Finding New Life for Old Clothes

thrift clothes

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.

Do It Yourself, Fast

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 appliqué-ing a design over the top.
  • Get creative! You may be surprised at how hemming or lengthening a skirt or replacing buttons on a shirt, can cheaply and easily liven up an item that you were planning to throw out.

A quick web 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 website. 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

There are many 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.

Other stores, like Buffalo Exchange will give you cash on the spot for in-season trends, instead of making you wait for it to sell. Anything they don't buy they may offer to donate for you.

Sell them online
Can’t find a consignment shop in your area? Try an online auction site, such as eBay or Shop Goodwill, 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.

At Green America, we organize an annual clothing swap in our office. 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.

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 almost effortless.

For business clothing, Dress for Success, a nonprofit with chapters in 94 US cities, accepts donations of women’s suits, shoes, and briefcases, which are passed on to economically disadvantaged women entering the professional world.

There are many places to donate men's work clothing as well, such as Suiting Warriors, which provides clothes to veterans looking for work in the Northeast. Men's Warehouse hosts the National Suit Drive for a month every year, which gives donations to at-risk men transitioning into the workforce. Google "donate men's suits" and you'll find some local options.

And we all know at least one high-school graduate who nostalgically keeps old prom dresses 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" is a popular name for such organizations, a quick search of it with "prom dress" will give local options.

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. More shoe-donating options here, at #18 of things you didn't know you could recycle!

Also, if you can part with your wedding gown, consider donating it to Brides for a Cause, which collects and resells gowns and donates profits to women's charities. Adorned in Grace collects dresses and wedding accessories and uses proceeds to promote awareness and prevention of sex trafficking and restoration for trafficking victims.

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.

Un-salvageable 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.

A 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.

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, 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.