What do you do with your unwanted clothes?

“Globally, we trash roughly 2 billion pounds of clothing and textiles a year. The textile industry has hooked us so completely on the accelerated fashion cycle that we feel we find ourselves with more and more stuff and few options for ethically discarding it.”

Thrift stores are the most common solution to our unwanted clothing problem. What happens to that clothing after we drop it off at the metal box on the corner? Fifteen percent of it ends up on the racks, forty-five percent travels to Africa for re-sale, five percent goes to the landfill, and the rest is used to stuff upholstery or car seats. And, as heartening as it may be to see all our waste being re-used, “as incomes rise in Africa, tastes become more savvy, cheap Chinese imports of new clothes flood those countries, and our own high-quality clothing supply is depleted, it’s foreseeable that the African solution to our overconsumption may come to an end. What then?” It seems we need to diversify our options for dealing with closet clutter in order to prepare ourselves for globalization’s effect on the clothing industry.

Check out this recent example of creative re-distribution of clothing: Re-Shirt is a clothing company with a unique vision. They sell used t-shirts, unaltered except for the addition of a Re-shirt logo, they also give you the previous owner’s story about their old shirt. They have organized Shirt Mobs, where much like a Flash Mob, people “spontaneously” trade t-shirts on a busy street corner, sharing the story of their shirt with the new recipient. This might sound familiar to those of us who attend living room clothing swaps, where the selection may be better than at a thrift store (since your friends have taste similar to yours). These examples link clothing to the gift economy, where we can trade or give away a piece of clothing instead of selling or donating it.

Upcycle: “to process (used goods or waste material) so as to produce something that is often better than the original”

For me as a screenprinter, the quality and quantity of choice offered when buying new neckties or t-shirts is certainly more reliable than the unpredictable selection at the local thrift store, and the final print on a tie would rely on fewer design questions. Each tie I work on is designed individually and I am challenged to match colour, pattern, fabric, with shape, font, pigment. I have an essential relationship, much as any artist would, with the process of transformation. So why don’t I buy new? This intimate form of production makes me carefully contemplate my sources.

“Using items that already have a story creates a connection between the past and present”

Not only is working with second hand clothing more satisfying than production printing on blank garments, I know that I am not contributing to the production of unnecessary textiles, of which we now know billions of pounds per year are tossed away, unwanted (not to mention the chances of them being produced with unfair labour practices). The popularity of the upcycling trend in business (the number of products on Etsy tagged with the word “upcycled” increased from about 7,900 in January 2010 to nearly 30,000 a year later) is heartening. When we make or purchase upcycled items (or attend a clothing swap!) we are a part of an important emerging movement.