Like a Kon Mari ninja, you mercilessly hacked your way through the jungle of your closet, downsizing at the forefront of your mission. Sparing only the items that sparked joy, you ruthlessly chucked your defeated adversaries into a shiny black garbage bag and swiftly dumped them on the curb (or at the Goodwill) and now you are glowing at your victory: a clean, minimalist closet that would make Marie Kondo proud. 

Your closet is clean, but the environment just got a lot dirtier. 

Downsizing is a growing trend as Netflix shows like Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and hashtags like #mimimalistwardrobe gain in popularity showing us ways to magically simplify our lives and minimize our problems. These purging techniques promise an organized life, a clean closet, and a fresh start. But the reality is that there is a very dark side to all of this optimistic downsizing. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 85 billion pounds of textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated each year. Read. That. Again. To give you a frame of reference, a city like New York sends 200 million pounds of clothing to the landfill every year, which is equivalent to more than 440 Statues of Liberty.

The idea that we equate “sustainability” and “eco-friendly” with minimalism is not only deceitful, it’s a recipe for disaster. 

Once those 85 billion pounds of clothing end up in landfills or are incinerated, they release toxic greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere contributing to landfills’ impact as the third-largest source of atmospheric methane on the planet. If the tossing trend continues at the current rate, more than 300 billion pounds of clothing will be landfilled by 2050 (this weighs more than ten times today’s global population)! 

The Dark Side of Downsizing to start a sustainable closet
Marie Kondo, author of “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”

Ok, but while downsizing I am recycling my items that no longer spark joy, you say.  Well, the reality is that less than one percent of old clothing goes on to be used to make new clothing, because “no commercially viable separation, sorting, and recycling technologies are available for many of the most popular materials” admits the H&M foundation (which uses greenwashing to make claims to its customers that the old clothing they collect at retail stores is being “recycled”).

“Recycling” clothing aims to take away our guilt, but perpetuates a dangerous cycle that takes advantage of consumers’ good intentions.

Ultimately, recycling diverts our attention from the truth of the matter, which is that we need to reduce our consumption in the first place, and find creative ways to give our clothes a second life.  

The only way to ensure your clothing will have a meaningful life is to purchase it with meaning in the first place, wear it for as long as you possibly can, and find a new purpose for it once you cannot or care not to wear it any longer. Purchase your apparel with the assumption that you are giving it it’s only life, and that after you are done with it, it will sit in a landfill, it will be burned into the atmosphere, or it will drift in the ocean, because that, in all actuality, is where it will end its life if you don’t repurpose it. 

Got a closet full of clothes that you simply aren’t going to wear, here’s what you can do!

Giving your closet an eco-makeover doesn’t mean starting from scratch with only sustainable brands. Like any new practice, you have to start with what you’ve got

Make that $$$ honey 

For clothes that are brand name, and still in good shape, there are a lot of resale and consignment sites that will give you cold hard cash for the clothes you are ready to part with while downsizing. Sites like Poshmark and Tradesy allow you to be the seller and merchandise your “closet” to sell to other buyers on the site. Prefer a smaller profit, but less work on your part? You can send your clothes in to sites like Material World. If you have quality luxury items you want to get the most credit for, consignment sites like TheRealReal will list your items for sale and send you cash or credit on the site once they sell. (This is a particularly useful option if you don’t want those items taking up space in your closet while you wait for them to sell).

The Dark Side of Downsizing to start a sustainable closet
Remake clothing swap at The Phluid Project in New York City

Share in style

After having done the work of a deep dive into your closet, you deserve to have some fun! A clothing swap is a chance to find loving homes for your unwanted items while sharing your style and discovering creative ways to reinterpret others’ style. You can wrangle a group of friends, coworkers, or other interest groups together in almost any sort of venue with some good music and refreshments to host a clothing swap— not much else is required! Ideally you want at least 10-20 participants (diverse sizes, styles, colors, and categories make it more fun!). Don’t have a group to swap with? Swaps are growing in popularity, and you can search for events in your area through resources like Global Fashion Exchange, Swap Society, and Remake’s event page.

Recycle, but for real

Recycling can still be done while downsizing, but it must be with a trusted source. You can check out local recycling resources like Grow NYC and Helpsy in NYC, or, national resources like earth911 (allows you to search by material, in this case “clothing”), American Textile Recycling Service, and Recycle Now. These recycling and donation resources will ensure your clothes are diverted from the landfill and given another purpose — either sold to thrift stores, donated to those in need, or turned into rags for industrial use or things like stuffing and insulation. A lot of items are best recycled and repurposed by specialists. Bras can be given a new life with The Bra Recyclers, Bras for a Cause, or Free the Girls which all support survivors — either of sexual trafficking, breast cancer, or homelessness. No longer need that power suit and want to empower other women with it? Dress for Success takes professional clothing to give women the confidence they need to get the jobs that will support them.

The Dark Side of Downsizing to start a sustainable closet
Woman repurposing a piece of pink fabric

DIY for life

Want to get crafty and see new life emerge from your old garments? Check out creatives like the Bob & Weave Company, who take fabric scraps to create beautiful wall hangings, or get inspired by innovative brands like Atelier & Repairs, who use various patching and sashiko methods to mend damaged clothing. For inspiration, tutorials, and resources on mending, check out Visible Mending and learn how you can make the most vulnerable part of a garment (the damaged part) its new source of strength and beauty. Not sure where to start? Your bestie, Pinterest, abounds with ways to upcycle every kind of garment imaginable. 

Like all things we have chosen to buy, we have a responsibility for our clothing and where it ends up when we decide to partake in downsizing our closets. How your garments will be used, and where they ultimately go, is something you can take ownership of (instead of casting off the responsibility in dozens of trash bags dumped at Goodwill). It is important to stay mindful of the full life cycle of our clothing. While we may only see it for a very brief moment in its life, we are completely responsible for each and every stage of its life. Why? Because we generated the demand for it, the consumption of it, and eventually, the waste of it. The cost of a garment only falls on us once, but that cost is paid indefinitely by the environment, so let’s lighten the burden on Mama Earth.

Want to truly spark joy for people and planet? Help make fashion a force for good.


Cover Image: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash, RISE/Flickr, Kris Atomic/Unsplash

Related Stories

Join the Conversation

Leave a Reply

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