Seriously, What Are You Supposed to Do With Old Clothes?

There are no good solutions to the problems of closet clean-out.

People sorting through enormous piles of recycled clothing.
Richard Kalvar / Magnum

In February, I ran out of hangers. The occasion was not exactly unforeseen—for at least a year, I had been rearranging the deck chairs on my personal-storage Titanic in an attempt to forestall the inevitable. I loaded two or three tank tops or summer dresses onto a single hanger. I carefully refolded everything in my dresser drawers to max out their capacity. I left the things I wore most frequently on a bedroom chair instead of wedging them into my closet. I didn’t buy anything new unless I absolutely needed it. Eventually, though, I did need some things, and I didn’t have anywhere to put them.

Realizing you’ve exceeded the bounds of your closet is a low-grade domestic humiliation that’s become familiar to many Americans. One 2021 survey found that only 14 percent of respondents were completely satisfied with what was in their closets. Everyone else wanted to get rid of at least a few things, or had done so in the recent past. At the same time, the country’s appetite for new clothing has expanded rapidly over the past two decades, as clothes have become cheaper, more abundant, and easier than ever to buy, largely thanks to the spread of fast fashion and online shopping. Fashion marketing, too, has become more ubiquitous, and ever more algorithmically fine-tuned by industrial-scale data harvesting to poke at the soft spots in your skull.

By the time my own wardrobe reckoning could be delayed no longer, it had been almost eight years since I’d last cleaned out my closet. I hadn’t waited nearly a decade to sort through my clothes because I loved them too much to let them go, or because I thought I might actually need almost anything in my closet. Much of it was stuff that I was sure I would never wear again, if I had even worn it in the first place—dowdy business-casual ensembles bought for long-ago job interviews, ill-fitting dresses that I forgot to return, ultra-cheap items that obviously wouldn’t survive machine washing but that would cost more to dry-clean than they did to buy.

Instead, my main problem was more practical: What should I actually do with all this stuff?

Let me tell you the hard part up front: There is simply no easy, universal guidance for the most Earth-friendly or hassle-free or socially good way for you to dispose of your old clothes. This isn’t for a lack of options. As Americans generate an ever-expanding 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—we’ve also generated an ever-expanding number of services that promise to get rid of your old clothes without the guilt of buying so much in the first place. In addition to traditional routes such as charitable donations and consignment stores, you can turn over your textiles for recycling, to either a municipal program or a for-profit company, some of which will send you a postage-paid bag to fill at your leisure. Donation boxes, some legitimate and some owned by for-profit companies looking for free inventory to sell in bulk, now abound in cities and many suburbs. The resale economy, too, has boomed, and you can find new buyers for your old clothes on a slew of resale websites and apps, including eBay, Poshmark, Depop, and Facebook Marketplace.

These services all make a lot of promises about sustainability and minimizing waste, but what they can’t promise is that your old clothes won’t end up in a landfill anyway. And in all likelihood, many—if not most—of them will. Creating clothing, even at an industrial scale, is a labor-intensive process. To date, no machine is capable of matching a human’s hands at a sewing machine, guiding individual seams past a needle. Once manufactured, removing clothing from the world is even more difficult.

This problem of clothing waste is a thoroughly modern one. For much of American history, most clothing was made at home, and most of the population considered the endless accumulation of material goods unseemly, 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. The advent of industrially produced clothing at the end of the 19th century meant that these perceptions needed to be changed. Ready-made garments were suddenly cheaper and more plentiful than ever, and the country’s manufacturing elite began looking for ways to induce greater demand for larger and ever-changing wardrobes. But even as modern shopping culture was born at the end of the 19th century, the Protestant value of thriftiness persisted. For a time, excess remained the province of industrial robber barons, not of good, upright working people.

Then came thrift stores. Just as the garment trade was industrializing, secondhand clothing began to get a makeover from charitable thrift corporations such as Goodwill Industries and the Salvation Army, which take donations of used clothing and other household goods and sell them to the general public in order to fund charitable and religious programs. These companies changed how Americans felt about their old clothes, Le Zotte explained. First, they made discarding your old stuff virtuous—you weren’t wasting resources but providing them to the less fortunate. Second, they changed how the public felt about buying used clothing, which broadened their potential sales market and made the thrift business model sustainable. They did this by suffusing their organizations with evangelical Christianity, according to Le Zotte. The secondhand garment trade was previously the province of mostly Jewish immigrants, and attitudes toward reselling were rife with anti-Semitic stereotypes about cleanliness and social desirability. By making old clothes an object of Christian virtue, thrift corporations were able to attract more donations and more buyers, industrially scale the trade, and open some of the country’s first chain stores.

Today, the corporate thrift model still thrives—Goodwill alone has thousands of stores across North America. Thrift corporations make the process as frictionless as possible: You can drop off bags of unsorted stuff, get a little slip for a tax break, and drive off feeling like you did the right thing.

If only it were so simple. Large-scale thrift charities receive far more donations than they could ever actually sell in their stores, according to Maxine Bédat, the founder of the New Standard Institute and the author of Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment. There aren’t enough buyers for all of the new clothes produced every year, let alone for all of the unwanted things already in people’s closets. And much of what’s donated isn’t desirable, Bédat told me—people who feel soothed by the idea that their trash is someone else’s treasure tend not to distinguish between good, usable garments and actual trash when filling up donation bins. If you don’t do the stain removal and seam repair on your stuff before you drop it off, it probably won’t make it to the sales floor, even if there’s plenty of life left in it. And if a garment doesn’t sell quickly—usually within a month, but sometimes in as little as a week—it will probably get pulled from the racks and sent to an outlet center, where it gets one last chance before it’s disposed of. After all, there are new donations coming in all the time.

“About 80 percent of that stuff that’s donated there isn’t getting sold” to the general public, Bédat said. “They will end up either selling the stuff for rags, throwing it out, or bundling it for onward sale to largely the global South, or if it’s winter clothes, Eastern Europe.” In theory, clothing that is exported will be resold to new customers in low-income countries, but what happens to any particular lot of secondhand clothing once it’s out of the country is difficult for industry watchdogs to trace. There’s good reason to believe that much of what started out as charitable donations will nonetheless end up in the garbage: Countries that accept large amounts of secondhand textile imports from the U.S., such as Ghana and Chile, now have enormous textile-waste problems of their own. In an industry so rife with excess, the good intentions of individuals can’t get anyone very far.

With all that being said: You’ve still got some clothes that you want out of your closet, and you want them to get to people who actually need them. In this situation, not all donations are the same. Giving to small, local organizations increases the odds that your stuff will make it to a new owner who can actually use it, according to Bédat, because these groups work directly with people who need new work clothes, comfortable shoes, or a good winter coat, for example. But these smaller, more targeted donation methods can lack the consumer ease of big-box thrift; you can’t just pull up to a curb and throw a bunch of garbage bags through a door. These groups might refuse to take some or all of your stuff, if it’s poor quality or not well suited to the populations they serve. Instead of having retail workers do the sorting, you have to do it yourself—as well as be honest with yourself about what it is you’re trying to foist on others. “If you don’t find value in it, there’s a strong likelihood that others won’t as well,” Bédat said.

Another option, admittedly less noble, is selling stuff. The good news is that it’s never been easier to do so. Clothing-specific digital markets such as Poshmark, Depop, and thredUP have proliferated in the past decade, and generalized resale platforms like eBay, Facebook Marketplace, and Mercari are also full of clothes. If your primary goal is to get your clothes to another human being who actually wants them, resale apps are a pretty good way to do it. Back in February, this is the route I took, listing dozens of garments on Poshmark, one by one, and constantly tripping over a giant storage container of old clothes on my bedroom floor as I waited for things to sell. Three-quarters of them eventually did.

One downside, I quickly discovered, is that resale apps are a lot of work for sellers. Every time I sold something, I dutifully packaged the order up and walked it to the post office a half mile away. Sometimes I repeated that journey three or four times a week—a nice midday break in good weather, but not an ideal chore for anyone who just wants their old clothes out of their sight. Local consignment or resale stores can take some of the legwork out of the process and still net you a few bucks in return. But the bigger issue, Le Zotte and Bédat both cautioned, is that resale apps and services aren’t really a bulwark against overconsumption, even though they feel that way (and even though they’re often marketed as such). Buying secondhand is definitely preferable to buying and discarding brand-new stuff, but if you’re constantly cycling through clothes and chasing trends, then you’re still just as much caught in the teeth of the fashion system as the rest of us. And if you don’t really need the money that you’d get from reselling your clothes, then Bédat notes that the garments that would be most popular at resale—good-quality used clothes in like-new condition, or things that still have their tags attached—would likely also be much appreciated by a local charity.

So donate locally if you can, and go ahead and enjoy selling stuff when you want—just be realistic about how much good can be done to remedy waste after the fact, even with clothes that have a lot of life left in them. And once you’ve donated or resold the best things from your selection, you’ve still got to figure out what to do with the things no one really wants—the old T-shirt that you wore to repaint your bedroom, the socks with a hole in them, the Shein impulse-buys that disintegrated after the second wash. For some things, textile recycling is a good option: All you have to do is drop your old clothes in a municipal donation bin or fill a postage-paid bag to send off to a for-profit recycler. In the best-case scenario, according to Bédat, your garments will then be chopped up finely in order to be respun into thread and make new textiles, usually in conjunction with virgin materials to improve the fabric’s quality. But this chain of events can only really play out if the garments you’ve recycled are wholly made of a pure, natural material, and ideally cotton.

When a textile’s fiber content is less than ideal, some garments can be shredded and reused for behind-the-scenes purposes, such as insulation or upholstery stuffing. But that has its limitations too. Think about the things in your closet, and all of their buttons, zippers, embroidery, mixed fabrics, and screen printing. The nature of clothing can make recycling ineffective or impossible, because the labor required to separate out the components of any one garment would be too difficult, and too costly to justify. Bédat used bras as an example—a single one might contain metal, plastic, nylon, elastane, and polyester, all knitted or sewn together in tiny structural components that make the new garment work as intended. Undoing that work in order to stuff a few little bits of fabric into some throw pillows just isn’t cost-effective, and used bras are mostly undesirable on the secondhand market. Used shoes, with their mixtures of rubber, leather, glue, polyester, plastic, and metal, present a similarly tricky problem for recyclers.

If reading all of this made you want to throw your old clothes directly in the trash and stop thinking about them, I don’t blame you. In certain situations—when a garment has significant stains or is completely threadbare, for example—that might even be the best option. At the very least, acknowledging that something is garbage while you’re still in possession of it, according to Bédat, means that it will probably go into a domestic landfill that complies with at least some environmental regulations. That’s better than kidding yourself and sending your trash overseas for other people with far fewer resources to deal with in far worse circumstances. If you’ve truly gotten every bit of use out of a garment, then yes, maybe you should just throw it away. A better option might not exist.

If you talk to enough people who work on issues of material waste and pollution, you hear a similar refrain over and over again: The slogan of “Reduce, reuse, recycle” includes those first two words for a reason, even if people usually skip to the third. Once people have cleaned out their closets—however that happens—everyone I spoke with for this story agreed that the best thing they can do is not fill them up again, which requires getting the most use possible out of the things you do buy. For many people, that will mean learning some skills and adopting some habits that have recently become old-fashioned: sewing a button, hemming a pair of pants, repairing a ripped seam, taking a pair of shoes to get resoled. It might also mean adjusting your understanding of what clothes should cost, because buying something well made and repairable over the long term will necessarily be more expensive than buying a party dress for one-time use.

The garment industry has a vested interest in ensuring that the rest of us think of clothing as disposable, or at least mutable. This is especially true of fast-fashion companies, but it’s also true for luxury brands, even if they market their products with the promise that they’ll last a lifetime. If any clothing company needs its products to grow continuously in order to satisfy shareholders, then it needs to find ways to manipulate customers into buying more and more, regardless of what they already own. Planned obsolescence, which the New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman recently called an “essential premise” of the fashion industry, has never moved so swiftly. But even if your old clothes are out of sight, out of mind, they’re rarely ever really gone.

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