Purging Old Clothes? Here’s How to Responsibly Donate and Repurpose Your Castoffs.
ByKaitlyn Wells July 18, 2022
Source: NY Times Wirecutter column
If you have piles of old clothes and shoes languishing in your home, figuring out what to get rid of is just half the dilemma. You also have to decide what to do with those castoffs. And don’t forget about the moral, practical, and sustainable implications that accompany the donation and recycling process, too.
When it comes to giving away old clothes, balancing every consideration can be stressful. Do national donation centers really need every sweater? Are those “recycling” programs at local shops any good? And what the heck should you do with the worn-out garments that nobody wants? Here’s our advice for donating, recycling, or reusing those clothes—without losing your cool.
Sort through your clothes
Before tossing a pile of clothes into the first donation bin you see, sort through the mess, advised Karen Pearson, chair of the Sustainability Council at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Items should be clean and free of stains and tears. Separate the wearable clothes by type and label them for easier sorting by a charity. You can set aside and repurpose stained and torn items as household wipe cloths or send them away for textile recycling.
Ultimately, everything you donate should respect the potential future recipient. Don’t expect someone in need to be grateful for a stained T-shirt or a pair of ratty sweats. Our experts said clothes that don’t make someone feel good—or wouldn’t fetch any money if they were resold—are unlikely to find a second home. “If you don’t want it [because it’s damaged], nobody else does,” said Aja Barber, author of Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism.
There are some categories that experts told us are always worth donating, including new bras, socks, underwear, and bedding, new or gently used shoes, and professional attire. Toiletries and beauty products that are new, unopened, and not slated to expire for at least six months are almost always welcome.
Choose where to donate
Before you head to your local donation center or ship off a package, verify what the organization needs. Many organizations list this info on their website, but it’s a good idea to call or email to confirm what they’ll accept. Not only does this step help you ensure that your garments are going to people who need them, but it spares the workers sifting through donations from having to throw away or find another home for the stuff that doesn’t align with their company mission.
Katie Brumfield of Dress for Success—which provides professional attire for financially insecure women rejoining the workforce—said that 70% of items the organization receives during clothing drives are unusable because they’re damaged or unsuitable for business attire.
Our experts also said it’s poor form to donate garments that don’t fit the weather in the donation destination. Don’t give a down coat to a relief organization based in a warm climate, for example.
If you do have season-specific items, sometimes it’s best to hold on to them until the time of year when they’ll get the most use. So if you have extra winter coats that you’re eager to offload, consider waiting until late fall to donate them. And save formal wear and suits for springtime, when they might help stock local prom drives.
If you’re unsure whether an item will get a second life, ask yourself if someone would pay for it. If the answer is yes, that garment could be a good contender for an organization that distributes items for resale. Soles4Souls is one such program that provides donated clothing and shoes to people in low-income areas so that they can resell the items in their communities. The goal is to keep the items out of landfills for longer—and to empower small-business owners. “The better quality item, the more income our entrepreneurs can make,” said president and CEO Buddy Teaster.
National organizations with strong missions like Goodwill and Salvation Army have the most visibility, but they can often be overwhelmed with donations during the holidays and spring-cleaning season. Local nonprofits and affinity organizations, such as places of worship, Mutual Aid branches, the Native American Heritage Association, and United Way of Greater Houston’s Project Undercover, do similar work with less support, and your donations might go farther with them.
Resell or consign, in person or online
If you’d like to recoup some cash, or if your favorite charity is overwhelmed with donations, consider consigning or reselling your clothes yourself. Barber, author of Consumed, told us at least half of her wardrobe is secondhand, and she supports local consignment stores because you can inquire in person about how much of the store’s inventory is later donated or destroyed, and how they treat their workers. “When it comes to sustainability and ethics, small business is definitely the way,” she said.
Reselling locally instead of online reduces your shipping-associated carbon footprint, so it might be considered a slightly more sustainable choice. But reselling online—through sites like Depop or Poshmark—might be more profitable for you since you’re selling directly to someone who is willing to pay on the spot. It’s also more work: You have to photograph your items and craft written descriptions with flourish if you want your stuff to sell, and then you have to package and ship them yourself. Diligent shoppers expect a lot of detail in such listings, so it’s smart to take measurements of the garment or link to size charts when possible.
Online consignment shops demand less effort from the seller, but they’re often quite selective about what they accept, or they don’t offer much commission. Our experts recommended a few sites for their transparency and easy seller-setup processes. The RealReal accepts high-end contemporary designer clothes and jewelry, as well as art and home goods, and gives sellers a commission ranging from 30% to 85%. ThredUp takes midlevel and designer clothes (think J.Crew to Gucci) but limits how long listings can remain online, and commissions you earn are relatively low, starting at 3% if you sell anything for less than $20. But ThredUp says that in 2021 its item acceptance rate was 63%, and it has a number of ways in which it facilitates donation and recycling for pieces it can’t sell. “Items that don’t meet the criteria for resale in our core marketplace are either sold through our Rescue Boxes or responsibly reused and recycled through a vetted network of partners, including domestic thrift stores, international brokers, and domestic graders/sorters,” Seth Levey, ThredUp’s head of public policy and sustainability, told us via email.
Build community with Buy Nothing groups
The Buy Nothing Project is a good option for people who want to give away items to others who need them within their communities. These social networks, typically found on social media as “Buy Nothing” groups, have been around for a while but exploded during the pandemic. Think of it as a gift economy: Folks post the stuff from the deep recesses of their closets for free in hopes that their neighbors not only will take the items off their hands but will also breathe new life into them. As an October 2021 New York Times article sums it up, the no-strings-attached approach allows people in communities to support one another and rediscover the joy of connecting over the wacky and weird things they’ve acquired. Participants can get to know their neighbors better through this mini economy of exchanged goods, and clothes are more likely to be put to good use locally rather than shipped away.
As a two-year veteran of my local Buy Nothing group, I can attest to its benefits. The easiest way to join one is to download the Buy Nothing Project app (Android or iOS) or to search for the term “buy nothing [location]” on Facebook and filter the results by your neighborhood. As a courtesy, participants agree to join only one private group to avoid spamming those in larger cities with the same items. Once you’re in a group, you can post giveaways of items and services, ask for items you’re searching for, request to borrow, say, someone’s strappy high heels for a formal event, and give thanks to the community. The only real guidelines are to keep it legal and give freely. The system works best when you post clear images and take the time to include all the relevant information someone might need when they’re deciding whether they want to take advantage of your freebie. As with other donations, the same rules of general condition and cleanliness apply.
Give your clothes a second life
Items with missing buttons, jammed zippers, or holes often end up in a landfill somewhere in the donation cycle. Instead, take this as an opportunity to learn to mend clothes, which many people consider a dying art. For example, in 2018, only 15% of Americans had sewed or crafted in the past year, according to Statista. “We lack the mindset and the skillset. Most people can’t even put a button back on their shirt, let alone tailor something,” said Liz Ricketts of the Ghana- and US-based not-for-profit The Or Foundation, which advocates for fashion sustainability and supports reseller markets. And even steaming or pressing your garment might breathe a little life into something you might have once thought to cast off.
Luckily, you don’t need one of Wirecutter’s sewing machine picks if you want to take on minor repairs. This Singer sewing repair kit paired with online tutorials can do the trick for small tasks ranging from replacing shirt buttons to patching denim. When you’re ready to up your game, you can snag our entry-level sewing machine pick, the Janome MOD-19. Wirecutter staffers like Craftsy and Sew It Academy subscriptions for their virtual sewing classes for all skill levels. You can also browse #SewingTikTok for the inspiration to create something new.
A quick option for repurposing old textiles is to cut them up into bar mops and reusable “paper towels” for your home. And animal shelters and rescues are often in need of gently used towels that they can use for bedding and to clean up never-ending pet messes. Want a more creative solution? Weave old sweaters into pet beds and turn linen or other tops made from sturdy fabric into snuffle mats for dogs. Or pull out some craft supplies and transform cotton T-shirts and tanks into food-storage beeswax wraps, reusable makeup-remover pads, a tank-top dress (video), or colorful pillowcases.
Retailer recycling has its place, but be wary
A few retailers have established recycling programs so that customers can unload clothing they no longer need. Some, like Eileen Fisher’s Renew program, accept only their own products. Others, like Madewell Forever, take all types of clothing from any brand via mail, as well as any-label denim in stores. DSW and Nike take any brand of shoe that you give them. A few stores—including fast-fashion companies like H&M—offer reward points, discounts, or vouchers in return.
Depending on the program, shoppers can either drop off items in store (you’ll often find big bins near the checkout line) or mail in their pieces, which the companies then sort for resale or recycling—often working with a third party or an industrial-recycling program. (For example, Madewell partners with ThredUp’s Rescue program, and DSW partners with Soles4Soles.)
Donating through one of these programs is a low-effort way to ditch your old clothes, but the programs are not all created equal. Many experts we asked were reluctant to recommend specific programs, as the retailers tend to be somewhat opaque about the recycled clothing’s ultimate outcome. However, FIT’s Pearson told us that the recycling programs from Eileen Fisher, Madewell, and Patagonia are reliable options. (Disclosure: FIT regularly invites fashion brands to speak in classrooms and at sustainability summits or to participate in student-led design workshops.)
Whichever big-brand recycling program you choose, make sure it offers tangible and transparent information about its efforts. “Look for direct language; don’t look for a grandiose plan for the future,” advised Barber, author of Consumed. For example, a company that specifies how much clothing it annually recycles is a better bet than one that promises to make recycling a priority a decade from now.
And no matter how pure the intentions seem—or how good the program sounds—if part of the strategy is to ship donated items to secondhand resale markets abroad, the garments will likely end up as trash discarded into a towering landfill or on beaches in Africa and other places abroad, said Ricketts of The Or Foundation.
Indeed, big fashion brands account for more textile waste than a single shopper ever could. So it’s not a bad option to hold them accountable by utilizing their programs if you have a few items you don’t know what to do with. “Shoving [your clothes] in the bin at one of these places is taking the burden off of the taxpayer and putting it on these fashion brands to deal with it,” said Alden Wicker, a sustainability journalist and founder of EcoCult. Plus, they have more resources than local donation centers, so they’re more likely to be able to find a home for the items, repurpose them, or downcycle them into carpet padding rather than dumping them in a landfill. “The bins from retailers help ensure that items such as buttons can be reused and that the textiles are recycled appropriately,” said Pearson of FIT.
There’s no perfect solution, but again, the onus is on the brands to do better, not entirely on you. Ricketts said that rather than sending away “recycled” garments to end their life cycle on landfills and beaches, brands with take-back programs need to do more to support the communities they’re flooding with discarded garments. She advocates for companies to redistribute the profits from what they recycle into the supply chain by training secondhand sellers in clothing repair and to donate the proceeds from reselling old textiles to garment workers who make the brands’ clothes.
Consider third-party recycling programs
Eventually, you’ll need to get rid of any low-value pieces not even your local dog shelter will take. For a quick and easy solution, look into textile-recycling options with your local sanitation department and at farmers markets. Nationwide recycling options worth considering include clothing company For Days and industrial recycler TerraCycle. These companies are transparent about their recycling efforts and ensure that low-value textiles are put to use, noted Barber. And they’re easy to take advantage of, too: For $20, For Days will ship you a giant Take Back Bag that you can fill with 25 pounds of textiles that are then downcycled into rags and insulation or resold. When For Days receives the bag, you get $20 in store credit, and everything it sells on its site is made with recyclable material and can be recycled with For Days when you’re done with that piece, too.
For Days CEO Kristy Caylor told us via email that the company receives 875,000 pounds of textile waste per year, and that 50% of the material “is downcycled to either rag houses, Leigh Fibers, Phoenix Fibers, or other shoddy makers.” About 45% is resold, but only 5% is able to be resold in the US, and 40% is sold internationally, wrote Caylor. “Our partner works directly with retailers to ensure the right product gets to the right region and retailer. We do not want this product going through another international sorting facility to then get dumped.” About 5% of what For Days gets in Take Back Bags is “truly trash.”
TerraCycle recycles everything from old VHS tapes to chewing gum, but taking advantage of that service will cost you. Starting at $123 for clothing and $129 for shoes, the company will send you a box that you can stuff full of unwanted items and send back with a prepaid shipping label. The $129 box for shoes can fit only two or three pairs. It’s an expensive solution, but we wanted to highlight an industrial-recycling option.
Still, you can find a few big brands that offer free TerraCycle recycling partnerships and send you prepaid shipping labels at no charge. You won’t find many options for recycling clothes and shoes through these partnerships, though. (The selection does include a handful for beauty products and baby-food pouches.) Plus, you have to confirm whether each partnership program will accept only items from its own brand or all brands. Parade underwear’s free program allows you to send in any brand of underwear. The Carter’s program accepts any brand of kids clothes. (Teva and Thousand Fell are the only shoe makers with free programs, but they accept only their own products.)
Look to the future—and curb your consumption
Our experts said that if you need to donate several bags of clothes every year, take a look inward. “I think a lot of people care about this issue,” noted Ricketts of The Or Foundation. “But they have the luxury of forgetting about this problem.”
Truthfully, there’s only so much you can do to recycle unwanted clothes. You can reduce your own consumption by buying less, shopping local, and investing in quality clothing that you’ll wear for years to come. Wirecutter offers recommendations for quality cashmere sweaters, black dresses, men’s jeans, white sneakers, and more.
There are still many issues with donating clothing in general, whether you do so through charities, big brands’ programs, or industrial programs, because one of the main approaches to dealing with donations is to send massive amounts of clothes abroad to resale markets. An EcoCult investigation into the largest textile recycler on the East Coast, Trans-America, found that 45% of donated garments make their way to secondhand markets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and “up to a quarter may not be sellable and ends up in an (often quite leaky and poorly managed) foreign landfill.”
The people who work in these markets have to sift through literally tons of junk, have a hard time turning a profit, and face real danger. Ricketts, whose work with The Or Foundation aims to bring the plights of resale workers to light (video) as well as to expose how fast-fashion brands are generating a lot of the waste that ends up in these markets, has said that 15 million donated garments pass through one of the largest secondhand markets in the world, Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana, every day. Most of what workers comb through still becomes trash that is either burned or ends up tangled on beaches. Several fires have torn through the landfills and the markets themselves over the past decade.
If reading all of that makes you feel like you can’t make a dent in the problem, remember that even the most conscious consumer generates some textile waste, and your donated bag of college T-shirts isn’t what takes up the bulk of these landfills abroad. Start by at least thinking about what you’re buying, considering how long you’ll own it, and what you’ll do with it when you’re done.
If you still feel like you’re not doing enough, you can push for fashion corporations and governments to take fashion sustainability seriously, said Barber, author of Consumed. You can donate to organizations fighting against agricultural runoff and for debt-relief programs for garment resellers in low-income countries. You can call your local representatives and ask them to support bills like New York’s Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act. You can help at a local donation center or help your community establish a textile-recycling program if it doesn’t have one. “If you don’t see the resources you need,” said Barber, “perhaps you can be the one to advocate for them.”
This article was edited by Catherine Kast and Jennifer Hunter.
- Aja Barber, author of Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism, phone interview, March 2, 2022
- Katie Brumfield, development associate at Dress for Success, email interview, March 17, 2022
- Pippa Cowburn, spokesperson for Burberry, email interview, March 1, 2022
- Carmen Gama, director of circular design at Eileen Fisher, email interview, March 2, 2022
- Karen Pearson, chair of the Fashion Institute of Technology Sustainability Council, email interview, March 1, 2022
- Liz Ricketts, co-founder of The Or Foundation, Zoom interview, March 3, 2022
- Buddy Teaster, president and CEO of Soles4Souls, email interview, March 2, 2022
- Paul Turner, spokesperson for ASOS, email interview, March 2, 2022
- Alden Wicker, sustainable fashion journalist and founder of EcoCult, phone interview, March 4, 2022
- Business Insider, How 7.5 Million Pounds Of Donated Clothes End Up At A Market In Ghana Every Week, YouTube, February 9, 2022