At a facility in Western India, you would see the worn clothing that sorters had grabbed from a conveyor belt. Separating the T-shirts, the jeans, the sweatshirts and every other garment you can imagine, these workers are a link in a global secondhand clothing chain.
Where are we going? To the power of the market.
The Secondhand Clothing Supply Chain
You can see below that secondhand clothing is big business:
Much too much for our local thrift shops, the vast amount of our secondhand clothing is sold to textile merchants. From there, the garments are sorted and graded at home or exported.
Some say the reason for the spike is fast fashion. Enjoying low prices and ever-changing inventory at stores like H&M and Zara, buyers are stuffing their cast-offs into thrift bins. From there, the fashion recycling business takes over.
A lot of the worn clothing leaving the U.S. heads for the Americas while the U.K.’s recycled clothing typically winds up in Eastern Europe or Africa:
from the U.S. from the U.K
The Travels of Our Jeans:
Our Bottom Line: The Power of the Market
Years ago, I had the opportunity to ask former Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers a question. As he walked in one direction and I in the other, I waited for our paths to cross and then said that I taught economics and wondered what he thought was the most important idea my students could learn. Barely pausing, he said, “the power of the market,” and continued onward.
Reading about the travels of worn clothing, I thought about how “the power of the market” propelled used jeans and shirts and sweatpants around the world.
My sources and more: Together, the BBC and WSJ, tell a part the story of the global trade in recycled clothing. Combined with the analysis in the Conversable Economist, and graphs from this University of Delaware professor, the story is almost complete. However, the last piece is the downside of the secondhand clothing market. Please note a part of Our Bottom Line was published in a past econlife.