How to Get Rid of Old Clothes Responsibly

Close up of clothing rack with clothes on hangers. Photo by Kai Pilger from Pexels

Growing up in the eighties, I wore a lot of hand-me-down old clothes from my older cousins. Our family wasn’t flush with cash, and they were perfectly good items of clothing that had plenty of life in them.

Nowadays, whilst hand-me-downs might still be common amongst siblings, there’s more of a trend to buy most items new.

For many, there’s always some new trend on social media to follow, or something new to buy. Cheaper manufacturing, increasing global wealth, coupled with the consumerist attitudes of our throw-away society, is contributing to this issue. Whereas our grandparents might’ve painstakingly repaired damaged items, it is less expensive and time-consuming for people to bin it and replace with something new.

The Clothing Waste Problem

Jane Milburn, a sustainability consultant, has found that Australians alone each buy an average of 27 kilograms of clothing per year, and then throw 23 kilograms of it into landfill. This type of never ending cycle is not sustainable and has grave implications for the environment.

Tackling the issue of reducing clothing waste starts with making better purchasing decisions. Investing in higher quality, more ethically made items with longevity. Global awareness of these issues is gaining momentum and hopefully consumer attitudes start changing towards sourcing our clothes more consciously.

But what about the old clothes that are already in your wardrobe? At some point, you may need to get rid of the old clothes that your children have outgrown, or clothes that you genuinely no longer wear or need.

The Clothing Donation ‘Bin’ Problem

“I’ll just take my old clothes down to the Salvation Army bin”.

Often ”donating to charity” is a quick-fix solution. It eases our conscience on the true cost of disposing unworn garments. We imagine that our pre-loved threads are clothing a homeless person, or someone less fortunate.

However, the reality is that most donated clothing is sold, with the proceeds used to help support the charity’s initiatives. Whilst the best used clothing will be sold via a charity’s local op shops, most are via export to developing countries – which has a whole set of different issues.

Charities can become a massive dumping ground, full of unsuitable, poor quality or damaged clothing. The community refers to them as charity ‘bins’ – this gives some clue to our mindset of what to fill them with! Charities spend money on staff to sort items, and tip fees to dispose of unusable clothing. This is particularly the case when clothing becomes contaminated from people illegally dumping clothes outside of overflowing charity bins.

We aren’t really helping the disadvantaged if charities spend more money than they make!

While I am all for donating items to charity for goodwill, it should be done responsibly. We should not treat charity clothing ‘bins’ as an out-of-sight-out-of-mind solution for getting rid of old clothes we no longer need.

What to do with Clothes You Don’t Want?

With a bit of effort, we can try to give clothing away to goodwill more purposely and mindfully, AND reduce the amount of textile waste ending up in landfill.

Here are some other ideas on how to get rid of your old clothes.

Sell gently used, quality clothing

If you have any clothes that are in great condition (nay, perhaps even barely-worn, ‘as new’ or ‘brand new with tags’?) you may be able to sell them.

By selling your clothing, you can get it into the hands of someone who actually wanted or needed it. A person is typically not going to pay for clothing unless it was exactly what they were looking for.

Always make sure the clothing is in great condition, clean, and repaired if necessary.

Take your pick of the various platforms – try eBay, Facebook Marketplace, Gumtree, or join local or niche Facebook Groups. When it comes to clothing, some platforms may be more successful than others, so it may take some trial and error. If you’re wanting to stay local and try Gumtree, then stick to 3 Rules for Buying and Selling Safely, and Tips to Sell Successfully on Gumtree. eBay is known to be an excellent platform for selling unwanted clothing – read more in the pros and cons of selling on eBay. Or, check out Digital Trends’ list of best apps to sell clothes.

There’s also online consignment stores and platforms to sell secondhand clothing, the most well-known being thredUp and Depop. For those who dabble in luxury or designer items, there’s Poshmark, TheRealReal and Tradesy. These online consignment stores don’t operate in all countries, but a quick search should find some which operate locally to you.

If physical stores are more your thing, another search for brick-and-mortar op shops near you should bring up some gems. Some op shops have interesting business models – Ciao Bella Moda is a unique store located in the Sydney suburb of Sans Souci, where you can not only trade-in or buy, but also hire or donate your clothes! Bring in your pre-loved garments, where you can receive credits for each item, and then put towards anything in-store. They also work as a collection point for donating clothing to specific charities.

You might find that some retailers also operate their own trade-in programs, such as Patagonia’s Worn Wear.

The secondhand clothing market is growing, so over time it will be great to see more stores offering consignment or trade-in.

It’s interesting to see the innovative ways that businesses are marketing their programs for secondhand clothing. Ones I’ve found are:

  • Material World’s Material Box – a personal styling service and box subscription service, where you receive a personally curated box of pre-owned designer items to choose from
  • For Days – where you essentially have a ‘membership’ with any piece that you purchase. When you return/swap your used For Days items (in any condition!), you get a discount on new pieces. It’s a closed loop recycling program, and the used clothing is recycled into new yarn. Not only that, their recycling process is water and chemical free, all their packaging is recyclable, and they carbon offset all their shipping.

Sadly neither service customers in Australia, but they are great options for our friends in the USA.

Participate in a Clothing Swap

Gather all the clothes you don’t wear anymore and head on down to a local clothes swapping event near you.

I have yet to attend one myself, but the idea of taking down a set number of unused and unwanted clothing, and leaving with “new” items, whilst having minimal environmental impact – seems pretty great!

Keep an eye out for targeted clothing swaps, where you might give you better chances of finding new items. I just found a Kids Clothing and Toy Swap (for 0-5 year olds). What an ingenious way to get rid of items that your children have outgrown, for newer things that will fit!

If you can’t find one local to you, you may be motivated to start your own. See these tips for hosting a successful clothing swap.

Donate to charity

With a bit of research and effort, you can donate your clothing to specific charities who actually do distribute them to those in need.

Baby and children’s clothing: Most modern parents probably have amassed collections of outgrown kids’ clothing in their homes. If you’re in Sydney, try the amazing people at the Dandelion Support Network. They also accept a TON of baby and nursery-related items; check out their list of what they can and cannot accept. See their Facebook page for their collection dates around Sydney, and also their call-outs for most desperately needed items.

Corporate clothing: Dress for Success is a global organisation dedicated to empowering disadvantaged women by improving their employability. They collect gently-used corporate women’s clothing. Please review their donation guidelines and locate an affiliate near you.

Bras: The Uplift Project collects bras in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore and redistributes them to women in disadvantaged communities, in countries such as Fiji, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and others. Check out their website to confirm what they want or need most. Whilst they accept most bras in good condition, E-cup bras, nursing/maternity bras, and mastectomy bras (in any condition!) are highly sought after. They also accept reusable nursing pads and secondhand cloth nappies. Other similar programs include I Support The Girls (USA, Australia, Canada, Pakistan, Philippines), Be a Dear and Donate a Brassiere (California, USA), and Against Breast Cancer (UK).

Just do a search and you may find registered charities or organisations within your area needing specific types of clothing.

If you can’t find a home for your unwanted clothing through such avenues, then donating to one of the various general charities is worthwhile. Your goods might be sold and the proceeds used to benefit the disadvantaged (it will depend on the charity). Just ensure you follow the guidelines on what is appropriate to donate.

Pay it forward

Check with friends and family whether they want any of your clothing – what may no longer suit or fit you, may be perfect for someone that you know.

You can also try listing them for free on places such as Freecycle or Zilch. Facebook ‘Pay It Forward’ or ‘Buy Swap and Sell’ groups, or Gumtree, are also good places.

Again, the idea is to direct the items to someone who may directly benefit and get use out of it. Perhaps the clothing is not suitable for donating to charity, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some other use and is destined for landfill yet!

You may have kids’ clothing with minor stains or marks; bundle them together and advertise them as imperfect, but fine for use as childcare clothes (they’ll inevitably end up covered in paint and dirt!). Or perhaps there is someone nearby looking for used clothing for pet bedding.

Always use your common sense and keep your safety top-of-mind when using these platforms. If unsure, it’s always best to organise a mutually agreeable time and place to meet, rather than having strangers coming to your home.

Have your clothes repaired or altered

What’s the reason that you are getting rid of the clothing? Can it be remedied with a simple repair?

Look into repairs for minor issues, or alterations that might turn it into something new. Finding a good alterationist could open up the possibilities for re-using the items already in your wardrobe.

Finding new purpose for clothing

I love discovering a good hack on the internet, and I’m willing to bet many of you are too.

There are some seriously creative, crafty and ingenious people out there, with some amazing ideas on how to re-use clothing. And no, you don’t necessarily need to be good at sewing!

Check out this fabulous new-sew DIY multi-strand-scarf from Rabbit Food For My Bunny Teeth:

The internet can be a real treasure-trove of great ideas and hacks – you just need to look.

Make new cleaning rags

What do you do with old clothes that cannot be donated? Sometimes there’s no way around it, clothing can be simply too damaged or stained (kids may love bolognese sauce, but it’s a killer on light-coloured clothing!).

In these cases, you can always cut them up and use them as cleaning cloths around the home. They’ll at least spiff up your home before ending up in the bin, and it saves purchasing cleaning rags from store.

Clothes recycling programs

There are challenges and limitations around fashion and textiles recycling. Firstly, clothing made of synthetic fibre blends are pretty much impossible to recycle (though 100% polyester is possible). Secondly, although textile recycling may be common on a commercial scale, few are readily available for personal quantities.

A number of clothing retailers now accept unwanted clothing for re-use, or even actual recycling. The retailers in the list below do not offer customers anything in exchange for the clothing received:

  • Zara – will accept clothing of any brand, in any condition. They’ll also accept household linen, footwear, accessories and jewelry. Clothing may be re-used, or recycled into materials for automotive and construction industries.
  • Patagonia – accepts Patagonia clothing only.
  • Uniqlo – accepts Uniqlo clothing only.

H&M have a program where items (any brand, in any condition) can be brought in store for re-use or recycling. I have some mixed feelings on even mentioning this program, since consumers are given a voucher in return. Is the program that sustainable, if it’s encouraging further new clothing purchases for their stores? I have included it anyway, because let’s be honest – people are unlikely to stop buying new fashion pieces altogether. In any case, they do accept ALL clothing, and still redirects the items away from landfill. With such limited textile recycling options available to individuals, this is important.

An organisation which has recently come to attention is UPPAREL – although I’ve yet to try them, this organisation will allow you to book in c ollections of your unwanted clothing, which will then be sorted for reusing, repurposing and recycling. The one thing to note is that this is a paid service – $25 per 10kg of clothing to be collected. This might be a deal-breaker for many, however given how much waste the world is producing, it’s actually something everyone might start to get on board with: the idea that polluting the earth with more waste is something we can do for free, but rather a service that we should pay for to ensure that waste is responsibly handled. 100% of items that are collected by UPPAREL are reused, recycled or repurposed IN AUSTRALIA. So nothing goes to landfill, and nothing is shipped off-shore. Hurrah!

Phew, that’s a wrap! The next time you are cleaning out your closet and need to get rid of old clothes, have a think about whether there are better ways to re-purpose or find a new home for that clothing item.

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