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the journey of a t-shirt

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Have you ever wondered what happens after donating a clothing item to a thrift store? If the item does not get re-purchased, it continues its journey as a commodity in the used clothing supply chain. Each journey is unique, as there is a global web of possible pathways our clothes can travel along. In order to understand the complexity of the used clothing industry, we will be following the journey of a specific white t-shirt, providing just one example of the many possible journeys a used clothing item can embark on. Before diving into this interwoven supply network, it is crucial to understand why this value chain came to be. 

Clothes are being manufactured at an exponential rate and turnover is increasing. 

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,

clothing sales doubled from 2000 to 2015, while clothing utilization has declined by almost 40%

This phenomenon has led to a profitable and global used clothing market. 

Imagine your favorite basic white t-shirt. This shirt is composed of 60% polyester and 40% cotton. You’ve had the shirt for a year now and after many washes, it just doesn’t fit right anymore. Instead of throwing the shirt away, you give it a second chance by donating it to your local thrift store. According to Greenpeace, 70-90% of garments donated to charity shops and thrift stores are never re-purchased at storefronts. The non-purchased garments are first consolidated and sorted. After sorting, there are three possible paths the non-purchased garments can follow (source). 

  • 5-10% are landfilled or incinerated
  •  25-50% are downcycled
  • 45-60% are exported

This specific shirt is not landfilled or incinerated because it is still in a wearable condition. Downcycling favors textiles made of only one material, but this shirt is composed of polyester and cotton. Therefore, the shirt begins its international journey. 

For this particular storyline, the shirt gets exported to Panipat, India, a popular location to consolidate used clothing (BBC). Here, the clothing gets sorted by textile graders. The item will be downcycled, sent to a landfill, or incinerated if it is unwearable. India has strict laws that regulate the used clothing market to protect the domestic textile industry. Any garment considered wearable is exported and continues its journey along the used clothing supply chain. 

The shirt we are following is still wearable, so it is exported from India and travels to one of the top used clothing importers in the world, Kenya. In Kenya, used clothing is sold in Mitumba markets. Mitumba means “bundle,” and 415 tons of used clothing arrive in bundles each day (Greenpeace). The supply of used clothing is much higher than the demand in Mitumba markets. Up to 50% of clothes that enter the market have no value and are immediately landfilled or incinerated (Textile Mountain Film). This shirt cannot compete with the high quantity of shirts in the market, so it is sent to the local landfill, ending its life thousands of miles away from where it was first purchased. 

Donating clothing to organizations such as a local thrift store will enter garments into a recycling economy.

A recycling economy is a way to give items a longer life span, but eventually, the item will end up landfilled, incinerated, or polluted into natural resources. 

At Ambercycle, we are building a circular economy where end-of-life textiles are diverted away from landfills and back into the Ambercycle ecosystem. These end-of-life textiles are consolidated from various global locations, regenerated into cycora® yarns that possess the same quality as virgin material, and reintegrated into the textile industry. This process can be repeated without a loss of quality, allowing textiles to have a storied past without an end-of-life destination in landfills or incineration facilities. This process connects the past, present and future, creating a closed loop of textiles.

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