What to Do With Old Clothes

woman looking at clothes in a closet

 Mariana Alija / Getty Images

Purging my wardrobe is always a satisfying feeling, but the real work comes after, when I have to figure out what to do with the remaining bags and boxes of stuff. Clothes that are in good condition can easily be donated to a thrift store, given away in a clothing swap, or sold online, but it's the clothes in poor condition that always stump me. Stained, stretched, smelly and torn, they cannot be donated, but throwing them in the trash fills me with guilt. Are there other options besides the landfill?

The short answer is yes, but the long answer is considerably more complicated.

While looking into this issue, I've discovered that there are some decent options for textile recycling, but the unfortunate reality is that it's a largely undeveloped industry. Using recycled or upcycled fabric has yet to become standard practice in clothing manufacturing, so there has never been a push for companies to collect it, nor to make old textile recycling easily accessible. (There are some promising efforts underway, such as this initiative by Evrnu.) In other words, if you want to repurpose or recycle your old clothing, you'll have to work for it.

This, of course, is unfortunate because the more inaccessible something is, the less inclined people are to pursue it. That's why so much of what we buy ends up in landfill; it's too much work to bother recycling it. But let's hope that you're a dedicated TreeHugger who wants to put in that extra effort! If you are (of course you are!), then here are some ways to go about it.

1. Can It Be Repaired?

Don't give up so fast! Play around with different stain removers and washing techniques to see if you can get the stubborn marks out. Contact a seamstress or tailor to repair tears, make adjustments, or add patches. You'll be surprised at the magic these skilled professionals can work, and how affordable it is. Maybe your city has a Repair Café or a traveling Repairathon (like this one in Toronto). Check these out and learn how to fix your own clothes.

2. Call Your Local Thrift Stores

Find out what their policies are for clothes in poor condition. They likely have an agreement with a recycling company to hand off non-sellable clothing, and might be willing to take a bag off your hands that does not require sorting.

3. Contact the Manufacturer

Some brands have begun accepting back their own worn clothing. This tends to be more common among outdoor gear retailers, such as Patagonia, REI, and The North Face, although a few other fashion brands offer it as well, including H&M;, Levi's, Eileen Fisher.

4. Send It Somewhere Useful

The Blue Jeans Go Green program will accept your old denim via mail and turn it into insulation. Alternatively, you can drop it off at J.Crew, Madewell, rag and bone, and FRAME stores, all of which will give you a discount off a new pair of jeans. You can also print off a shipping label from Community Recycling and ship your old clothes in a box right from your doorstep.

Note: Be aware that many donation bins are labeled 'clothing recycling' when what they really mean is 'clothing donation.' It drives me crazy when organizations call themselves recyclers, when in reality they only want gently-used items in good condition. There's a big difference.

5. Upcycle the Fabric Yourself

There are countless DIY projects you can do with old clothes. I've compiled ideas for what to do with old jeans and old sweaters, but T-shirts are incredibly versatile as well. Turn them into sleeveless workout tops, halter tops, tote bags, quilts, pet bedding, and cleaning rags.

6. Try Composting

If you have all-natural cloth, such as cotton, wool, silk, cashmere, or linen, and have not used it to soak up any harmful liquids, then you can try composting it. Here's a guide to doing it, via 1 Million Women. Must have patience!

While these steps are all worth pursuing, it would be naive to assume they can solve our planet's enormous trash problem. What is needed more than wide-scale recycling is less consumption. There needs to be a shift to buying less and buying better, focusing less on 'good deals' and more on what will last and what can be repaired. When shopping for future items, support those few companies that are incorporating recycled material into their goods, since this is an effort worthy of support.