August 2009 / Links updated 2013 CLOTHES DISPOSAL
Getting rid of last year's fashions responsibly
ONE-MINUTE VERSION: Thanks to fast fashion, the average American now discards 68 pounds of clothing a year, wasting energy, water and landfill space. Find out the best ways to dispose of your old clothes without resorting to the trash.
First, there was fast food. Then came fast fashion—clothes so cheap and appealing, they make our wardrobes obese.
With fast fashion, the latest styles are always available because the manufacturing process is so, well, fast. From the time a new look appears on a celeb to the time an affordable version appears at the mall is hardly the blink of an eye.
Keeping up demands that we shop more than ever, leading to seriously overstuffed wardrobes. We can't accommodate the excess so we throw it away—an average of 68 pounds' worth per person annually.
Let's put aside the question of how not to buy so much in the first place and address the predicament we're already in: 68 pounds to discard this year.
Forget the garbage. Textiles already comprise four percent of the nation's solid waste stream, and the absolute amount is growing. Landfill space is expensive and hard to find.
Besides, the clothing can be used again in one form or another. Discarding would be a waste, not just of the material itself, but of the water and energy that went into the manufacturing. No minor thing, that. Fresh water is a dwindling resource and energy use contributes to global warming, the biggest environmental problem of our times.
Instead, let's get the full benefit of these resources by using the fabrics to death. Here's how to play your part:
Resell. If your old clothes are stylish and in top condition, sell them at your neighborhood vintage shop or Buffalo Exchange, a national used clothing chain in more than 10 states. Find out what experiences others have had with different shops on Yelp. You can also resell on ebay.
Swap. Bring your duds to a public "clothes swap" and pick up good stuff from someone else. Most swaps are free or charge just a nominal fee. Find a swap in your area or organize one of your own just for friends.
Donate. Give your cast-offs to a good cause. Some organizations make it exceptionally easy. For instance, the Vietnam Veterans of America does pick-ups in 30 states. Visit the organization's website to look up the phone number (different for each location) or schedule a pick-up online.
The Salvation Army also has a pick-up service, though asks that you consider drop-off to one of its more than 2,300 centers if possible. Call 1-800-SA-TRUCK to schedule the pick-up or find the nearest drop-off location on the group's website.
Coincidentally, Goodwill also has some 2,300 drop-off locations.
Soles4Souls accepts shoes by mail and at drop-off centers around the country.
Dress for Success accepts women's professional attire at affiliate locations around the country and world. To make a donation, find your local affiliate on the Dress for Success website.
Wherever you live, chances are, there are local options, too. In my home city of New York, for instance, there's a great group called Housing Works, which helps homeless people in the city with AIDS/HIV. You might also want to check your school, church, temple or other religious or community group. Many sponsor annual clothing drives.
When you donate, be sure to find out first what condition the clothing must be in. Assume at a minimum it should be clean.
By the way, you can take a tax deduction for your donation. Generally, you assess the value yourself and the organization provides a receipt confirming that the contribution was made. For guidance on how much donations of clothing and accessories are worth, see the Salvation Army or Goodwill valuation guide.
Hand down. Use the tried-and-true method for getting rid of outgrown children's clothing: hand it down to younger kids.
Make freely available. Sign up with freecycle (for free of course) and list the clothes you're interested in unloading. If someone wants them, they'll let you know.
Recycle. If your clothes are really past their prime, see if there's a textile recycler in your area who will take them. In New York City, where textiles make up nearly six percent of the waste stream, there is a terrific company called Wearable Collections that collects clothing in bins it puts in your apartment building and drop-off booths at many of the city's greenmarkets. Stains are ok, but clothes need to be clean. Once collected, the garments are sorted and those with a second life in them are sent to secondhand markets in Latin America and Eastern Europe. Others are sent to facilities where they become polishing cloths and rags. Clothes that can't even make it as rags go to facilities that turn them into fibers for other products.
Take your pick, but one way or the other, try to keep your old clothes in circulation.
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.
Doing pick-ups and drop-offs right. In bulk, please! Wait till you have at least a large bagful. Otherwise, you'll eat up the energy savings from your good deed in fuel spent on transportation.
Take-back programs. Kudos to Nike, which recycles athletic shoes of any make. The footwear is ground up and transformed into such things as track surfaces, interlocking gym flooring tiles and playground surfacing.
Another all-star is Patagonia, which takes back and recycles many of its own clothing products, as well as Polartec products from any company. It's fine if your returned clothes are falling apart at the seams as long as they're clean.
Where clothes donations go. Forty to 75 percent of used clothes donated to charitable organizations do not actually make it into the organizations' thrift shops here in America. Instead they are sold to global traders, who sell them in turn to vendors in less-developed countries such as Zambia, Nigeria, Haiti and Guatemala. In these places, used clothes from the West often constitute a large share of the national wardrobe.
Some people have argued that the influx is detrimental to local textile and clothing industries, especially in Africa. However, a 2005 study by Oxfam concludes that insufficient infrastructure and competition from increasingly inexpensive imports from Asia of new clothes are the real problems. The study also notes that the secondhand trade supports hundreds of thousands of jobs in developing countries.
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Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. In between issues of This Green Life, she muses aloud on green issues at thisgreenblog.com.