What do you do with old clothes?

Let’s back up.

Do you wear your clothes long enough for them to be considered “old”?

With the rise of fast fashion, the life cycle of our apparel has shortened. Naturally, consumers are more willing to get rid of cheaper items than more expensive ones. As clothing becomes cheaper and cheaper, its quality and its value diminishes. These two factors contribute to the fact that between 1999 and 2009, the volume of textile trash rose by 40 percent.

These days, we wear our clothes an average of seven times before tossing them, according to Elizabeth L. Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. Anyone who shops at secondhand stores knows the thrill of finding an item new with tags, but unworn items shouldn’t be ending up in consignment stores in the first place.

4 R's of Sustainable Fashion

You might be thinking, at least it was donated. It could have ended up in a landfill! You have a point: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that textile waste occupies nearly 5% of all landfill space. About 10.5 million tons of Americans’ used clothing go into landfills each year — and depending on the fabrics used and the soil they end up in, some items will take hundreds of years to break down, all the while potentially releasing harmful chemicals.

Yes, donation is certainly preferable. However, the amount of clothing currently donated far outweighs the demand for secondhand clothes. Charities such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army can only sell 10 to 20 percent of donations in their stores. The rest are sold to for-profit recycling companies to be recycled or repurposed. This process is still far better than clothing going into landfills, but it shouldn’t be used as a reason to be careless with your clothing.

Clothing should never end up in landfills, but recycling clothing should be viewed as the conscious consumer’s last resort. Reduce, Rewear, and Repurpose your clothing. Then, when all else has failed and your clothing has lived a long and happy life, Recycle.

Here are the 4 R’s all conscious consumers should be aware of, and most importantly, what order they go in. (Hint: recycle comes last!)

1) Reduce

This might be the least sexy of the 4 R’s of Sustainable Fashion, but it is arguably the most important: reduce what you buy. Being a conscious consumer from the start is the best way to reduce the environmental impact of your fashion choices.

Reducing what you buy could mean something like taking Remake’s #NoNewClothes challenge, or it might just mean thinking critically before making a purchase.

A necessary reminder for fashion lovers and bargain hunters: Just because something is on sale doesn’t mean you need it. Today, Americans buy five times more clothing than they did in 1980. Don’t give in to shopping every deal or jumping on every trend. Instead, slow down on the fast fashion and ask yourself:

  • Is this item high quality? There’s no reason to waste money on clothing that will fall apart after one wear. Invest in quality pieces that will become staples in your wardrobe.
  • Is this item my style? Spending money on every fleeting trend will leave your closet full of clothing that doesn’t fit your personality and that you won’t feel comfortable wearing.
  • Will I wear this item frequently? If you think the item is something you’re going to wear once for an IG snap and then toss, it’s best not to buy it in the first place.

2) Rewear

Stop thinking of being an “outfit repeater” as a bad thing. It’s not a good use of your money or of environmental resources to discard clothing that’s still in great condition. Quality items should be worn far beyond the average seven times before requiring an update.

If you’re only buying high quality items that you love, then rewearing will be easy! Mix and match within your wardrobe to create new looks. Follow cleaning instructions, treat stains, and repair items so your purchases withstand the test of time. If you’re in need of a statement piece for an event, look to a friend’s closet instead of purchasing something brand new. Keep in mind that the average life expectancy for a piece of clothing is three years, not one Instagram post.

3) Repurpose

Now that you’ve bought items that you love and you’ve worn them until they were beyond repair, don’t jump straight ahead to recycling. Rather, try to get creative with your closet.

Hop onto Pinterest, TikTok, or YouTube, and you’ll have a world of DIY how-to’s at your fingertips. You can crop a t-shirt you’re no longer excited about, turn your torn jeans into a tote, or tie-dye sweatpants to cover a stain. Whatever your skill level, there are easy ways to repurpose many closet staples!

Dish rags, knotted rugs, and quilts are just a handful of domestic items that can be made from tired, overworn clothing.

4) Recycle

Before the final step of recycling an item, there are a few more options to ensure you are giving your clothing its best chance for a new life outside of a landfill.

Maybe your style changed, size changed, or you really feel you’ve gotten your use out of a quality piece. Consider reselling to another conscious consumer. You can sell used clothing through sites like Depop or Poshmark to be sure your item is going to another fashion-lover, not being broken down for scraps before its time. Plus, you can make a little extra cash!

Another way to ensure your clothing finds a good home is to pass it on to a friend or family member. If you’re making room in your closet for new items, consider a clothing swap. This can be one of the best ways to let go of an item that you love but never wear, or something that no longer works with your lifestyle.

If you’d rather donate clothing, do your research into what your local organizations do with donations. Be sure you’re donating the type of clothing they need and following all instructions regarding cleanliness and quality. Remember,  “donating” unusable items is really dropping off your problem on a charity’s doorstep, and this will increase the likelihood of these fabrics ending up in landfills.

For items that are beyond rewearing, there are charities and organizations that will recycle textiles for you. If you are unsure where to recycle, SMART, a clothing recycling trade group, can help you find resources for recycling in your area.

Every clothing item has a lifespan. If you are a conscious consumer, you can ensure your closet lives a full life. Reduce your purchases to those you know you will love, rewear your clothing with creativity and care, and repurpose clothing to extend its use. By the time you reach the recycling stage, you’ll be saying goodbye to a well-loved friend, not a fast fashion trend.

Learn more about fashion’s impact on landfills

Related Stories

Join the Conversation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

We send out once-a-month updates packed with free sustainability resources, information on our advocacy campaigns, and the latest ethical fashion news.

Welcome Remaker! You’re now part of the movement.