Carting our clothes off to Goodwill or another charity thrift shop might make the average American feel like they’ve done a great deed for their community. But did you know that on average only about 10-20% of what is donated to US charity shops is resold? Your thoughts on where to donate old clothing might not be so accurate after all.

Most donated clothing is more likely to end up traveling around the world to be resold in African countries, or it will end up sold to a textile recycler who will break down the clothing to become rags. Or worse, the clothing could end up in landfills where synthetic, polyester clothing can take up to 200+ years to break down

When we spout statistics like this on Pre-Loved Podcast, listeners often ask me and my guests, “so are you saying I shouldn’t donate my clothes to charity?” and that is not necessarily what I’m advocating for. 

Charities like Goodwill are first and foremost social services nonprofits, not clothing recyclers. Their main mission is to provide job training to underserved members of their local communities, and their charity shops are the economic engine that makes this charity work possible. Career development is a great cause, and it’s exactly because I believe in that work that I don’t want to do those charity shops the disservice of hurting their margin. 

Where to Donate Old Clothing: Don't Dump It in Front of Goodwill

Thrift Shops are Closed Across the Country

Right now, charity shops across the country are closed to shoppers due to COVID-19, and though Goodwill policies vary by location, most are not accepting donations in any form. However, donations are piling up outside Goodwills across the country, from California to Texas to Michigan.

Let’s be abundantly clear: this is dumping not donating. 

First, these charity shops will have to pay to have these donations cleaned up from their parking lots and resources. Then the items will likely be destined for the landfill because they have been damaged by the elements. As it turns out, Goodwill is not always the best option for where to donate your old clothing.

Continuing with Goodwill as an example, their employment services are going to be incredibly valuable to communities as the country potentially plummets into a terrible recession. However, community members who are spring cleaning out of boredom at home are putting these non-profits at a huge disadvantage and limiting their ability to turn those donated items into resources. 

Where to Donate Old Clothing: Don't Dump It in Front of Goodwill

What should we do instead?

1. Take this time to get re-engaged with your closet. Instead of discarding clothing, can you get excited to style it in new and interesting ways? YouTube fashionistas like BJones Style and Wear I Live can be a great resource for playing in your closet and learning to love the things you own. 

2. Consider selling used clothing to make a little extra cash during this time. Apps like Depop are fully functional, and the buy-sell-trade shop Buffalo Exchange is accepting clothing for consignment by mail. (Please check the linked brands for the most current and up to date information.)

3. thredUP is still accepting its by-mail clean-out kits, but keep in mind processing times will be longer than normal — just like when thredUP received an infamous 80% spike in requests for their kits after the Marie Kondo Netflix special aired, we expect this situation to cause a boom. ThredUP also offers “Donation Kits,” where you donate rather than resell your clothes, and they have announced a partnership with Feeding America, in which ThredUp will give $15 to Feeding America to help with its Covid-19 response for every donation kit that is ordered. 

4. Make a gifting pile for friends and family members! If a friend commented that they really love a certain sweater, ask them if they’d like to have it before you get rid of it. 

5. Donate! And by this I mean monetary resources first. Use a website like Charity Watch to research the missions behind charity thrift shops, and if you can, donate money to help them get their already overburdened operations caught up. If you’re not sure where to donate your clothing, make some phone calls and do your research — it will pay off, for both your and the enivronment!

6. After that, if you’d like to make a donation pile of physical items, please keep them until after the charity shops give the okay that it is acceptable to donate again. When that time comes, look into what the charity shop is actually looking for — for example, some shops won’t take knives or electronics and just have to pay to dispose of these when you donate them.

7. Make your donation pile impeccably clean — no exceptions. Anyone who engages with the second-hand space has heard horror stories about items that turn up in donation piles soiled. It’s disrespectful, and certainly not a good deed. Clothing should always be clean, mended, and repaired. Clothing should be free of pet hair, lint, tissues, etc. Shoes should be donated in pairs tied together so they aren’t separated. 

8. Do you have clothing that isn’t up for sale or donation? You can still find a way to reuse things that are too worn to be repaired. Consider reusing clothing as rags or paper towel replacements, or use them as stuffing in pillows, pet toys, or dog beds. 

9. If you’ve exhausted all these other options and must recycle your clothing, please do so responsibly and research the charity shop’s practices and policies first. Some charity shops like Savers or Oxfam have a recycling program, and you can learn how they’d like to come by these items. There are also recycling programs like PlanetAID and USAgain that have donation bins — but again, please wait until these re-open to donate. If you don’t recognize any of these names in your area, head to SMART, which is a clothing recycling trade group that could help you find or start recycling resources in your area.

10. Read and learn more! For more expansive information on this topic, I highly recommend the book The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth Cline. 

Please remember that the clothing you own is your responsibility, as is figuring out where to donate old clothing. The bottom line is this: don’t ever use the charity bin as your trash can, but especially not now when resources are stretched as thin as everyone else’s. 

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Images: Unsplash, Mike Mozart/Flickr

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