06/23/2016 02:41 EDT | Updated 06/23/2016 02:59 EDT

We Shouldn't Be Filling Up Our Landfills With Clothing

Teenagers donating clothes to charity
JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images
Teenagers donating clothes to charity

In university, Craig achieved infamy for the fashion crime of wearing far too many yellow shirts. His friends staged an intervention, removing all the offending garments from his closet and sending him on a shopping spree for trendier threads.

Recently, our staffers got together for what's become an annual event -- the office clothing swap. Everyone eagerly rummages through their coworkers cast-offs in search of their new favourite blouse, or pair of jeans.

Reduce, reuse and recycle has become the mantra of socially conscious consumers.

It made us wonder whatever became of Craig's canary-coloured clothes. It also got us thinking about the environmental impact of waste clothing.

In North America, consumers are buying -- and getting rid of -- five times as much clothing as we did 25 years ago, reports Elizabeth Cline in her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (Portfolio, 2013). A staggering 85 per cent of our collective apparel ends up in a landfill -- that's over 10.5 million tons of clothing, according to the popular second-hand store Value Village. In a single year, Canada produces enough textile waste -- clothing and other goods like upholstery -- to create a mountain three times the size of Toronto's Rogers Centre stadium.

Reduce, reuse and recycle has become the mantra of socially conscious consumers. Now we need to extend that philosophy to our old accoutrements.

The most popular solution appears to be donating our unwanted garb. Thrift stores like those run by the YWCA across Canada not only keep old clothes out of the dump; they're also social enterprises that support community non-profits. Some charities, like the Canadian Diabetes Association, will even come to your door to collect apparel and household goods, which are resold to fund their life-changing work.

But giving away clothes is not without its pitfalls. Many of the big street-corner donation bins you can spot in any community are not affiliated with a charitable cause. If the bin doesn't clearly belong to an organization like the Salvation Army, there's a good chance a for-profit company is collecting and reselling the clothing. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It still keeps waste out of our landfills.

Perhaps the best way to reduce the amount of clothing in our landfills is to curb our desire to sport the latest trends.

The catch is that up to half of the apparel is sold overseas -- most of it in developing countries. In 2015, US$17.8 million worth of used Canadian clothing ended up in Kenya, alone. Developing countries can use a hand up but giving them our hand-me-downs can be devastating for struggling economies and harm their manufacturing and retail businesses. That's why it is best to ensure the skinny jeans you want to trade in for flares go to a charity.

What about clothing that's too worn to donate? New technologies are recovering textile fibres to make into new fabrics, or other products like insulation. There are textile recycling companies across Canada that will take your dead duds. You can find them easily with a quick web search. And now some cities, like Markham, Ont., are even launching recycling programs for fabrics, alongside their blue bins for glass, plastic and paper.

Perhaps the best way to reduce the amount of clothing in our landfills is to curb our desire to sport the latest trends. Don't toss those tapered-leg trousers because Vogue says they're "out." Embrace the socially conscious trend of -- gasp -- wearing last year's styles.

If you yawn with boredom whenever you open your wardrobe, host a clothing swap with your friends. When your jeans get a little tear in the knee, spend your money on a repair service instead of a new pair.

And the next time you see that guy from the IT department walking around in a wide-lapel sports jacket, don't laugh. Give him a high-five. He's being environmentally responsible, and that never goes out of style.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit for more information.

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