What Happens To Your Donated Clothes? The Answer Might Surprise You

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nprslidePhoto: Courtesy of Sarah Elliott for NPR.


If you've ever wondered where your old clothes go after you drop them in a donation bin, the answer is a lot more complex than you might think. If your discarded duds aren’t snatched up by a charity shop like Goodwill, they actually make a much longer journey. It goes something like this: Donated clothes are packed up in bales and sold in bulk around the world, often ending up in used-clothing markets in Sub-Saharan African countries, NPR reports. The numbers are startling: These used clothing exports amount to over a billion pounds every year. (Just imagining a billion pounds of clothes is making our heads spin.) After export, the clothes are cleaned, ironed, and sold in markets around the world.

The report is part of NPR's Planet Money T-shirt project, where the news site tracked the lifespan of a T-shirt, covering processes like how cotton is made and how clothing is transported around the world. This particular segment takes its inspiration from a man who donated an old lacrosse jersey in Miami, only to find the same shirt a few months later on a man in Sierra Leone. So, yes, it's a pretty safe bet that your old H&M and Forever 21 castoffs are enjoying a second life somewhere in the world — potentially very far away.

Some additional food for thought: NPR produced a line of T-shirts as part of the project, and reporters Gregory Warner and David Kestenbaum are pretty sure some of them will end up taking the far-flung trip they describe in the story. (NPR)