What to Do with Old Clothes
(that Cannot be Donated)
As we make our way into summer, you might start looking at your old sweaters and wonder if you’ll ever need them again. Once we hit the peak summer season (yep, it’ll get hotter), you might even start preparing to throw them all out in a fit of a heat rage. But after you cull your wardrobe, whether it be from too much heat or being inspired by a rewatch of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo or just regular spring cleaning, what do you do with the clothes you no longer want?
We’re here to give you some great ideas on how to sustainably get rid of your clothes and provide some insight on why you shouldn’t just drop it all off at Goodwill.
According to the EPA, 16.9 million tons of textile and fabric was thrown out in 2017, counting for 6.3% of all municipal solid waste. This means each person in the U.S. is throwing out about 100 pounds of old clothing a year! Of the almost 17 million tons of textile waste, 11.2 million tons made it to landfills and the majority of waste is old clothing. Worse, 95% of used textiles can be recycled, but 85% end up in landfills anyway.
While textile waste in America isn’t a new issue, it is getting worse. The volume of clothing Americans throw away has doubled in less than 20 years, from 7 million tons to 14 million. That’s not to say your old t-shirts from high school should stay in your closet forever, but we need to think consciously about what we do with our clothes after we clean out our closets.
What about Donating?
There is a common misconception that the best, easiest, and most sustainable way to get rid of your old, outdated, or broken items is by donating them to places like Goodwill or Salvation Army. These organizations generally accept everything that is dropped off at their donation stations, but not everything is ultimately usable.
According to the Council for Textile Recycling, only about 20% of clothing that gets donated is sold by the donation organization! Now Goodwill is left having to deal with the other 80%.
And what even happens to the 80% not sold by the donation organization? Nearly half of all donated clothing (almost 1 billion pounds) is exported to third world countries to be resold in “bend over” markets.
The effects of this practice are debated, but it’s safe to say, it has definitely made a huge, often negative, impact on the economy of these countries. Some countries in East Africa, including Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, and Tanzania, have even proposed banning imported used clothing altogether.
So before you go to donate all your unwanted clothes at the nearest Goodwill, make sure to take the time to go through all of your discarded clothing and pick out the more recent pieces that are still in good condition that would have the best chance of being resold.
As for the remaining pieces? Keep reading for some ideas.
Our Options for What to Do with Old Clothes
To keep 16 million tons of old clothing out of the landfills each year, we need to start looking at better options for our unwanted clothes. Once you’ve cleaned out your closet, or before you even start, here are some options for what to do with the pieces that don’t spark joy.
1. Clothing Swap
For a fun and social way to get rid of your old clothes, consider hosting a clothing swap. Call your friends and family to gather their unwanted clothing and accessories that are in good, clean condition and breathe new life into your closet with your new secondhand finds.
Both Martha Stewart and Oprah have great guides on hosting your own clothing swap. For a social distancing swap, hold it outside with a lot of space and open air and stagger shopping times or host a virtual swap and arrange contact-free delivery.
2. Repair and Repurpose
For damaged or ill-fitting clothes, the first thing you should consider before discarding is repairing them. If you have a few pieces that are a little damaged or don’t fit right, see how they can be repaired. You can easily fix some issues by yourself (with the help of YouTube tutorials).
Others may require the help of a local tailor or seamstress. If the tailor route hasn’t been your go-to in the past, we highly recommend taking that first step. It may jump to the top of your options once you see how simple and often affordable it is.
If repairing isn’t for you, try repurposing your old clothes. One option is to downgrade your clothes to loungewear. I know, I know, Marie Kondo discourages this practice because most people don’t end up wearing the designated clothes, but repurposing your old clothes into loungewear is not only cheaper and eco-friendly—since you’re not spending any money on buying more clothes—but honestly, it can make you feel a little more put together while working and staying at home.
And if you’re strictly abiding by the recommendations of Marie Kondo, you can still use your discarded clothes for things like rags, patches, or even face masks.
3. Upcycle (for the DIY-ers)
Are you the crafty kind? Maybe you enjoyed making your own face masks, and you’re ready to step it up? Well, good news! You can upcycle your old t-shirts and blouses and the rest of your discarded clothes into new items.
There are so many things you can make with your old clothes. They range from the simple and no-sew tote bags, reusable produce bags, and wall art to the more advanced beanies, dog toys and stuffed animals (like sock monkeys or even a sock sloth!), and pillow cases. If you’re really adventurous, try making your own quilt!
There are even more projects that will call for your old clothes. In fact, pretty much any project that involves using fabric can be made with what you already have. Just wash your old clothes, gather your supplies, and you’re ready to go.
Did you know that you can actually compost clothes? It’s true (sometimes). Fabric made of natural fibers such as cotton, linen, silk, and wool can be broken down and composted.
Make sure the clothes you’re composting are all natural and weren’t blended with anything synthetic like polyester or spandex or stained with anything toxic (think paint), and remove anything not biodegradable like zippers, buttons, and tags before you start. Check out this guide from 1MillionWomen for an in depth look into composting your old eligible clothes.
Another easy way to keep textiles out of the landfill is to resell your old items. There are many online options for local reselling, such as Facebook Marketplace and Nextdoor, but there’s also sites and apps like Poshmark, ThredUP, and even eBay to reach a wider audience.
Local thrift stores and consignment shops are always an option as well, but make sure to contact them to see if they have any policies before you bring in all your old clothes. Too Good to be Threw, for example, only accepts items purchased within the past three years.
Children’s clothing is probably the easiest to resell as some items hardly get used by the time kids grow out of them. National resale chains like Kid to Kid and Once Upon a Child are a good place to start, and there are always a ton of local children’s resale shops.
As we mentioned above, donating isn’t as simple as dropping off all of your used clothing. But with that in mind, there are still so many ways to donate used clothing. Aside from a general donation shop like Goodwill or Salvation Army, there’s also specialty donation stores for different types of clothing.
If you have some business clothes you’re looking to get rid of, find a local Dress for Success. Becca’s Closet and Operation Prom accept formal dresses to donate to teens in need for prom. There are even places to donate old wedding gowns with Brides Across America and The Brides Project.
I Support the Girls and Free the Girls accept gently used bras in good condition that help homeless women and women rescued from sex trafficking. Room to Grow and Baby2Baby accept gently used kid and baby items to donate to low income families.
If you are passionate and/or involved in any specific advocacy work, you can always reach out to local organizations and even your local government agencies to see if they have any projects related to your work that may be in need of clothing donations.
Coats are always appreciated during the winter, but One Warm Coat accepts used coats all year long. Recently, individuals have taken the initiative and started their own coat donation by tying coats around light poles and fences with notes that anyone who needs it could take it.
And you can always donate to local shelters to give to the people in need in your community. Contact your local social services department or local churches to find the shelters nearby.
7. Retail Take-Back Programs
Some companies have instituted a take back program in their stores where you can drop off your old clothes at their stores and they recycle it for you. H&M accepts any brand and condition of old textiles—even sheets—to resell, repurpose, or recycle.
Sustainable outdoor clothing company Patagonia launched their Worn Wear program as a permanent fixture several years ago. The Worn Wear program provides resources to repair, resell, or recycle your old Patagonia gear. Other outdoor retailers, such as REI and The North Face have also launched their own resale programs.
Madewell accepts any brand of old jeans at their store with their denim recycling program where they are partnered with Blue Jeans Go Green. Your old pair of jeans are turned into housing insulation used in Habitat for Humanity’s housing for those in need. As a bonus for you, you’ll receive a $20 credit toward a new pair of Madewell jeans. (Madewell’s sister brand, J.Crew, also participates in the same recycling program.)
Textile recycling is not as widely known or as widely spread as conventional recycling, but it does exist. As mentioned above, Blue Jeans Go Green recycles old denim into insulation while other companies recycle all types of fabric. I:CO (short for I:Collect) is a German textile recycling company that collects textile items from participating retail partners, sorts the old clothing, and either reuses or recycles them in order to make Closed Loop Recycling in the clothing industry. They currently collect clothing and shoes in more than 60 countries.
Helpsy, a certified B Corporation, is currently the largest clothing and textile collector in the Northeast US. They collected over 25 million pounds of clothes last year alone! If you want to learn more about Helpsy and their background, listen to our conversation with CEO and Founder, Alex Husted! And if you work for a clothing company, contact Helpsy to set up a customized Retail Program to keep your clothes out of landfills.
If you’re willing to spend some money for the good of the Earth, consider getting a Fabrics and Clothing Zero Waste Box from Terracycle. Add any fabric or textile to your box that will be reused, upcycled or recycled.
9. Be Conscientious with Future Purchases
**Okay, this isn’t really an option for getting rid of old clothes, but it’s an important takeaway nonetheless!
Unfortunately, we can’t go back and unmake those purchases on all the clothing we just threw out. But going forward, we can be more conscientious about what we buy.
First, really think about what you’re purchasing. Most Americans don’t wear 80% of their wardrobe. So before you throw down your credit card on that new dress, ask yourself, do you really need another one? Sometimes it’s even a question of whether you actually want it.
If you do in fact absolutely need to purchase a new item of clothing, take a look at second hand stores first. There are many consignment shops that have high quality and even designer clothing that you can give new life to. Remember: most Americans don’t wear 80% of their clothes!
And look for brands that are conscious of the lifespan of their clothing, like Patagonia, as mentioned above. There are even clothing companies like Freitag, whose clothing is made from fully compostable materials and Ecoalf, who makes clothing from upcycled ocean waste.
Try to buy only high quality, durable pieces that will last longer and avoid fast fashion brands that are basically designed to be thrown out.
Hopefully these options gave you some ideas for those clothes that are on their way out or at least helped with the process. After conquering the clean-out process, keep Option #9 in mind as you go forward and save yourself the trouble of a second go-around.
If you have any additional suggestions that we can spread the word on, shoot us a message and let us know!
Melissa is a graphic designer by trade who loves to find opportunities to try new things wherever she can. Hailing equally from Denver and Houston, she now lives in San Antonio with her little monster/pup. You can keep up with Melissa on her website.
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