Are you doing good by shopping at Goodwill?

If you have ever dropped off a bag of clothing at your local Goodwill, you know how good it feels. You think you are helping the planet and helping people. But what most people don’t know is what happens to those bags of clothing once they leave your trunk. I want to acknowledge that while Goodwill does do some really wonderful stuff for communities in need, there is more to the story. Shopping at Goodwill and similar thrift stores is not doing your closet or the planet much good. Frequenting these stores perpetuates a cycle of consumerism that is negatively impacting the world on a much larger scale than most people know. 

Typically, when we think of pollution, we don’t think of the shirts on our backs but instead coal power plants, raw sewage being piped into our waterways, or massive cattle farms pumping methane into the atmosphere. However, the clothing industry is actually the second largest polluter in the world, second only to oil. We are buying into a fantasy by believing that our donations are doing good for the planet. Of all donated clothing, only .1 percent of it is recycled into new textile fiber. The rest will be sent to landfills.

Donated clothing at Goodwill goes through a multi-step process to try and keep it out of landfills. “If an item doesn’t sell within four weeks, it’s sent onward in the process,” said Ray Tellez, the vice president of retail operations for Goodwill Southern California in an interview with HuffPost. Clothing that doesn’t sell on the retail floor is sent to a Buy the Pound outlet store or a 99-cent Goodwill store. 

Possibly the worst part of this cycle is the exporting of secondhand clothing to other countries. In 2014, a handful of East African countries imported more than $300 million worth of secondhand clothing from the United States and other wealthy countries. However, the massive amount of these imports has devastated local clothing industries and led the region to rely far too heavily on the West

Besides contributing to a cycle that is bad for the planet, Goodwill has a history of treating its retail employees poorly. Goodwill brands itself as a nonprofit that provides jobs to people who are disabled and people who have a criminal history. In many cases, however, it seems like these people are being exploited. In multiple instances, Goodwill seized on an archaic law (Section 14 (c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act) to justify paying workers as little as 22 cents an hour. Hiring disabled and formerly incarcerated people should not be an esteemed act of charity; it is simply corporate responsibility. 

Thankfully, there are ways for us to do better as consumers. If you take anything away from this article, please let it be this: shop smarter. The only way for us as consumers to try to end the cycle of fast fashion is to invest in fewer, higher-quality pieces of clothing. Obviously, donating clothing instead of simply throwing it in the trash is the better option, but this action contributes to a broader consumer culture issue. Not being able to commit to your clothing when you buy it means you are supporting a fast-paced cycle of consuming. The best thing you can do is to not buy things that you don’t truly love in the first place. Next time you want to donate clothing, check first to see if your family, friends, dormmates, or anyone you know would like to give the clothing a new life instead of taking it to stores like Goodwill.