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FEATURE ARTICLE - SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2005
Finding New Life for Old Clothes
We give you tips for how to put your old clothes to good use to save money, resources, and make a difference to others.
It’s that time of year again. As winter approaches and tucked-away boxes of coats and sweaters begin emerging from dusty corners of the basement, we all find ourselves with clothes that have gone out of style, no longer fit, or look like they’ve seen better days. But think twice before gathering up your closet’s misfits and heading for the nearest dumpster. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that textiles make up approximately five percent of landfills. However, 99 percent of those textiles are reusable, and options for reusing old clothing abound. Read on for ways in which you can give new life to your old clothes.
Green Roofs Defined
Do you have a favorite item of clothing that you’re not quite ready to part with? The good news is: you may not have to. Old clothes can easily be revamped in just one sitting. For example:
• Revive a frayed collar by carefully cutting it off, flipping it over, and reattaching it for a look that’s good as new.
• Cut tattered or torn jeans to make a great pair of shorts, or patch them with colorful or patterned fabric.
• Disguise stains by embroidering or appliquéing a design over the top.
• Get creative! You may be surprised at how hemming or lengthening a skirt, replacing buttons on a shirt, or gluing shells or beads onto flip-flops can cheaply and easily liven up an item that you were planning to throw out.
A quick Internet search (try “revamping old clothes” or something similar) will turn up ideas and instructions for ways to breathe life into old clothes. If the task seems too daunting for the do-it-yourself approach, contact your local shoe repair or alteration shop. They may be able to resole that once-perfect pair of boots, fix a stubborn zipper, or otherwise salvage an article of clothing that you wouldn’t have thought you could wear again.
If you need a ballgown, for example, check out designer Angela Johnson’s Web site. Johnson will take your old T-shirts (think travel, concert, or athletic shirts) and make them into a formal dress that’s both funky and surprisingly fashionable.
My Trash, Your Treasure
One person’s trash can truly be another’s treasure, and there are several options for getting clothes you don’t want into the hands of someone who can use them.
Consign them: Clothes that are clean and in good condition but no longer fit or have been hanging untouched in your closet since you bought them are prime candidates for consignment shops. Consignment shops display your old clothing and give you a pre-determined fraction of the profits (usually between 30 and 50 percent) once your items sell. It’s an easy way to recycle and may even earn you a few dollars. When dealing with consignment stores, it’s always a good idea to call ahead. Some only accept specific items, seasons, and sizes, or require an appointment.
Sell them online: Can’t find a consignment shop in your area? Try an online auction site, such as eBay.com or ShopGoodwill.com, to sell unwanted clothing from your home computer.
Swap them: Another great option for saying goodbye to old clothes is to host a swap party, a great way of merging reuse with socializing and community building. Invite friends and family to bring articles of clothing that they’re looking to give away but are still in wearable condition. Party attendees exchange items for a win-win deal: they rid their closets of unwanted items and take home new ones for free.
Any leftover pieces can be donated to the charity of your choice. Some schools and organizations have even organized benefit fashion shows for a charity or nonprofit where each partygoer models an outfit constructed from items at the swap.
Here at Green America, we organize an annual clothing swap in our offices. You and your colleagues can sponsor a swap at your office, house of worship, senior center, day care center, or community group.
Donate to Those in Need
Perhaps the most popular route for disposing of old clothing is through donation to charities. It’s the perfect deal: you get rid of your unwanted clothing while helping others in need.
Charities: Many homeless or women’s shelters are happy to receive clothing donations, particularly during the winter months. However, not all shelters can accept donations, and many are looking for specific items or sizes. Before heading over, call your local shelter to find out if your old clothes would be helpful. More often than not, if your needs don’t match up, they’ll be happy to direct you to another organization or shelter wanting what you have to offer.
Don’t forget Goodwill, a nonprofit provider of education and career training for people with disadvantages or disabilities, which accepts donations of clothing and household items to be resold at its 2,000 retail stores throughout the country. Its convenient pick-up program makes donation virtually effortless.
For business clothing, Dress for Success, a nonprofit with chapters in 73 US cities, accepts donations of women’s suits, shoes, and briefcases, which are passed on to economically disadvantaged women entering the professional world.
Another willing recipient of business attire is Jobs for Youth, a Chicago-based organization that aims to help young women and men from low-income backgrounds integrate into the business world. They appreciate donations of both men’s and women’s business clothing.
Your old suit may be the missing piece to helping someone land a job and earn a living wage.
And we all know at least one high-school graduate who nostalgically keeps old prom dresses doubling as dust-traps in her closet. A number of organizations throughout the country solicit donations of used prom dresses, which they then provide or sell at greatly reduced prices to girls who would otherwise be unable to afford outfits for their proms. Fairy Godmothers, Inc. is one such organization with locations in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. You can drop off gowns—with or without shoes and accessories—or donate by mail. Or, consult the Fairy Godmothers Inc. Web site for a list of other North American prom apparel collectors—such as Enchanted Closet in Atlanta or the Princess Project in San Francisco—to find one close to your home.
Even your old athletic shoes can find new homes. One World Running, a Colorado nonprofit formerly known as Shoes for Africa, sends still-wearable running shoes and gear, soccer cleats, and baseball equipment to athletes in sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, and Haiti.
If your shoes are in no longer in wearable condition, send them to Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe program, a project that grinds up and recycles athletic shoe material to build playground mats, basketball courts, and running tracks.
Also, if you can part with your wedding gown, consider donating it to the Making Memories Breast Cancer Foundation. Making Memories sells the gowns and uses the proceeds to grant wishes to terminal breast cancer patients.
Too Worn to Wear
So you’ve unloaded at the consignment shops and sent off bags for donation, but you’re still left with a pile of clothing that’s simply too old, stained, or undesirable for resale, swap, or donation.
Unsalvageable items can be cut into rags for use around your home. They’re washable and reusable, and provide a perfect, eco-friendly substitute for paper towels.
If you’re looking for a way to use your worn-out clothes to help others, you can start an Ugly Quilt project group. Ugly quilts are sleeping bags made from donated scraps of clothing or bedspreads that are given to homeless shelters or to individuals in need of warmth during the winter months. You don’t need any sort of quilting experience to create an ugly quilt; the project’s Web site offers simple instructions to guide a novice sewer through the creation of an ugly quilt. These quilts can be made anywhere, from homes to community and senior centers to elementary schools, and they offer a great opportunity for combining social action and socializing.
Yet another little-known option for clothing that’s too worn to wear is the nearest animal shelter. Many animal shelters, pet boarding kennels, and veterinarians will happily accept old clothes to use as bedding for animal cages. Jennifer Van Fosson of Orange Park, FL, runs a charity collecting old clothes and items for people in need.
“I donate clothes that aren’t fit for wearing to local animal shelters. They’re always happy to get them,” she says.
And many large charities like Goodwill actually sell unwearable clothing they receive as donations to textile recycling centers (which generally do not accept donations from individuals). Call your local Goodwill to find out what it does with unwearable clothing. It may take your worn clothes off your hands—possibly in exchange for a donation of usable goods or money to cover any associated costs—for resale overseas or recycling.
Once you’ve tackled your own closet, help others with theirs. Consider organizing clothing drives, ugly quilt projects, swap parties, or crafting events at your local school, neighborhood association, workplace, or place of worship. No matter which of these green options you choose, you’ll rest easy knowing that your clothing isn’t contributing to landfill waste.
• Angela Johnson Design
• Dress for Success
• Fairy Godmothers Inc.
• Jobs for Youth—312/499-4778
• Making Memories Breast Cancer Foundation—503/252-3955.
• Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe program—Nike Recycling Center; c/o Reuse-A-Shoe; 26755 SW 95th Ave.; Wilsonville, OR 97070
• One World Running—303/473-1314
• Ugly Quilt Project—c/o Wheatley, Strawberry Hill Farm, RR 1 Box 1049, Hop Bottom, PA 18824