11 Ways to Get Rid of Old Clothes Responsibly

August 18, 2020

I consider myself a casual dumpster diver, and one of the most common items I find is clothing. I’ve discovered entire trash bags and suitcases of perfectly-wearable pieces in all sizes and styles. One of my favorite pairs of shoes (pictured above) is actually from my first dumpster diving “haul.”

I could never understand why people throw clothes away, but it’s apparently pretty common to do so: the average American throws away 81 pounds of clothing each year (that’s about 38 kg for my metric system friends). Can you imagine that?! Many people around the world don’t even even have 81 pounds of clothing in their entire wardrobes.

It’s possible that people believe clothing will biodegrade, so there’s no harm in throwing it away. Unfortunately, it takes years and decades for most fabrics to break down. Natural materials like cotton, linen, hemp, and silk can biodegrade pretty quickly in the right conditions, from a couple weeks to around half a year. Wool and bamboo take longer, often decomposing in 1-5 years. Synthetic fabrics are the kicker (which is what most conventional clothes are made of, like polyester). It can take anywhere from 20-200 years for those to break down!

I’m not here to shame people who didn’t know any better, and I totally understand that you sometimes need to get rid of things in a rush. It’s pretty clear, however, that throwing your clothes away isn’t any good for the environment. So, I want to outline 11 suggestions for getting rid of your clothes in a sustainable way.

how long it takes for clothes to decompose

11 Tips to Responsibly Get Rid of Clothes

1. Start decluttering early.

A big reason clothes are tossed out is likely because people are short on time. They keep meaning to do something about those pieces they never wear, but it’s easy to let them sit in the back of the closet. Then, they have to move one day, and they spend all their time worrying about furniture that they forget about their closets. When you’re crunched for time, the easiest thing to do is to throw the clothes away.

If you know you have to declutter, start a couple weeks earlier than you might’ve otherwise. This will not only give you time to worry about your clothes, but also make the cleaning process less stressful.

2. Keep the clothes.

Come on, Lily—isn’t this post about getting rid of clothes? It is, but hear me out. This tip is for anyone looking to quit fast fashion and build a sustainable wardrobe.

It’s a common misconception that you need to get rid of all your fast fashion when you begin your sustainable fashion journey. If you like certain fast fashion pieces and wear them regularly, keep them.

Sustainable fashion isn’t really about what brands are in your wardrobe. It’s more about your mindset and habits. A person who buys fast fashion, but only buys what they need and makes their clothes last a long time, is way more sustainable than a person who buys excessively from sustainable brands.

Likewise, it’s more sustainable to keep your old fast fashion and wear it, than to get rid of it and buy new clothes from sustainable brands. I still regularly wear a couple old fast fashion pieces. That said, if you don’t really wear the clothes anymore (i.e. you haven’t worn it in the last 6 months), then you should consider getting rid of them.


Wearing an old fast fashion top from 2 years ago

3. Upcycle/mend older pieces.

If certain items are no longer your style, or have some sort of defect (like a tear), see if you can modify them. This could be a fun creative project!

Some ideas for upcycling are:

Otherwise, if your item has a tear or other problem, see if you can fix it. You don’t need a sewing machine or fancy skills to patch things up—just a needle and thread will do for most rips (and some matching fabric if it’s really bad). If your clothes are stained, try using baking soda and white vinegar.

4. Repurpose clothes in poor condition.

If your clothes are really damaged and not worth repairing, see if they can serve another purpose. This also applies to pieces that you won’t wear anymore, even if you could upcycle or mend them.

For example, I use old, holey socks as cleaning rags; they’re usually worn too thin, and mending them wouldn’t really help.

Here are some other ideas:

  • Turn old pants into cloth bags (my mom’s idea)
  • Make a blanket out of running t-shirts (there are also companies that do this for you)
  • Create a macrame shopping bag from an old t-shirt
  • Braid a rug from old clothing
  • Cut the item into strips and stuff a pillow that needs more fluff

shoe bag made from an old pair of pants
My mom made drawstring shoe bags from old clothes

5. Give select items to friends.

If you have something specific that you think a friend would like, ask them if they’d want it for free. Just make sure they would actually wear it, as I’ve definitely been gifted clothes I didn’t ultimately wear, and also gifted clothes that weren’t worn.

The goal is for someone to appreciate and use the clothing, not for the decluttering responsibility to be passed onto someone else. Don’t feel shy in asking whether your friend is absolutely positive they’d use the item.

6. Leave them outside for free (or post in FB groups).

You can also give clothes away to people you don’t know! One thing that’s been common in Boston recently is leaving free stuff by the sidewalk. I love this because it helps keep tons of usable stuff out of the trash. My roommates and I have done this for furniture, books, and household items, and people really do take things. (Just be careful of city guidelines to make sure you won’t get fined).

If leaving free things out isn’t common where you live, you might also check whether your city is on Bunz, a trading app. A friend recommended it to me, and it’s apparently a thriving community in Toronto. Similarly, there’s a site called Freecycle, which is an online forum to give things away.

You could also post your items on Facebook marketplace or local buy/sell groups for free. This can be a way to advertise free stuff left outside, but you can also keep the items inside and ask people to meet you to get it. One concern about giving things away is that people may take things they don’t really care for (and it gets thrown away in the end anyways)—by asking people to message you and set a time for pickup, you’re filtering out those who don’t really want the item. Similarly, you can set a really low price (just a few bucks) to dissuade people who just want free stuff. Then, when they show up, you can still give it away for free, if you want.

I want to add that you can post even really ratty clothing/textiles online. Some local artists may appreciate the scraps and use them in their work. As they say, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure 🙂

giving clothes away for free, post on FacebookExample of a FB post giving clothes away for free

7. Bring nicer items to a consignment shop.

On-trend clothing or pieces by well-known brands are good candidates for consignment shops. These stores only take what they think will sell, and pay you for those items. Unfortunately, their offers can be extremely lowball, and you usually can’t negotiate. I’ve gotten as little as $2 per piece before, and some of the items were still new.

Still, the convenience may outweigh the lower payout. It’s pretty easy to drop a bag of clothes off, come back a couple hours later, and get paid.

8. Sell clothes online.

If you want to make more money, you might also consider selling on an app like Poshmark, a secondhand clothing app. You list your items for free, but the app takes a 20% cut (minimum $3), and you must use their shipping labels. I’ve sold a handful of items there, but I don’t use it a ton, as buyers end up paying a significant amount more than sellers get paid. For example, If I sell an item for $10, the buyer pays $17 including shipping, and I only get $7.

I don’t think the app is worth it for cheaper items, but it can be for more expensive pieces. If you want to try Poshmark out, feel free to use my referral link. You’ll get $10 off your first purchase, if you ever need to buy something.

9. Compost clothes made from natural fibers.

If your clothes are made from natural materials, like cotton, hemp, linen, or silk, you can actually compost them. Just cut the clothing into small pieces and remove any buttons, zippers, or non-natural elements.

Keep in mind that this only works if the clothes are 100% natural, however. Don’t try to compost something that’s 70% cotton and 30% polyester, as polyester is a synthetic fiber. Also, if you use a residential composting service, make sure they accept textiles, as not all do.

10. Donate them to charity or thrift stores.

Why is donating your clothes so far down on the list? Sadly, only 20% of clothes donated to thrift stores is actually sold—the rest is trashed or sold to developing countries, where it puts local textile workers out of jobs. If you can get rid of your clothing through one of the earlier methods, it’s more likely to actually stay out of the trash.

Some clothing donation bins are also for-profit companies charading as charities. Take GAIA, for instance, which claims to be a charity, but has made millions of dollars selling donated clothes, and it’s unclear where that money has gone. It’s a similar story for Planet Aid.

I’m definitely not against donating, as there are many organizations that need clothing, such as homeless shelters and domestic violence shelters. Just be sure to research organizations thoroughly (local ones tend to be better), and please only donate clean clothes in good condition. These donation bins are not a place to unload unwanted, soiled, ratty pieces. This behavior actually harms charities, as they have to spend money and resources getting rid of the pieces in bad condition.

thrift store in boston

11. Recycle or trade-in pieces.

This is also low on the list for similar reasons as donating. Unfortunately, a lot of textile recycling programs don’t actually work well.

For instance, H&M has a recycling program that claims to “close the loop”—to take old clothes and recycle them into new ones. 60% of the clothing is resold, and most of the rest is downcycled into cleaning cloths and insulation. Only 5-10% of the textiles are recycled into new clothing. This is because recycled fibers are weakened, so you still need at least 80% new fibers to create a piece of clothing.

And while H&M’s recycling program might actually give new life to some pieces, keep in mind that much of the clothing is resold to developing countries, and a lot of it is thrown away once it gets there.

Also remember that H&M is a fast fashion company. The recycling program could be a way to justify their overproduction, and to make customers feel better about overconsuming—after all, you can just recycle clothes you don’t want, and get 15% off a new purchase.

If you’re consuming clothing responsibly though, and don’t have other ways to get rid of old clothes, I think recycling programs can be a okay option. There’s at least a chance that it won’t get thrown away, unlike actually just throwing your clothes in the trash.

Some other recycling and trade-in programs include:

* Note that some programs are currently suspended due to the pandemic. Call ahead to make sure these programs are still accepting items. 

Final Thoughts

I hope this post gave you some ideas of ways to declutter your closet in a sustainable way. While some methods are more work and time than others, they tend to offer more reassurance that your clothes don’t actually end up in the trash.

Writing this post also reminded me how important it is to buy less clothes. If we only buy what we really want and will wear, there’s less need to declutter, and less work all around 🙂

Let me know if you have more tips for responsibly getting rid of clothes, and best of luck cleaning out your closet!

Other posts you may enjoy:

7 Common Misconceptions About Sustainable Fashion
Sustainable or Greenwashing? How to Evaluate Fashion Brands
Is Everlane *Actually* Ethical and Sustainable?

And if you want to see what it’s like to rescue stuff from dumpsters, check out my latest dumpster diving vlog + haul:

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2 Comments

  • Nina | Lemons and Luggage August 19, 2020 at 9:15 am

    These are some great tips! I definitely need to declutter because I am planning to move soon, and I wouldn’t want to do it last minute or just leave things here.

    I think leaving clothes on the sidewalk is a great idea in some places. Here, I know a lot of people, especially Roma, live off of what they find and resell (or reuse) so leaving things next to dumpsters can be a good way to get rid of things but also help out someone else.

    And I fully agree about researching before donating. I know that here a lot of refugee organizations say they don’t need clothes anymore because they can’t sort through all of them. But there are individuals that work independently of an organization who say they still need a lot because the refugees don’t actually have anything. With all the bureaucracy in bigger organizations, you end up donating without it actually doing anything while the people in need still don’t get what they need. So I think finding out about trustworthy individuals who pass on donated items directly might be the best option.

    • Lily August 19, 2020 at 4:11 pm

      That’s a great tip for finding trustworthy places to donate! There does seem to be a lot of disconnect when it comes to larger organizations, and it’s sad to hear that they get so much stuff, but the people who need it don’t have anything. I hope you have a smooth move, can’t wait to see where you end up!

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    About Me

    I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it). I also try to advocate for the planet & its people.
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