A decluttering question I get surprisingly often: how do I get rid of clothing? And it’s not an existential question, it’s a very practical “but what do I do with the clothing I need to declutter? What do I do with my old clothes?”
There are generalizable stock answers like: donate it! And recycle it! And do whatever you need to do to get it out of your house!
But in this post, I wanted to give you a more step by step framework for thinking through the criteria of what clothes get given away, recycled, or trashed, and (hopefully) concrete action steps. Because if we know anything about letting go of clothing, it’s ripe for decision fatigue and often “what to do with old clothes?” is the final straw.
But first things first, this post is part of the Options Please! Series giving you answers to the question “what are my options?”
Options Please! is a series to help give you the tools you need to implement your seamless signature personal style. It’s for everyone who has ever asked: is a capsule wardrobe my only option? Is there any way to make shopping easier? What do I do if “does this spark joy?” isn’t working for me?
That is what this series is here to answer! This series is to help show you some of the options that are out there. Use what works leave what doesn’t, but my hope is that it will help you see the possibilities.
We’ll cover what your options are for closet clean out filters, building your personalized closet system, care and maintenance of your favorite pieces of clothing, shopping systems, where you send clothes you’ve cleaned out, and so much more.
Today we’re diving into what to do with old clothes!
In general, what to do with old clothes
In general, there are 3 broad categories of things you can do with old clothes that you’re letting go of and moving out of your house.
(This does not include clothes you’re keeping in your life but moving out of your day to day closet – such as using cotton t-shirts as rags, turning grubby clothes into gardening and yard work clothes, keeping sentimental items as keepsakes, etc.)
The 3 broad things you can do to get rid of old clothes and textiles are:
- give them away (including consignment and resale)
- recycle them with a textile recycler (though I guess old t-shirts to rags also counts in here)
- trash the unrecoverable (based on what is making the clothing unrecoverable – and we’re not talking about grass stains)
Hopefully these categories of “what to do with old clothes?” are listed from most utilized to least utilized.
Ideally most of the pieces you’re letting go of are in good enough condition to be given away and used for their intended purpose by someone else. Then any pieces that aren’t in good enough condition – maybe they’re torn or stained – get taken to be recycled into new textiles. Finally anything that is unusable or unrecoverable gets disposed of as trash based on what’s making it unusable or unrecoverable.
I often get asked what “good enough condition” means or when a piece of clothing is recyclable versus when it is trash. So I thought it would be helpful to share my guidelines for what I do with old clothing I’m clearing out.
Please note: your local waste management may have different laws, standards, requirements and suggestions, so be sure to check your local resources!
Also use common sense. Deciding what to do with old clothes you’re decluttering because they are no longer your style is very different than deciding what to do with clothes you accidentally spilled motor oil on.
Giving and donating old clothes
My standard for giving away clothes and textiles:
- A piece of clothing needs to be clean and usable as is
If a piece of clothing isn’t in good enough condition to give to a friend, it’s not in good enough condition to give or sell to a stranger.
Basically, charities, thrift stores, and reselling websites are not a dumping ground for unusable clothing. This is the category for clothes that aren’t your style or don’t fit.
Recycling old clothes and textiles
My standard for recycling clothes and textiles:
- Unusable as is, but not dangerous
This could be items with unrepairable holes, rips, tears, or other damage. This could also be set in stains or discoloration, etc. (But not hazardous or dangerous stains.)
Basically, think about recycling clothes and textiles like you think about recycling cardboard. A torn up Target box? Recyclable. A greasy pizza box? Not recyclable.
Disposing of old clothes and textiles
My standards for not recycling or giving away clothes and textiles actually come from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Waste Ban on Textiles and Mattresses:
- “If these textiles are not reusable or recyclable due to contamination with mold, bodily fluids, insects, oil, or hazardous substances, as defined in the regulations, those may be sent for disposal in the trash without violating the waste ban regulations.” (From their FAQ)
That was from MassDEP’s FAQ and is very well stated.
Prior to that my standard was: is it unusable and disgusting?
Basically don’t throw out perfectly usable clothes and textiles just because you’re uncertain about what to do with them.
This mostly comes down to common sense. Avoid throwing away clothes as much as possible – clothes require a lot of resources to produce. Check the laws for your location, and your local waste management for resources.
Places to bring old clothes and textiles
Giving & Donating:
- People in your life and community
- Community mutual aid groups
- Buy nothing groups
- Local charity shops and thrift stores
- Local shelters or clothing drives (coat drives, etc)
- Local swap shops or clothing swaps
- Item specific redistribution organizations (like Becca’s Closet for prom dresses and formal wear, Dress for Success for business casual, etc)
- Local consignment shops
- Local resale shops
- Online consignment and resale shops (like ThredUp, TheRealReal, etc)
- Local animal shelters sometimes use old textiles (towels, etc) that are lightly worn out (but check before you bring them!).
- Textile recycling resources vary greatly by location, but most cities have at least something – try searching for textile recyclers in your area or ask a local thrift store or fabric shop if they know of any resources.
- Some clothing shops have textile recycling boxes (some only accept their own brand of clothing, some accept any textiles).
- If you have a local no or low waste shop, they may have or know of textile recycling resources.
- Some local farmers markets are also starting to have textile recycling stands.
An important thing to know about most textile recycling is: it’s a business, and it’s usually for profit. More nonprofits and not-for-profits and community resources are becoming available. But just because textile recycling is a business doesn’t mean you shouldn’t recycle your old clothes and textiles.
- Check with your local waste management for resources as it usually depends on what is causing the clothing to be unusable.
I hope this helps answer the question of what to actually do with the old clothes you’re clearing out, decluttering, and letting go of.
Remember, ideally most of the pieces you’re letting go of are in good enough condition to be given away, donated, and used for their intended purpose by someone else. Donating old clothes can be as straightforward as bringing them to your local thrift shop. Most thrift stores accept most items of clean and usable clothing.
Then any pieces that aren’t in good enough condition – maybe they’re torn or stained – get taken to be recycled into new textiles. Textile recycling varies great based on location so check for local resources.
Finally any old clothes that are unusable and unrecoverable gets disposed of as trash based on what’s making it unusable or unrecoverable. It may help to think about these things less like “clothes you’re getting rid of” and more like whatever is making it unusable. For example: getting rid of an old shirt covered in motor oil bears more resemblance to disposing of motor oil than disposing of old clothes.
Make getting rid of old clothes easier next time…
One final note: decluttering and letting go begins with what you bring into your closet. If you’re overwhelmed by decluttering your closet, bring your attention and intention to what you are putting into your closet.
If you struggle with buying clothes you don’t wear, or not buying the clothes you do wear, or letting go of clothes you know you should, consider signing up for coaching – I’d love to work with you on this.