Happy first blog post of the new year! With things starting afresh, it seemed appropriate to make my first post this year about starting fresh, too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how the average American discards 81 pounds of clothing each year. When it comes time to refresh our wardrobes, what is the best way to handle the inevitable textile waste that will result?
I am no stranger to closet clean-outs. As a style blogger, I have to balance staying true to my values of mindful style while being novel enough to keep people’s interest while managing how much clothing I accept as part of brand partnerships.
The reality is, while I do think I have less clothing than the average person, I also consume more clothing than someone who capsule wardrobes entirely offline.
Today I’m going to give some insight into how I handle the closet clean-out process – I hope it gives some more transparency into my wardrobe, and also helps anyone out there who is wondering how to handle their next closet clean out.
Before I buy
The first step in managing the end-of-life of my clothes is what I do before I purchase them or accept a brand partnership.
“Precycling” is the practice of reducing waste by attempting to avoid items that will generate it. When I’m thinking of adding clothing to my wardrobe, I ask myself a few questions:
- What need does this item fulfill in my wardrobe?
- Is this a trend item or staple? There is no right or wrong answer, but it is important to have a realistic view on the role something will play in my wardrobe.
- What’s my mindset right now? Am I shopping to fill an emotional need that could be addressed another way?
It has become so easy to buy things without thinking. One reason why I think this is the case (beyond the ease of online shopping) is because we’ve been led to believe we can always resell an item – especially with the rise of Poshmark, ThredUp and Depop. I wonder sometimes if those sites have actually made clothing feel more disposable to us, because we think we can so easily sell our cast-offs to someone else. But tell that to the five bags of clothing I now have to donate because I was never able to resell them.
Deciding the best method for discarding used clothing
Now, I am not perfect, so even with this precycling process I still end up with clothing I no longer wear – we all do!
There are several options for discarding clothing, and that generally depends on a few things:
- The condition of the clothing;
- The time you have available to you;
- The resources in your area.
When it comes to my wardrobe, the methods I use the most are donation and resale.
I choose to donate clothes when I don’t have a lot of time on my hands and the pieces are in good condition. I also donate items that may not totally be in style any more, because what I think is in style could be different from what other people think is in style.
Clothing that is in poor condition should never be donated. If the condition is too poor for you to wear it, it is also too poor for anyone else to wear it. The only exception to this is if the piece needs some minor repairs that you personally don’t wish to take on, such as loose buttons, torn seams, and so on. Items that are stretched or stained or otherwise beyond repair should simply be discarded.
A drawback with donation is that even when donating good quality items, there is simply so much secondhand clothing on the market that your clothes may be discarded or shipped to the global south, where secondhand clothing from Western countries clogs local markets and landfills.
But what about recycling those items? I don’t often go that route, for a few reasons.
You may be able to find recycling programs in your municipality or programs from private companies. For example, Madewell stores have a denim takeback program, where they turn denim into housing insulation. Brass Clothing offers a clean-out program where you can send clothing to be recycled in return for Brass credit. Patagonia accepts their gently used clothing back for resale (much better than recycling!).
But bear in mind, the clothes you send to be recycled will likely end up discarded. According to the EPA, the recycling rate for all textiles was 14.7 percent in 2018. Within this figure, the EPA estimated that the recycling rate for textiles in clothing and footwear was 13 percent. And, if you want those clothes to be recycled into new clothes (instead of insulation, for example), the percentage is even less – only 1% of clothing is recycled into new clothes.
That’s because most of our clothing is made of blends, which makes them hard to separate so they can be effectively recycled. Sorting textiles into different fibers and material types must be done by hand, which is labor-intensive and requires a skilled workforce. As for the technology to do so – it simply doesn’t exist yet.
To me, recycling clothing is only marginally better than just discarding it, but I think it depends on the time you have available to you to research the best resources in your area.
Clothing swapping is one of my favorite methods for passing along clothes I no longer wear – theoretically. While I sometimes give clothing I no longer wear to friends or family if they are interested, I don’t do swaps often since there aren’t many people in my life who wear the same size as me.
But, if your neighborhood has a local No-Buy group or Clothing Swap group, this is a great way to refresh your wardrobe. I also sometimes give pieces away on my Instagram stories.
Consignment generally combines the ease of donation and the financial benefit of resale, though it can be a bit more time consuming than donating. I personally don’t consign many of my clothes, because many consignment stores or websites are very particular about the brands and styles they accept, and I wear a lot of independent, sustainable brands that they may not be familiar with. Additionally, in the area where I live, consignment stores focus on upscale and luxury brands, which I don’t have a lot of in my closet. I think this is more of a “me” problem than a problem with consignment in general, though.
I do sometimes consign with ThredUp, but they pay you very little for the clothing they are able to sell.
If you wear a lot of well-known brands and dabble in luxury clothing, consignment is a great way to refresh your wardrobe. Or, if you are okay with the loss you’ll take using ThredUp, they are a very simple way to consign clothing.
I resell the best quality pieces I no longer wear on Poshmark, either from well-known brands or brands with cult followings. I like the ease of their system, even if they do take a high commission.
I would probably look to resell more clothing if I had a more flexible work schedule and had the time available, since I do think this is the best way to ensure your clothing goes to a good home. But ultimately, I have to be realistic about the time I have available and what I can reasonably resell.
That said, resale still has a lot of drawbacks. Trends are moving faster than ever, and I have so many items that I listed for sale that never even received one offer. Shoppers want a deal on secondhand clothing, while sellers have been led to believe they can make their money back. The hard truth is that it is very unlikely that you will make your money back, and nobody thinks your clothes are worth as much as you do. Again, let’s not forget my five bags of clothing that nobody wants. Resale can be a frustrating process.
And, of course, there is the time investment that is required to photograph items for sale and reply to inquiries on any of these resale sites. Is all that time worth it, in the end? Usually, it’s not. I’ve done a lot of work in the past for things that ended up being a $7 sale. So, I’ve learned it is far better to do the work upfront, by thinking carefully about a piece of clothing before I even bring it into my house. That is much easier than all of that steaming and photographing and trips to the post office.
In the end…
I could talk about this for thousands of more words, but I think I’ll leave things here. I hope this offered some helpful food for thought, and shed some light onto how I handle end-of-life for my clothes. Feel free to ask any questions you may have about my thought process on the methods I use!
If you found this interesting, I’ll follow up with another post on how I decide what to keep and what to discard when I clean out my closet.2