What Affects the Patterns of Used Clothing Exports?

Used clothing trade patterns (data source: UNComtrade (2021)

This study intends to explore the key factors that affect the volume of a country’s used clothing exports. Notably, the world’s used clothing exports (defined as the Harmonized System code 6309) substantially increased from only $2.5 billion in 2009 to over $4.2 billion in 2019, or up 63.4% (UNComtrade, 2021). While numerous studies have explored the patterns of used clothing imports and their social-economic impacts on the importing countries, what drives a country’s used clothing exports remains largely unknown.

In the study, we conducted a regression analysis of 37 countries’ used clothing exports in 2019 (or over 90% of the value of the world’s used clothing exports that year) (UNComtrade, 2021). The explanatory factors we considered include new clothing sales (2018-2019), new clothing retail price (2018-2019), population (2019), and country classification (developed or developing in 2019). The results show that:

  • First, there is a strong positive relationship between a country’s new clothing sales and its used clothing exports. On average, a 1% increase in new clothing sales would result in a 0.85% increase in used clothing exports when holding other factors constant.
  • Second, as new clothing gets cheaper in the retail market, a country would export more used clothing and vice versa. Specifically, when the retail price for new clothing decreases by 1%, the value of used clothing export could increase by 1.2% on average when holding other factors constant.
  • Third, when holding other factors constant, used clothing exports from developed countries were 56% higher than in developing economies. Lower-income levels and various other social-economic factors (such as the awareness of sustainability and used clothing collection mechanism) could be the factors behind the phenomenon.
  • Fourth, the size of the population has NO significant impact on a country’s used clothing exports. This explains why a developed economy with a relatively small population (such as the Netherlands and Canada) exported far more used clothing than a populous developing one (such as India and Indonesia) in 2019 (Uncomtrade, 2021).

The study’s findings create new knowledge about the primary factors affecting the patterns of used clothing exports and have several important implications. First, the results suggest that we can do more on the supply side to curb the surge of used clothing exports, given the rising concerns about its controversial impacts on the developing world and the environment. Particularly, encouraging consumers to purchase fewer new clothing and shop more “slowly” can be among the most effective ways to reduce the supply of used clothing. Second, echoing the finding of existing studies, the results confirm the significant price impact on the generation of used clothing exports. Notably, the result reminds us about the enormous social-economic and environmental “cost” of selling new clothing too cheaply. Additionally, the findings suggest that developed countries have a crucial role in addressing the used clothing export problem, even those with a relatively small population.

By Aline Gomes Siqueira and Dr. Sheng Lu

Note: The study will be presented at the 2021 International Textile and Apparel Association (ITAA) Annual Conference in November.

Author: Sheng Lu

Professor @ University of Delaware

14 thoughts on “What Affects the Patterns of Used Clothing Exports?”

  1. I was very intrigued with the information that was found in the study and what factors affect the patterns of used clothing exports. The positive relationship between new clothing sales and used clothing exports could be explained by the fact that if consumers are purchasing new garments, they may be more inclined to get rid of or sell their old and used clothing. The relationship between cheap clothing and increased used clothing exports could be explained by the same phenomenon. As consumers purchase more clothing they are more encouraged to clean out their closets and get rid of clothing that they no longer wear. Additionally, the idea that used clothing exports from developed countries is higher than in developing economies may be due to the fact that developed countries have more high end and good quality garments compared to those in developing countries. Finally, it’s very interesting to see that population has no impact on used clothing exports. I would think that a population would significantly increase or decrease these exports, one way or another, however, it is understood that consumers can purchase as much or as little as they want so the amount of people who reside in a country have no significance.

    1. Any other factor the study can look at? Any questions the study’s findings didn’t answer? Any further studies we can conduct based on the findings?

    2. With the rise of fast fashion, clothing is becoming cheaper in the retail market. These clothes are being sold at substantially low prices due to the items being produced and manufactured in low-income regions that are not expensive to export from. This lowers sustainability aspects due to their factories not having the finances, technology and resources to practice environmentally friendly methods. These economies that are not as developed as others, do not provide their workers with safe environments and are pain an unfair amount. This results in less money spent towards safety hazards and workers pay which makes it even cheaper to export from these regions. These practices are negatively impacting the environment and is contributing to the clothing export problem.

  2. Shopping used clothing has made a big impact on the world today. Every so often there is a new brand with a different way to shop upcyled or a curated instagram thrift shop. I do agree with the article that some people don’t always see the point in shopping slow because some new clothing on the market is so cheap. Though what showed me the difference is that the new clothing, even though it is cheap, is aiding and abetting with harming the environment. But by shopping “slow” fashion it is helping the environment and even more.

    1. But can you focus on the patterns of the used clothing trade? for example, any other factors that can be considered to explain its shifting pattern during the covid? any conclusions in the study can be revisited when the covid is over?

  3. I agree with the fact that the industry needs to curb the surge of used clothing imports, but I do not believe that “encouraging consumers to purchase fewer new clothing and shop more “slowly” can be among the most effective ways to reduce the supply of used clothing.” Due to the increase of fast fashion, consumers are consistently shopping for new clothing. Micro-trends arise on a monthly basis which forces consumers to increase their shopping habits if they want to stay on trend. The last thing consumers want to do is shop more “slowly” in fear of falling behind in the fashion world. Instead, we need more companies to take older pieces of clothing and recycle them to be whatever is currently trendy. Consumer shopping habits are not going to decline any time soon so we need to focus on upcycling rather than urging people to just not shop at all.

  4. This study interests me for a number of reasons, and particularly because I have recently done research on used clothing exports for another class. Based upon my research I learned that according to Green America, “On average, 700,000 tons of used clothing gets exported overseas” from America (Porter, n.d.). This shows that there is a major issue to be addressed since the majority of this exported clothing gets sent to landfills. This blog post strives to understand what impacts the amount of used clothing exports. The biggest surprise to me after reading this is that the findings show there is no significant impact of used clothing exports from a country based on population. This exemplifies that no matter how small or large the country, the used clothing exports can range from insubstantial to a great magnitude. A finding that I find makes sense is that the cheaper a country’s clothing, the more used clothing exports there will be. With the rise of fast fashion, major retailers like Shein are quickly producing large amounts of clothing to keep up with trends which leaves little room to create high quality pieces. This being said, many Shein products are of such low quality that they can only be worn a few times before being discarded. Furthermore, the finding that developed countries export more used clothing than developing countries can occur potentially because consumers in developed countries have a higher disposable income, thus meaning that they have a quicker turnaround time of buying new apparel, whereas consumers in developing countries may keep clothing for longer periods of time. Finally, another solution to the ongoing problem of used clothing exports could be to develop a more circular fashion industry. Some ways to do this are for retailers to create recycling donation programs where consumers can donate used clothing back to retailers for the apparel to be reused or upcycled. While this is a complex solution, it can be attainable if retailers put in the time, money, and resources to do so.

    Works Cited:
    Porter, B. (n.d.). What Really Happens to Unwanted Clothes? Green America. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from

  5. It was interesting to read about the key factors that affect the volume of a country’s used clothing exports. This topic is interesting to me as I have researched it in other classes, but it seems that the fashion industry glosses over this problem as a whole. I think it is important as an industry that we continue to make efforts to overall reduce the amount of clothing that is consumed, meaning less exports as a whole. With increased purchasing of second hand garments and the decrease in demand for the production of fast fashion, there should be a shift to reduced textile waste as a whole.

  6. I was extremely surprised that the size of the population of a country does not have an effect on the amount of the counrties used clothing exports. I would assume that the larger the population the more clothes they are discarding. This is not the case. One factor that could be affecting this is the role clothing has on the lifestyles of the population. More developed countries, with a smaller population, than less developed countries, who have a larger population, put more of an emphasis on clothes in their lives. This emphasis on clothing can be attributed to the rise of fast fashion and how those living in developed countries purchase more goods and clothing. These clothes that are being bought are of lower quality and get disposed more. Whereas undeveloped countries purchase clothes and wear them until it is not possible to continue wearing. This is in relation to the fact that developed countries donate 56% more clothes than non developed ones. I think a change in focus on how we view clothes could heavily decrease the amount of clothes that are bought and then donated in developed countries.

  7. I enjoyed reading this article because I feel that the topic of used clothing exports is rarely touched upon. We learn about the sustainability benefits of used clothing, but we never learn about the larger scale affects of these exports. The article explained that there is a positive relationship between a county’s new clothing sales and their used clothing exports. This relationship shows the common trend of clothing being seen as primarily disposable items. Consumers may be donating their used clothing, but they are constantly purchasing new garments, creating a cycle of excess garments in the world. Fast fashion and micro-trends are fueling this consumer habit.

  8. I liked this article because I always love learning about used clothing and was surprised that used clothing trade has increased so much in the last couple years. This is really great to see since we are all trying to focus on a more sustainable industry. I also found it very interesting that increases in new clothing sales and used clothing sales form a direct relationship. I would think that when new clothing sales go up, used clothing sales would decrease because consumer’s are choosing to buy new instead of used. One thing that didnt surprise me is that used clothing exports from developed countries were significantly higher than underdeveloped countries. I would assume this because as a developed country we would donate our clothes to less developed regions. This can also bring into question whether or not we are dumping on less developed countries. This study was very eye opening and introduced me to new information that I would not have expected.

  9. This article highlights one of the consistent overarching themes of our semesters studies; the difference in the abilities of under-developed countries versus their developed counterpart countries. The consistencies with developed countries exporting massive amounts of used clothing to under-developed countries is the key component in the call to action described above to “curb the surge of used clothing exports”. The continued popularity of fast fashion causes this increase of overproduction of new, and usually lower quality goods, instead of companies taking advantage of the benefits that recycled materials offer. I believe we need to begin with shifting the consumers mindset towards adopting the “slow-fashion” model of production and decreasing the demand for fast turnover trends/fads, as well as the brands that provide them (i.e. Shein, Amazon, Forever 21, H&M, etc.). I think consumers and retailers have fears of price increases as others mentioned in comments above, but if the slow business model becomes the new norm, there will be a balance in production costs as well as final product costs.

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