by Marsha Rakestraw

There are lots of reasons we get rid of clothes.

They don’t fit well anymore. We’ve stopped wearing leather or silk or wool. It looked so much better in the fitting room. We want to downsize. It’s just plain worn out.

Where do all those clothes go?

The numbers vary, but according to the EPA and the Council for Textile Recycling, in the U.S. we generate an average of 25 billion pounds of textiles (clothes, shoes, bedding, etc.) each year and only recycle or donate about 15% of that.

The rest (85%, or 21 billion pounds), usually ends up in the trash.

That’s a lot of waste, not to mention the people, animals, and planet affected in the production and distribution of each of those items. Fortunately, we have a variety of options for dealing with our discarded duds.

Here are 5 tips for things you can do with old clothing.

1. Sell
If your clothes are still in good condition and you could use a little cash, you can sell them.

Many communities have consignment shops, or you could (co-)host a garage sale. And since this is the digital age, there are plenty of options for selling your clothes online.

2. Swap
Portland, Oregon, hosts “swap positive” clothing swaps year-round, with the idea that participants need never have to buy another article of clothing (well, maybe underwear).

Clothing swaps are sweeping the country, and whether organized by an entity or an individual, they’re a fun and eco-friendly way to pass on your old stuff and get something new to you. There are even online clothing swaps.

3. Donate
Donating clothes to a thrift store is often a popular choice. But that may not be as ethical a choice as many of us think.

Aside from some potentially troubling business practices and philosophical stances on the part of the businesses that accept donations, when we donate clothes to thrift stores, we’re likely harming communities in other countries.

Several reports and stories have noted that only a small percentage of the clothes we donate to thrift stores stays there. The glut of clothes is so large that the majority are sent overseas, and while textile recycling creates jobs and reuses a product, it also causes harm.

As blogger Beth Greenfield says, “… the cycle of shipping used clothes overseas is contributing to growing poverty in other nations. That’s because, as more and more of our clothing discards are sent overseas, there’s less chance that African countries will develop their own textile trades. In the past decade, in fact, local industries such as garment-making and tailoring, have collapsed, creating mass unemployment.”

What are our options? One is to donate directly to organizations helping connect people with clothes they need. Several organizations, such as Dress for Success and Career Gear, seek donations of gently used business attire to help people seeking employment. Many homeless shelters are looking for appropriate clothing. And several organizations rely on garage sales to help raise funds for their work.

While donating to a thrift store may not be ideal, it’s likely a better choice than the garbage dump, so if that’s your best option, keep at it.

For clothes just too worn to wear, donation options are much harder to find.

A few thrift stores will take them and sell them for rags. Other growing solutions include San Francisco’s trial program to put out textile recycling bins around the city, so that old clothes can be turned into insulation, carpet padding, and more.

4. Upcycle
Upcycling, turning “trash” into something new and useful, is a hot emerging practice. Whether crafty or just conscientious, more people are getting creative with turning clothes into practical products … including other clothes. From rags to bags to new wardrobes, there are a plethora of ideas online about repurposing textiles.

5. Bonus: Reduce.
While this isn’t a tip for dealing with unwanted clothes, it does bring our attention to the demand side of the equation.

According to Elizabeth L. Cline, author of the book Overdressed, Americans “Consume nearly 20 billion garments a year. That’s 68 garments and 7 pairs of shoes per person.”

We have an addiction to cheap clothes, which has a huge impact on people, animals, and the earth, not to mention our pocketbooks. So one small action that can make a huge difference is to just reduce the amount of clothing we buy, and to hang on to what we have longer.

As GOOD bloggers Jessica de Jesus and Tabea Kay note, “Perhaps it’s time to start asking a new question: Why do we have so much junk that we are in the position to inundate the world with our reject piles?”


Image via Magalle L’Abbé/Flickr.