In my corner of the world, the birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming, the rain is sprinkling, the sunlight lingers just a little bit longer each evening, and it’s spring — which means it’s time for sustainable spring cleaning.

While you might think that bagging up all your unwanted or damaged clothes and dropping them off at a local thrift store is the way to go, it’s time to think again. Only about one-third of donated clothes are actually resold, while the majority of textiles make their way to different countries — and our trash shouldn’t become someone else’s problem. (To learn more about what happens to donated clothing, check out this webinar we had with Adam Minter, author of Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale)

Only about one-third of donated clothes are actually resold, while the majority of textiles make their way to different countries — and our trash shouldn’t become someone else’s problem.

Not sure what to do with all those unwanted duds if donation isn’t a great option? Don’t worry, we’ve got you. Here is your guide to sustainable spring cleaning this season!

Closet Inventory: What do you already have?

Unless you’re amazingly organized and methodically store or rotate your clothing, there are nooks and crannies in your closet and dresser that inevitably swallow up items over time. The only way to find them? Look!

Whether you pull all of your clothes out and pile them on your floor Marie Kondo-style, or go through each drawer or shelf individually, a sustainable spring clean includes an inventory of what you already own. After all, there’s nothing more sustainable than using what you already have instead of purchasing something new.

Repair: Finally getting around to some mending

As you go through your clothes, you may find a few items that have gone unworn for months because they need to be mended. You know you can mend them, or have the ability to find out how to mend them, but you just haven’t gotten around to it.

Now’s your chance! A sustainable spring clean includes repairing items that you still love, but that need a new button, a seam sewn, or a patch affixed.

My sustainable spring clean included finally getting around to mending some ripped jeans. I’d been meaning to experiment with the sashiko method of jean repair, but I’d only gotten so far as putting my ripped jeans in a pile in my closet and frequently revisiting them with the thought, “Yes, I do need to repair you someday,” before putting them back in the pile.

Sashiko mending method

Finally, I ordered some sashiko needles and thread, looked at tips from a tutorial, got out my sewing scissors, and went for it. The result? Funky, repaired jeans! They have a unique (and very new-to-my-wardrobe) aesthetic. I look forward to how I’ll incorporate them into my wardrobe, and tucking this new repair technique in my back pocket for future mends.

Technical Repair: What to do if you can’t fix it?

As you go through your clothes that need mending, you may find an item that requires a repair or alteration that you just can’t do with your trusty needle and thread. You love this item, though, and know that if it’s fixed, you’ll wear it for many more years.

Here are a few options for this situation:

  • Check out local forums (Buy Nothing, neighborhood Facebook groups) to see if any kind-hearted neighbor has the skills and resources to mend or alter your item. You might be surprised at the generosity of your local community!
  • Do an Internet search for local alterationists. Find an alterationist nearby that matches your budget, and then let the expert do the work. It may seem expensive, but if you calculate what a brand new item would cost you, it will likely be worth the investment.
  • Before taking it to an alterationist, check to see if the brand offers a repair program for their products. I currently have a down vest visiting the Patagonia Worn Wear facility, waiting to be repaired. It will take a few months for them to repair and return my item (this is a popular service!), but for only $5 for shipping, I can certainly wait for the manufacturer to professionally repair this item.

Clothing Swap: Host, find, or keep collecting!

Your closet inventory uncovers some items that are still in great shape, but just don’t strike your fancy any more. They need a new set of adventures with a new wearer — they need a clothing swap!

I participated in my last clothing swap weeks before things got serious with social distancing in 2020. My bag of clothes-to-be-swapped has grown throughout the pandemic, and now is filled with over a year’s worth of clothes that need a new home. Where you live, it may already be safe to have a clothing swap (or to have one with protective measures such as masks and hand sanitizer), or you may need to keep collecting your items waiting for the glorious day when we can clothing-swap again.

When you’re ready to swap, you might find an existing swap in your neighborhood through a trusty internet search, though it’s likely that you may need to organize a swap. Don’t worry — hosting a swap is easy! Here are some helpful suggestions and tips for hosting.

From my experience, you can have a successful swap with as little as two other people — it doesn’t have to be a large or elaborate event. Clothing swaps can range from huge events in community spaces, to small gatherings with a few friends in a living room. That’s the beauty of clothing swaps — you can make it what you want it to be.

Deep Corners: What can I do with my wedding dress and High School Letterman’s Jacket?

I used to experience strong tension between sentimentality and sustainability, but the more I practice sustainability, the lighter this tension becomes, and the easier it is for me to treat clothes as items meant to be used and passed along — not stored in boxes to gather dust.

As you spring clean, perhaps you come across such an item (a bridesmaid’s dress, a dance recital costume, or some other wear-one-time outfit). These items aren’t your run-of-the-mill items to bring to a clothing swap or donate to a consignment shop, so what do you do with them?

Find an organization specializing in your item

  • About three years after my wedding, and a few half-hearted attempts to sell my dress or have friends borrow it, I decided it was time to let another bride have the opportunity to declare her undying love in my beautiful dress. Conveniently for me, a pre-loved wedding dress shop is just a five-minute drive from my house. I drove my dress over, hopped out of the car, filled out some brief paperwork, and left my dress to patiently wait for its next bride.

Utilize your community

  • I often glanced at my high school letterman’s jacket when I searched through our coat closet. It hung on the end of the row — a heavy, Columbia blue and white leather jacket, just staring at me, asking “What are you ever going to do with me?” I couldn’t seem to just donate it to a conventional consignment shop, and didn’t know what to do with it. Through some fellow low-waste folks, I got the idea to reach out to my alma mater — did they have any ideas about how someone could reuse my jacket? Fast forward a few months. Through various suggestions and connections, including Buy Nothing on Facebook, I was dropping my jacket off to the mom of a graduating senior. She was going to have the jacket cleaned and put on new patches for her daughter as a graduation gift. Reuse for the mega-win!

Unwearable clothes: Are they really garbage?

As you come to the end of your spring clean, you face a small pile of clothes, shoes, and accessories that cannot and should not be worn again. Unrepairable holes, permanent stains, worn-through soles, etc. If you can’t repurpose them at home or the brand doesn’t have a recycling/repair program, there is still hope that the materials can be used instead of going straight into the landfill.

According to Simply Recycling, only 5% of textiles cannot be reused or recycled (for example, textiles with contaminated materials on them). The other 95% of textiles can be repurposed in markets home or abroad. So instead of putting these damaged items into your garbage, check out local textile recycling options in your community.

Let’s keep textiles out of the landfill by exploring all possible ways to reuse and recycle.

There, you did it! Your clothes are sorted, mended, rescued, recycled, or ready-to-be-swapped. Your wardrobe is lighter and more sustainable, and you are ready to step out and enjoy new opportunities of this season!

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