Global Recycling Day is a welcome opportunity for us to talk about how our own wardrobes can become more sustainable. One of the core concepts? Waste management. As with bottles, cans, and paper, we can also apply the hierarchy of reduce, reuse, and recycle to our closets. By planning more thoughtfully for how to recycle clothes, we can contribute to a more circular economy, one where manmade items rarely, if ever, have to be sent to landfill.
Admittedly, this approach requires more time and planning than just popping something into a trash bin. Once you get the hang of it however, as with recycling plastic bottles, you can’t really imagine doing it any differently.
To help you get started and increase the circularity of your wardrobe, here are four types of recycling to consider for an Earth-friendly spring cleaning of your closet.
For the adventurous, creative, and crafty, what adjustments can you make to your least-worn clothes so you’ll want to wear them more often? Small alterations help maintain a comfortable, flattering fit over time and to keep up with evolving styles. These can be great DIY projects or handed off to a trusted tailor as an affordable reinvestment in a favorite shirt, dress, jacket, or pair of pants. Hemlines can be shortened or lengthened, silhouettes can be slimmed or let out, dye can revive or change faded color, embroidery can mask small tears.
Check out online tutorials on iFixIt, follow Instagram hashtags like #visiblemending, and seek inspiration from designers like Nicole McLaughlin and Atelier & Repairs.
Resell or Regift
We get it, there are some things in your closet that you just don’t want anymore, and that’s ok. You have options. The most sustainable thing to do with clothing that’s still in good shape is to keep in circulation in its original form. In other words, get it into the hands of someone who will wear it. You might even make some money, too.
Depending on the brand, many gently-worn items retain value. Familiarize yourself with online resale sites to get a sense of which brands in your closet have currency in the secondhand market. Check out The Real Real, Vestiaire Collective, Grailed, Thred Up, DePop, and good old eBay. If you don’t want to deal with shipping, try a local consignment shop, or national chains like Crossroads and Buffalo Exchange.
And don’t forget your friends. You can organize a clothing swap or set aside items you think they might like. Just make sure there’s a backup plan (keep reading) for whatever you aren’t able to sell or gift.
Return To Maker
As more companies go circular by taking responsibility for the full lifecycle of the clothes they manufacture, in-house take-back and buy-back programs are proliferating. Early adopters like Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, and A.P.C. have been joined more recently by Noah and Mara Hoffman, and soon Ralph Lauren. The parameters vary from brand to brand, but usually involve a trade-in for cash or (more often) in-store credit. This can be a pretty easy option, especially if you live near a store, but not necessarily the way to get the most valuable return for yourself.
Prioritizing your purchases from brands that are taking this circular approach is a great way to signal to companies that customers care about this option.
You’ve sold things, gifted others, and tailored what you could, but you’re still left with a handful of items that you no longer love and you want them gone. In that case, find a local drop-off collection site. The process is quick and straightforward: you bundle together all manner of clothes — mixing brands and types — and literally drop them off, often with no paperwork or explanation needed.
For gently worn clothing, try to identify a local church, school, or nonprofit that will redirect items into your own community. Or keep an eye out for textile collection boxes in public places, such as weekly farmers’ markets. Certain chain clothiers like Levi’s, H&M, and The North Face offer discounts if you bring in clothes to recycle. Plus, most cities have a Salvation Army or Goodwill that takes donations more indiscriminately. However, not all drop-off clothing sites sort and redistribute donated clothes in the same way. So do your research and find out where exactly your clothes are headed to next.
Lastly, it’s always worth checking out the website for your community’s department of sanitation or environment to see what advice they offer about how to get rid of worn-out clothes responsibly. For instance, some municipalities collect household textiles, like old towels, to recycle into rags. Others, like the Bay Area and NYC, post information online about local recycling options.
Loving clothes and curating personal wardrobes isn’t inherently damaging to the planet but how we take care of clothes once they come into our possession is a real opportunity for sustainability. And that includes how those clothes leave us. Whenever you decide to eliminate something from your wardrobe, consider the options above and select whatever makes the most sense to you. Just please, don’t put it in the trash.