Fast fashion, creative recycling: Winnipeg charities try to keep clothes out of landfill

In the age of fast fashion, Canadians are throwing away more clothing than ever — but some Winnipeg groups are working to change that.

Winnipeg charities are coming up with creative solutions to avoid textile waste

Thrift store regular Wanda Neufeld has been buying used clothes to send to friends and family in Ukraine for more than 35 years. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

In the age of fast fashion, Canadians are throwing away more clothing than ever — but some Winnipeg groups are working to change that.

"As clothes become so much cheaper, people are just buying so much more," said Elise Epp, regional co-ordinator for the sustainability group Fashion Revolution Winnipeg.

People hang on to garments half as long as they did 15 years ago, Epp said — and when that cheap attire loses its allure, most of it is tossed straight into the trash.

Even giving used threads to charity doesn't guarantee they won't end up in a landfill, she said.

"The quality of clothes has gone down over the years, while the quantity has gone up," said Epp, resulting in many items going to the dump.

But some charities come up with creative solutions to make sure discarded duds are put to good use. 

Watch | Creative uses for clothes:

Repurpose your shopping

3 years ago
Duration 1:26
Robin Searle talks about how the Kildonan MCC Thrift Shop is turning thrift items into unique sustainable pieces.

"We make sure [clothing] is not stained or torn, and that the zippers work," said Robin Searle, a thrift store manager with the Mennonite Central Committee.

Volunteers repair hems, fix zippers and replace buttons. Every item is laundered and pressed before being put on display.

"One volunteer cleans all of the shoes," Searle said. "We make sure they're really in good condition, so people can buy them and put them on right away."

MCC thrift store manager Robin Searle says almost every clothing donation the charity receives gets sold or repurposed. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

It's quite an effort, considering how much used clothing comes in. Truckloads of bags arrive every week at MCC's clearance centre in North Kildonan, stuffed with items that didn't sell at their other second-hand boutiques in the city.

"People can come here and buy clothing for $1.69 a pound," Searle said. "The goal is always to keep clothing out of the landfills and into the hands of people who need them."

Some slow-moving merchandise is transformed into new products. Lace curtains are sewn into produce bags, for example, and T-shirts are cut up to make yarn for rugs and baskets.

Volunteer Rudy Funk unloads bags of clothing that didn't sell at MCC stores. The items will now be put out at the group's clearance centre at 396 Edison Ave. in Winnipeg. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Diabetes Canada is another charity working to keep used clothes from going to waste. It's working with York University on a Canada-wide study on diverting textiles from landfills.

Simon Langer, one of the project researchers, said as much as 85 per cent of Canada's clothing castaways end up in the garbage. 

Langer is also Diabetes Canada's national manager of government and strategic partnerships. He worked with the city to put more than 120 donation bins at arenas, community centres and other public places across Winnipeg.

"Those bins have been [in Winnipeg] since 2018," he said. "And in that time, we're very proud that those collection mechanisms have helped divert over 250,000 tons of textiles from the landfill."

Having a city logo on the bins helps drum up donations, he said.

"One of the key drivers of participation is that people want to know they're supporting a legitimate charitable organization, such as Diabetes Canada," which raises more than $8.7 million a year from these donations, he said. 

Diabetes Canada is one of several organizations that sells its clothing donations to Value Village. The second-hand retail giant said clothing in bad condition is recycled into things like insulation and rags. The rest is sold at its shops in Canada and through markets abroad.

Epp, with Fashion Revolution Winnipeg, said that's where things get murky.

Elise Epp is the regional co-ordinator of Fashion Revolution Winnipeg, which looks for ways to minimize negative effects of the garment industry. (Krista Hawryluk)

"The large portion actually gets bundled up and sent to sub-Saharan Africa," Epp said. 

Vendors buy used clothing by the bale, sight unseen, and a large volume ends up in those countries' landfills, she said.

At the MCC Clearance Centre, almost everything they receive gets sold, staff said. They hold bag sales every two weeks, when people can stuff a sack for just $5.

Winnipeggers are embracing the sustainable, second-hand clothing trend, Searle said.

"I don't think it's taboo anymore to go to a thrift store. People love to post on Facebook, 'I got this for $3,'" she said with a chuckle.

The money raised goes toward MCC projects to help people in need, both in Winnipeg and overseas.


Emily Brass is a journalist and anchor at CBC Manitoba, and host of the podcast Type Taboo: Diary of a New Diabetic. She's also worked for CBC in Montreal, Toronto, St. John's, Victoria and London, UK.


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