You’ve been doing some spring cleaning and you’re ready to say goodbye to some of your old closet cast-offs that you haven’t worn in a while. But stop before you throw them in the trash! Rather than throwing out your clothes to sit in a landfill for centuries releasing carbon emissions and damaging the environment, there are tons of great options to recycle your used clothes that can help save the environment and create a brighter, safer, healthier future for us all. In this article, I’ll share Earth-happy alternatives to throwing out your clothes, like selling and recycling fashion, so you can get rid of old clothes without doing damage to the environment.
Why you shouldn’t throw out your clothes
The fashion industry is the second “dirtiest” (aka least eco-friendly) industry in the world, second only to oil. That’s frightening! Cotton production and the use of chemicals and products in particular have horrendous environmental and social impacts.
In 2018, 17 million tons of textile waste ended up in American landfills, according to the EPA. This accounted for 5.8% of all total garbage for the year. And each year, the number of discarded goods continues to rise.
The problem isn’t just that the clothes are wasted – although it’s also sad to think that all the materials, chemicals, dyes, and labor that went into a piece of clothing aren’t getting their full usefulness and lifespan. What’s worse, the more textile waste that sits in landfills, the more damage it does to the environment. As items in landfills break down and try to biodegrade, they release harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and ecosystem degradation. This is true even of “biodegradable waste” like cotton, since this waste is often attempting to break down next to non-biodegradable materials, creating a shared release of gasses. Beyond that, landfills pollute local land, water, and air with hazardous chemicals that can circulate throughout the world, impacting both the health of the environment and the health of citizens worldwide.
And that’s just the process of throwing clothes out. We also have to consider that every time we throw clothes out, the fashion industry then has to create new clothes. That means more materials used, chemicals released into the environment, water consumption, and more. Cotton alone requires 20,000 liters of water just to produce one t-shirt or pair of jeans! Pesticides used in cotton production are horrible for the environment, the dyeing process is chemically intensive and energy-draining, discharge water going into nearby water supplies is contaminated, and local communities are often dramatically and devastatingly destroyed. All to create a single t-shirt – a tee that’s just going to end up in a landfill.
Years ago, when I first learned about this significant waste crisis in the fashion industry, I thought, “there has to be a better way!” Thankfully, there is.
That desire to do my part towards greater fashion sustainability, paired with my deep love for fashion, is what pushed me to open Current Boutique. So, just by shopping at Current Boutique, you’re doing your part towards recycling fashion for a better future!
But what else can you do as a consumer to reduce waste and promote greater eco-friendly practices in the fashion industry?
1. Sell your clothes.
If you’re looking to get rid of clothes, selling them is the best option. Selling your clothes is a highly sustainable way of giving your pieces new life—while adding a little cash to your wallet. Rather than spending resources upcycling or recycling clothes, selling and reselling preloved items to consignment stores reduces material expenditure and waste, while diverting clothes out of landfills and reducing new clothing production.
On top of that, you get money in your wallet by selling your preloved clothes! I always think of my clothing and accessories purchases as an investment, particularly those high-quality pieces from designers who emphasize cut, fit, and finish. Quality clothes are made to withstand the test of time. So even if an item isn’t your personal style anymore for whatever reason, that piece still may have a long life ahead of it in someone else’s closet.
I started my own consignment store because I wanted to give other women the ability to contribute to circular fashion. With consignment stores like Current Boutique, you can sell your clothes to divert materials out of landfills and make some money, or you can be a consumer and unlock the thrill of “the perfect find” with unique, vintage, stunning pieces you can only find on consignment. Learn more about consignment stores here.
Looking to sell your preloved clothing? Check out our ultimate guide to selling used clothes online here. It has everything you need to know about the selling process including a few tips and tricks that will get you the most cash in your pocket!
You’ll probably only be able to sell clothes that aren’t damaged, torn, ripped, or stained. Most consignors also only accept those items that are most likely to sell on their shelves. So, if you can’t sell your clothes, keep reading to learn about other ways to recycle your fashion pieces.
2. Re-wear your clothes in new ways.
Along with selling, re-wearing your clothes is generally the most sustainable way to reduce your personal fashion waste and consumption. This not only keeps clothes out of landfills, but it also means you don’t need to buy more clothes every season since you’re keeping your beloved clothes in rotation. This is better for your wallet while also reducing the amount of resources and chemicals used in fashion production. Thankfully, with just a little bit of elbow grease and ingenuity, you can breathe new life into old clothes.
Have a pair of jeans you never wear? Add some rips to make them feel fresh. Get them tailored to fit better. Cut them into shorts. Or sew the legs together to create a denim skirt!
Take a men’s button-down shirt and turn it into a chic shirt dress for you. Learn how to transform a long sleeve tee into a wrap skirt. There are endless possibilities on how you can rework old clothes so they feel fresh, modern, and more your style.
You don’t have to be a fashion designer to do this, either. Take a look at the clothes that you were otherwise going to throw out and google “DIY projects with (insert article of clothing).” There are some genius ideas and upcyclers out there with different projects for different skill levels.
3. Recycle fashion.
Recycling fashion refers to the process of taking used clothes or fabrics to make new clothes or other fabric-based materials. If you can’t sell or re-wear your clothes because they are unbranded, damaged, or otherwise unwanted, recycling your clothes is another great option. Recycling fashion has become a lot more commonplace within the fashion sustainability conversation, and we’re seeing a lot of clothing companies – both major fashion designers and small eco-conscious business alike – emphasizing recycled fashion.
When you recycle clothes, there are two possibilities for what will happen to those textiles: they’ll be upcycled or downcycled. Upcycling is when clothes are reused to make new clothes, like taking the denim from one pair of jeans to make another pair of denim jeans. Downcycling is when clothing fabric is used to make other products that might then end up in landfills, like cleaning products, rags, or rugs. While upcycling is generally more sustainable, they both have their benefits and uses in different scenarios.
Upcycling is when textiles are repurposed to create new clothing or home furnishings. Here are some examples of companies who upcycle fashion:
- Eileen Fisher’s Renew Collection will take you’re your old Eileen Fisher garments. They then mend, sew, and remake new products (like skirts, coats, vests, wall hangings, pillows) from your donated ones.
- RE/DONE takes vintage denim pieces and repurposes them into new jeans – and they don’t use any harsh chemicals like other jeans brands.
- Urban Outfitters launched the Urban Renewal program, which uses their company’s surplus materials into more fashionable clothing.
- ASOS Reclaimed brings vintage items back to life in modern and innovative ways.
- H&M partnered with I:CO to create a closed-loop textile recycling initiative that remakes donated clothes and shoes into new products whenever possible. The cool part is they accept non-H&M brand clothes as well!
- Find some more recycled brands here, like Amour Vert and Beyond Retro.
- Check out our favorite sustainable brands here.
If clothes are beyond the point of upcycling, downcycling or repurposing them into something else is also a viable option. This means taking old textiles and turning them into other items, like cleaning cloths or old rags. For example, I reuse my old (washed) socks as rags to deep clean my closet before throwing them out.
You can do this at home, or you can donate your clothes to companies who professional recycle clothes by turning them into other items. For example, the company For Days lets you send in a “Take Back” bag of clothes that they will divert from landfills and repurpose into something else. If you’re recycling other brands through For Days (not For Days clothing), they don’t know which materials are in the clothing, so they typically recycle the materials into things like rugs, insulation, or cleaning materials. But, they accept almost any textiles in this program, so it’s a great way to recycle textiles that you can’t sell! Bonus is that For Days gives “closet cash” for the Take Back bag, which you can use to pay for the circular clothes in their store.
How to recycle clothes
Don’t throw your clothes in your recycling bins. Only cardboard, glass, and plastic get recycled through the city recycling process – you can’t put textiles in there. You’ll need to find a specific textile recycling center or dedicated brand in order to recycle your textiles. First, see if you can find a local retailer like H&M or another fashion brand that accepts recycled fashion. Some brands will accept only their own clothes – like Eileen Fisher – so if you have a lot of clothes from one specific designer, see if that brand offers some sort of recycling program.
If not, Google “textile recycling near me” to find local textile recycling centers. Earth911 and Recycle Now also offer searches by zip code, and you can also see if there are any drop-off bins for American Textile Recycling Service in your area. Make sure you follow these centers’ regulations with what you can and can’t recycle.
Should you donate clothes?
You might be wondering – why don’t I just donate my old clothes instead? Unfortunately, at least 11% of donated clothes still end up in landfills, translating to about 22 million pounds of clothes annually.
Furthermore, oftentimes people will only donate those clothes that they can’t sell or rewear because they are damaged, stained, torn, or out of date. If these aren’t sellable to a consignor, it’s possible they won’t sell at Goodwill or go to help those in need at a nonprofit either. So, those items will just end up in the trash anyway. If you recycle those damaged fabrics instead, it’s more likely that something good will come from it!
Closing the fashion loop
A closed fashion loop means that clothes and shoes recirculate for as long as possible. Clothes are sold and reworn and textiles are recycled, which means fewer and fewer “new” clothes and virgin materials are produced yearly. A lot of major fashion designers as well as budding companies have promised to do their part in this eco-friendly, low impact cyclical process where recycled fashion is the norm.
You have a part to play, too. By selling your old clothes, buying preloved items, modernizing old pieces, and/or recycling textiles, you will help reduce fashion waste while encouraging even more designers and retailers to step up their game in the world of fashion sustainability.
Your next step is easy. If you have old clothes, don’t throw them out – sell your clothes with Current Boutique! And if you’re looking to make a clothing purchase, shop secondhand designer clothes to give renewed life to unique, vintage, and one-of-a-kind designer styles you won’t find anywhere else.