Recycling – clothes recycling in particular – has been on my mind recently. We’re moving out of our house of 15 years and it’s shocking to visualize the accumulated mountain of stuff, including piles of unwanted clothes.
Instead of throwing everything in the dumpster, I’ve been researching ways to dispose responsibly and have learned that there’s a place for even the most soiled, unwearable clothing items. While we all know about plastics and metal recycling, textile and clothes recycling can be just as environmentally beneficial by diverting reusable items from the landfill or incinerator.
That said, clothes recycling, like other types of recycling, has its problems and pitfalls, so it’s important to know how to recycle right!
Table of Contents
- Why the Need for Clothes Recycling?
- Does Clothes Recycling Work?
- Clothes in Good Condition
- Soiled, Unwearable Clothing
- Sell Your Threads
- Upcycle and Re-Purpose
Why the Need for Clothes Recycling?
The Growth of Cheap, Fast Fashion
Americans love clothes … I love clothes! With a family of five, we’ve amassed an enormous quantity of clothing over the years. We’re not unique: According to a recent McKinsey report, consumers “keep clothing items about half as long as they did 15 years ago,” treating cheap clothes as virtually disposable items. In fact, the amount of clothing purchased each year from 2000 – 2014 increased by 60%!
Where Does it All Go?
Most of the clothing we’re done with either gets incinerated or landfilled. How much is that? According to the EPA, it’s a lot: In 2015, 16 millions tons of textiles were thrown out, but only 2.45 million tons (15%) were recycled.
The World Resources Institute put together this eye-opening info-graphic showing how much clothing we waste.
Does Clothes Recycling Work?
Clothing’s Carbon Footprint
Clothing’s environmental impact extends beyond proper disposal. A topic for a future post, but the carbon footprint of making, transporting, selling, and disposing of clothing is significant. A recent report concludes that the apparel industry’s carbon impact is greater than the airline industry’s!
Think Before You Buy
By donating, reselling, or disposing of textiles with reputable private recycling companies, clothes recycling is definitely better than simply throwing away unwanted items. Still, the main thing we all can do is consume less.
Think before you buy: Do you really need that shirt, even if it’s on sale? Or what about those pants you’re eyeing online that look just like the three you have at home? A quick inventory of your closet will help curb those impulse buys.
A new and promising way of “owning” clothes is to sign up for a clothing subscription service. For those special or dressy events where you buy and wear an item once, renting an outfit is the perfect solution. I love Rent the Runway, but there are several subscription fashion services to suit every need.
For the clothing that you already have and need to shed, here are some “green” ways to dispose of them responsibly.
Clothes in Good Condition
The best way to recycle clothes that are in good, clean condition is to donate them. Here are some places to bring those unwanted items.
Places of worship typically have thrift shops that accept donations.
Local community centers, such as homeless shelters and thrift stores.
Zero Waste Days are usually organized by a municipality. They bring together in one location a variety of organizations that take donations, including clothing. Residents drive up and drop off their donations. So convenient!
Charitable organizations that accept gently used clothing include:
Retail Clothing Companies
- Levi Strauss accepts denim from any brand. You’ll receive a 20% discount off a single item when you bring your denim in for recycling.
- Eileen Fisher RENEW takeback program accepts old Eileen Fisher clothing. Bring clothes to any Eileen Fisher store and receive a $5 gift card per item. EF either finds them a new home or turns them into entirely new designs.
- North Face Clothes the Loop program accepts any clothing or shoe brand.
- Patagonia’s Worn Wear program accepts used Patagonia clothing in good condition. You’ll get a credit for future Patagonia purchases.
- American Eagle Outfitters has two initiatives for garment collection and recycling: 1) a bra give-back program in all stores, where you’ll receive 15% off future bra purchases, and 2) “Blue Jeans Go Green” to collect jeans in AE stores. You’ll get $10 off new AE jeans. Jeans collected through this program are turned into home insulation.
- Brides Across America accepts donations for military brides.
- Operation Prom for dresses and tuxedos.
- Dress for Success accepts women’s workwear.
Donation Town. A nationwide directory of charities that accept clothing donations.
Earth911. Search the directory by zip code.
New York State residents: NY State Association for Reduction, Reuse & Recycling has a searchable directory of NY organizations.
Soiled, Unwearable Clothing
What about those torn, stained, unwearable clothes? This is where clothes recycling with a reputable organization can be a good option.
A Note about Clothes Recycling
Recycling Companies and Drop Boxes
You may have spotted clothes recycling drop boxes in your community. It seems like a really convenient way to dispose of your unwearable clothes and have an organization re-purpose them into a useful product. Right? In some cases that’s true. I list some reputable organizations below, but it’s important to conduct your own background check since many of these companies engage in less than reputable practices.
- Goodwill accepts all textile donations, in any condition (except wet or contaminated with hazardous materials) so they can be reused or recycled into new products.
- TerraCycle Zero Waste Boxes allow you to recycle almost every type of waste. Collected fabrics are reused, upcycled, or recycled.
- H&M accepts any brand, any condition – even odd socks, worn-out T-shirts, and old sheets.
- Nike’s Regrind program grinds old shoes into sports courts and tracks.
- The Bra Recyclers‘ mission is to ignite a ‘Bravolution’ to divert bras from landfills. Mail-in or drop off items at designated locations.
Council for Textile Recycling. A non-profit devoted to raising awareness about clothes recycling. It includes a directory of clothing donation and recycling centers.
Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART). A trade association that includes resources about clothing recycling.
Sell Your Threads
Recycle your clothes and make some money in the process! Try your local consignment store or a national reseller.
- ThredUP accepts clean clothing from a wide variety of designers. They even send you a prepaid bag for your clothing!
- eBay. You do all the work – photography, listing, price-setting, and shipping – but you can keep most, if not all, the profits from your sales.
- Social media platforms. Check for local Facebook sales groups to join or try #shopmycloset on Instagram to accept offers on your goods.
Luxury/Designer Clothing and Accessories
- Poshmark connects selles with a community of over 60 million members. Submit item details and photos, and then set your price. Poshmark hosts virtual shopping parties to boost sales.
- TheRealReal is a leading luxury consignment store. After a virtual appointment with a Luxury Manager, who views your items for suitability, items are then shipped, free, to TheRealReal. TheRealReal does all the work photographing, setting the price, and listing items for sale.
- Vestiare Collective is the world’s leading platform to buy and sell authenticated pre-owned Luxury fashion. You provide information and photos on items that are then listed for consignment.
- What Goes Around Comes Around buys luxury apparel and accessories outright via check or store credit. (Credit includes a bonus of 20% more than cash payments.) They do not consign.
- Fashionphile sells mainly handbags, but also some accessories and jewelry. Submit items you’d like to sell and they’ll email you a price quote.
- Tradesy accepts a wide range of designer clothing, bags, shoes, and accessories. Submit item details and photos, and then set your price. Earnings on sales are based on sales volume.
- Vintage and handmade clothing. Etsy
- Children’s clothing. Kidizen is the site to go to for those clothes your kids have outgrown.
- Men’s clothing. Grailed specializes in higher-end men’s clothing.
Upcycle and Re-Purpose
If you’re trying to get rid of excess clothing, this isn’t the best solution, but those old clothes can be re-purposed into rags for all your cleaning needs!