Phyllis Williams is a serious recycler. Not only do cans, plastic and paper from her home get returned for reuse, she recycles clothing by donating it to local thrift stores.
It's also where she shops.
Williams, of Chattanooga, says 50 percent of her wardrobe is purchased at thrift stores.
"I have a place in my apartment where I put things to donate and, when there is enough for a large trash-size bag, I take it to the Goodwill [donation] trailer in my community," she says.
What Williams doesn't know, though, is what happens to the clothing that doesn't sell at Goodwill or other thrift stores.
"I've assumed that, if it is wearable and presentable, it's given to charities that serve individuals directly ... and, if not, tossed," she says.
That's partially true. Clothing that is donated but not sold in thrift stores can end up in landfills, but some of it also finds its way to other countries where clothing is hard to come by; some is turned into rags by clothing brokerage companies and some is simply destroyed outright.
Goodwill -- one of the largest clothing resellers in the country -- makes every effort to sell the pants, shirts, dresses and other clothing it receives as donations, but if they fail to sell, they're bundled and shipped to textile recycling companies, including Smart Rags Recyclers, Action Rags USA, Textile Recycler, ATC Global Trading and Houston Clothing Exchange, all based in Texas, according to Goodwill officials.
In 2012, Goodwill collected 3.9 million pounds of recycled/salvaged clothing nationwide. From January through June 2013, the organization collected 1.68 million pounds of clothing, according to Kristen Camden, director of marketing and public relations at Chattanooga Goodwill Industries.
"If an item does not sell in the first three weeks, the price is reduced by 50 percent for the fourth week. On the final Sunday (of the month), all textiles in the color rotating out are offered at 99 cents," Camden says.
Items that still do not sell are removed from the retail department and placed in large containers to send to Goodwill's warehouse, where they are compressed into bales and sold to the firms for recycling, she says.
"Even the items that don't sell in our stores benefit our mission programs. Our community also benefits since we are able to recycle the materials and keep them out of the landfill."
It's not just clothing that's sent to companies for recycling, she says.
"Through our recycling efforts, we have identified companies that will take almost anything we cannot sell including textiles, metal, paper and cardboard, books, shoes, electronics and other items. In 2012, Chattanooga Goodwill alone accounted for almost 6 million pounds of recycled goods, and that does not count the volume of repurposed items sold in our stores."
Theresa Berry Moore, who helped run the Signal Mountain Welfare Council resale shop for 14 years, says they donated clothes and other items that didn't sell to Goodwill.
"It is a chore dealing with outcast clothing and housewares [and] there was always quite a lot of it because we had new arrivals every day," Moore says.
Roy Johnson, president of the Dalton-based Providence Ministries, says the clothing not sold at the nonprofit's stores in Dalton, Fort Oglethorpe and Calhoun (a Chattanooga store is set to open in about two months on Lee Highway) is sent to textile recyclers. Johnson estimated that, in some months, 50 percent of the clothing donated to the ministry cannot be sold.
"People don't want stuff that the zipper doesn't work or it's stained," he says. That clothing is turned into rags by the recyclers, but many items that aren't ruined are sent to Third World countries, he says.
Such clothing brokers have the ability to sort the clothes by season, by style and other criteria, which most local thrift stores cannot, he says.
Rachel Gammon, executive director of Northside Neighborhood House, which has two thrift stores in Chattanooga, says they send clothing that doesn't sell to the Samaritan Center, a nonprofit social services agency that provides emergency assistance with food, rent, prescriptions, and utilities for residents of Eastern Hamilton County.
"The Samaritan Center bulks the clothing and sells it to a company that sends it overseas," she says.
Jackie King, executive director of Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles, recently told National Public Radio that nearly 80 percent of the donations to charitable organizations are carted away by textile recyclers. That translates into about 3.8 billion pounds of clothing each year.
The clothing that is recycled is made into wiping cloths that are for commercial and industrial use; 20 percent is converted into fibers that are made into a variety of other products including carpet padding, insulation for automobiles and homes, and pillow stuffing, King says. Forty-five percent of the recycled donations that don't sell at thrift stores are exported.
Textile recycling is a huge industry, Robert Goode, owner of Mac Recycling told NPR. His small warehouse in Baltimore ships about 80 tons of clothes each week to buyers around the world, he said, including Central America, South America, Asia, Africa and Europe. Items are then bought and sold by the pound, he says, explaining that at each step in the process, someone makes money from donated clothing.
Selling donated cheap garments, such as those made in Bangladesh, is becoming increasingly difficult, King says.
"I think one of the problems when they're trying to sell the clothing abroad is the distinction between what's good quality used clothing versus clothing that has maybe not been manufactured to the highest standards," she says.
Still, millions of tons of clothing ends up in landfills.
According to Planet Aid, a nonprofit organization that collects and recycles used clothing and shoes in support of community development programs worldwide, the average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing and shoes every year.
Those discarded clothes wind up in landfills -- 11.1 million tons every year -- where they can contaminate soil and groundwater, take up valuable land and emit horrific odors, Planet Aid says. Or they may be chunked into an incinerator spewing out greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
On a local level, two enterprising young women are trying to keep used clothing out of landfills. Annie Oxenfeld and Christine Doyle are repurposing the clothing/fabric into "new" fashions by jumping on the sustainable fashion movement bandwagon.
Participation in the movement took a big jump this year when after more than 1,000 people died in Bangladesh clothing factories -- eight in a fire and more than 1,000 in a building collapse. There are 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh that make clothes for stores including Tesco, JCPenney, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Walmart and Kohl's, and ready-made garments make up 80 percent of the country's $24 billion in annual exports.
"We are so passionate about the sustainable fashion movement and especially in light of the tragedy in Bangladesh, we are trying to raise awareness about the alternative to 'fast' fashion [to] 'slow fashion," says Oxenfeld, who with Doyle owns Sweet Cycle Apparel, a Chattanooga-based clothing brand that repurposes clothing and fabrics into "new" clothing.
According to their website, www.sweetcycleapparel.com, "fast" fashion is the current norm in clothing manufacturing in which fashions are outsourced to countries with the cheapest labor and cheapest material for products that are low-priced and low-quality. "Slow" fashion, they say, is a growing movement of consumers, artists and companies committed to ideals such as ethical manufacturing.
Until last March, Oxenfeld and Doyle used only discarded clothing and sheets obtained from Goodwill stores in major cities to make their fashions for women. But a studio fire wiped out their inventory of 800 pounds of fabric and clothing remnants.
"We took this opportunity to redefine our brand and broaden our scope and are now sourcing much higher-quality discarded fabric from end rolls and leftovers of other designers and manufacturers," Oxenfeld says. "It's still a way to prevent unnecessary waste, yet it allows us to make what we call small batch designs -- limited edition runs of the same piece."
The ladies peruse thrift stores for "vintage inspiration" and also to shop for such items as buttons and clothing trim.
"We don't always know the specific origin of the fabrics since we buy it through a third party," Oxenfeld says. "But there is plenty of research suggesting that most leftover fabric or finished unsold garments becomes waste. One aspect of buying this way that really speaks to us is that it doesn't require the consumption of new raw materials or the energy to produce it. It's not just saving fabric from landfills, it's lessening the demand for new materials and the global footprint that entails."
Response to their sustainable fashions has been overwhelmingly positive, they say.
"We are growing to the point where we need to hire extra hands to help with our production," Oxenfeld says. "We've had customers buy a new wardrobe from us or come back again and again for a specific silhouette that fits them perfectly. Most customers fall in love with the design and then end up loving it even more because of the values behind it."
Contact staff writer Karen Nazor Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6396. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/karennazorhill. Subscribe to her posts on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/karennazorhill.