Really, What Should I Do With My Old Clothes?
I ran out of hangers in February. The event was not entirely unexpected since, for at least a year, I had been moving the deck chairs on my personal storage Titanic in an effort to avoid what was about to happen. I placed two or three summer dresses or tank tops on a single hanger. I meticulously refolded everything to fill up all the drawer space in my dresser. Instead of shoving my most-worn items into my closet, I left them on a bedroom chair. I avoided making any new purchases until I really had to. But eventually, I did require certain items, and I had nowhere to store them.Many Americans have become accustomed to the low-grade home embarrassment of realizing that you have outgrown your closet. Only 14% of responders to a study conducted in 2021 expressed perfect satisfaction with the items in their wardrobes. Everyone else either had recently done so or wished to get rid of at least a few things. At the same time, the nation’s thirst for new apparel has grown quickly over the past 20 years as clothing has become more affordable, plentiful, and simple to purchase than ever before, in large part due to the growth of fast fashion and internet shopping. In order to prick your brain’s vulnerable places, fashion marketing has also grown more pervasive and algorithmically fine-tuned through large-scale data collection.It had been almost eight years since my previous closet purge when my own wardrobe reckoning could no longer be postponed. I hadn’t put off going through my clothing for over ten years because I was in love with them or because I believed I may need practically everything in my wardrobe. A large portion of it consisted of clothing that I was certain I would never wear again, if I had ever worn it at all. These included dowdy business-casual outfits purchased for long-ago job interviews, ill-fitting dresses that I neglected to return, and incredibly cheap items that would clearly not survive machine washing but would cost more to dry clean than they did to purchase.My primary issue, though, was a more useful one: What should I actually do with all this stuff?Let me get right to the difficult part: There is just no simple, all-encompassing advice on how to get rid of your old clothes in a way that is environmentally friendly, hassle-free, or beneficial to society. This isn’t a result of a lack of choices. The number of services that promise to dispose of your old clothes without making you feel guilty for buying so many in the first place has increased as Americans produce an ever-growing sea of textile waste—most recently estimated at 11.3 million tons in 2018, up from 1.7 million tons in 1960, according to the EPA.You may donate your textiles for recycling to a municipal program or a for-profit business in addition to the more conventional methods like charitable donations and secondhand shops; some of these companies will even send you a postage-paid bag to fill at your convenience. Donation boxes are increasingly commonplace in cities and many suburbs, some of which are legal and others of which are held by for-profit businesses searching for free inventory to sell in bulk. The resale market has also experienced growth, and you can find new customers for your used clothing on a variety of resale websites and applications, including Facebook Marketplace, Poshmark, Depop, and eBay.All of these businesses make several claims about sustainability and reducing waste, but they are unable to guarantee that your old garments won’t wind up in a landfill in the end. And most likely, the most of them will. Even on an industrial scale, making garments requires a lot of effort. A human’s hands at a sewing machine, guiding individual seams through a needle, are still unmatched by a machine as of yet. Even more challenging is getting apparel out of the world after it has been produced.The issue of garment waste is a very contemporary one. According to Jennifer Le Zotte, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and the author of From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies, for a significant portion of American history, most clothing was made at home, and the majority of the populace thought the endless accumulation of material goods unseemly.These beliefs needed to be altered as clothes began to be manufactured industrially around the end of the 19th century. The nation’s industrial elite started looking for methods to increase demand for bigger, constantly-changing wardrobes as ready-made clothing became suddenly more affordable and accessible than before. However, the Protestant ideal of thriftiness endured even when the contemporary shopping culture emerged towards the end of the 19th century. For a while, excess was still the domain of industrial robber barons rather than good, honest workers.Thrift shops then appeared. Secondhand clothing started to get a makeover just as the garment industry was industrializing thanks to nonprofit thrift stores like Goodwill Industries and the Salvation Army, which accept donations of used clothing and other household items and sell them to the general public to support charitable and religious programs. Le Zotte argued that these businesses altered how Americans thought about their previous clothing. First of all, they made getting rid of your old items morally righteous because you weren’t squandering resources but rather giving them to the less fortunate.Second, they altered public perceptions around used clothes purchases, which increased their target market for sales and strengthened the viability of the thrift store business model. Le Zotte claims that they accomplished this by infusing their organizations with evangelical Christianity. Historically, Jewish immigrants dominated the secondhand clothing market, and anti-Semitic prejudices about cleanliness and social acceptability permeated views about resale. Thrift shop businesses were able to increase contributions and customer traffic, industrialize the industry, and create some of the first chain stores in the nation by elevating used clothing to a symbol of Christian virtue.The corporate thrift model is still successful today; Goodwill alone has hundreds of shops across North America. Thrift stores streamline the procedure so that you may drop off bags of unwanted items, receive a little note for a tax benefit, and drive away satisfied with your deed.If only everything were that easy. According to Maxine Bédat, the founder of the New Standard Institute and the book of Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment, large-scale thrift organizations get considerably more donations than they could possibly realistically sell in their stores. Even with all of the unsold items currently in people’s closets, there aren’t enough consumers to buy all of the new clothing manufactured each year. Bédat also informed me that a large portion of what is given is undesirable since those who find comfort in the notion that their garbage is someone else’s treasure sometimes fail to discriminate between decent, useable clothing and genuine rubbish when putting items in donation boxes.Even if your clothing has lots of life remaining in it, if you don’t do the stain removal and seam repair before dropping it off, it probably won’t make it to the sales floor. And if a piece of clothing doesn’t sell quickly—typically within a month, but occasionally in as little as a week—it will likely be taken off the racks and delivered to an outlet center, where it will have one final opportunity to sell before being discarded. After all, new donations are always being received.According to Bédat, “around 80% of that material that’s donated there isn’t getting sold” to the general public. They will ultimately sell the items as scrap, toss them away, or package them for further sale, primarily to the global South or, if it’s winter clothing, Eastern Europe. Theoretically, clothing that is exported would be resold to new clients in low-income nations, but it is hard for industry watchdogs to monitor what happens to any specific lot of used clothes after it leaves the country.There are several reasons to think that a significant portion of what was initially given to charity would still wind up in the trash: Countries like Ghana and Chile, who import significant quantities of used textiles from the United States, now have massive textile waste issues of their own. Individuals’ good intentions don’t go very far in a field so replete with excess.After all that, you still have some clothing in your closet that you want to get rid of so they may be given to individuals who really need them. Not every gift is the same in this case. According to Bédat, donating to small, neighborhood-based organizations increases the likelihood that your possessions will end up in the hands of someone who will actually use them because these organizations deal with individuals who, for instance, require new work clothes, cozy shoes, or a warm winter coat.However, compared to big-box thrift stores, these smaller, more focused donation alternatives sometimes lack the consumer convenience; you can’t just pull up to a curb and dump a lot of trash bags through a door. If your donations are of low quality or are not appropriate for the communities these organizations serve, they may refuse to accept any or all of them. You have to do the sorting yourself rather than hiring retail staff to do it, and you have to be honest with yourself about what it is that you’re attempting to impose on other people. There is a good chance that others won’t find value in it if you don’t, according to Bédat.Selling things is an additional, if less honorable, alternative. The good news is that doing so is now simpler than ever. Over the past ten years, clothing-specific online marketplaces like Poshmark, Depop, and thredUP have exploded, while generalist resale sites like eBay, Facebook Marketplace, and Mercari are now brimming with clothing. Resale apps are a terrific way to go if your main objective is to get your clothing to someone else who truly wants them. This is the approach I adopted in February, advertising a variety of outfits on Poshmark one at a time while continually tripping over a large storage container of used clothing on my bedroom floor in the meanwhile. They ultimately did for three-quarters of them.Selling things is an additional, if less honorable, alternative. The good news is that doing so is now simpler than ever. Over the past ten years, clothing-specific online marketplaces like Poshmark, Depop, and thredUP have exploded, while generalist resale sites like eBay, Facebook Marketplace, and Mercari are now brimming with clothing. Resale apps are a terrific way to go if your main objective is to get your clothing to someone else who truly wants them. This is the approach I adopted in February, advertising a variety of outfits on Poshmark one at a time while continually tripping over a large storage container of used clothing on my bedroom floor in the meanwhile. They ultimately did for three-quarters of them.I immediately learned that one drawback of resale applications is that they require a lot of labor from sellers. Whenever I sold something, I diligently wrapped the order and walked it the half-mile to the post office. It was a wonderful noon break in fine weather when I repeated that excursion three or four times a week, but it wasn’t the best duty for someone who just wanted their old things out of their sight. Local consignment or secondhand shops can eliminate some of the hassle while still earning you a few dollars.Le Zotte and Bédat both stressed that the broader problem is that resale apps and services aren’t truly a bulwark against overconsumption, despite the fact that they feel like it (and despite the fact that they’re frequently advertised as such). Although purchasing used items is obviously better than purchasing and discarding brand-new items, if you’re continually changing your wardrobe and following trends, you’re still trapped in the grip of the fashion industry like the rest of us.Additionally, Bédat points out that the clothes that would be most in demand at resale—good-quality used clothing in like-new condition, or items that still have their tags attached—would probably also be greatly appreciated by a local charity if you didn’t really need the money that you’d get from selling your clothes.Be realistic about how much good can be done to prevent waste after the fact, especially with clothing that still have a lot of life in them. If you can, give locally. Go ahead and enjoy selling things when you wish. And after giving away or selling the best items from your selection, you still need to decide what to do with the items that no one really wants, such as the worn-out T-shirt that you wore while painting your bedroom, the torn socks, and the Shein impulse purchases that fell apart after the second wash.Textile recycling is a useful choice for several things: Simply place your used clothing in a public donation bin or fill a postage-paid bag to ship to a business that recycles clothing for a profit. The best-case scenario, according to Bédat, is that your clothing will be finely diced up and spun into new fabrics, frequently in conjunction with virgin materials to raise the fabric’s quality. But for this series of events to actually occur, the clothing you’ve recycled must be entirely made of a pure, natural material, ideally cotton.Some clothing items can be shredded and used for inconspicuous uses like insulation or upholstery filling when a textile’s fiber composition is subpar. But even it has its limits. Consider the items in your closet, with their numerous buttons, zippers, embroidered details, diverse fabric compositions, and screen printing. Since of the nature of clothes, recycling may be ineffective or impossible because it would be too time-consuming and expensive to justify the effort needed to sort out each individual garment’s components.In order to make the new garment function as intended, microscopic structural components made of metal, plastic, nylon, elastane, and polyester may be knitted or sewed together in a single bra. Bédat utilized bras as an example. Simply said, it isn’t cost-effective to undo that labor simply to stuff a few scraps of fabric into a few throw pillows, and worn bras are generally unattractive on the secondary market. Used shoes provide a comparable challenging issue for recyclers because to their combinations of rubber, leather, glue, polyester, plastic, and metal.I don’t blame you if reading this made you want to dump your old clothing in the garbage without even thinking about them. That could even be the ideal choice in some circumstances, such as when a clothing has substantial stains or is utterly threadbare. According to Bédat, at the very least, declaring something to be trash while you still have it implies that it will likely be disposed of in a domestic landfill that conforms with at least some environmental laws.That’s preferable than deluding yourself and exporting your rubbish abroad for other people to cope with in situations when they have significantly fewer resources. Yes, you could want to just toss away a garment if you’ve really used it to its full potential. Maybe there isn’t a better choice.You will repeatedly hear a similar theme if you speak with enough people who work on issues related to pollution and material waste: Even though most people skip to the third word, the phrase “Reduce, reuse, recycle” contains the first two words for a reason. Everyone I spoke with for this story agreed that when individuals had cleared out their closets—however that happens—the greatest thing they can do is avoid filling them up again, which necessitates making the most of the items you do purchase.That will require many individuals to pick up certain recently outmoded skills and practices, such as sewing a button, hemming a pair of pants, patching a torn seam, and taking a pair of shoes in for resoles. It can also include changing how much you think clothing should cost because investing in quality clothing that can be repaired over time will inevitably cost more money than purchasing a garment for a special occasion.The clothing business has a great interest in seeing to it that the rest of us view clothing as temporary or at the very least interchangeable. Even if premium firms sell their goods with the claim that they would last a lifetime, this is especially true of fast-fashion corporations. Any apparel business that wants to please its stockholders must find a means to trick customers into purchasing more and more, regardless of what they currently own.The New York Times fashion writer Vanessa Friedman has referred to planned obsolescence as a “fundamental principle” of the fashion business, and it has never happened so quickly. Your old garments are rarely ever truly gone, despite the saying “out of sight, out of mind.”