How to Give Your Old Clothes a New and Purposeful Life
Pamela Rafalow Grossman
When our dressers runneth over and we're tripping over books that won't fit on our shelves, peace and clarity are hard to come by. Sometimes you just have to accept that some things have simply outstayed their use.
But as we're realizing more and more; putting our clutter in the trash should only be a last resort. So what do we do with the stuff we simply don’t want—or can’t use—anymore?
In this column, I'll be looking at our most common clutter offenders and exploring ways to give them a second life—without adding to the landfills or dumping everything at the Goodwill drop-off. The more we think about reusing and repurposing what we think we no longer want, the more we see how much use these things still have.
First up: All those clothes you’ve been saving in the back of your closet since college.
If your wardrobe has exploded from the closet and on to nearby furniture (and hey, probably the floor), you’re not alone. As a dedicated-vintage clothing fan, I’m all too familiar with cramming too much clothing into too little New York City apartment. But the reality is, we’re never wearing that 90s sundress or those circa-2002, horrifyingly low-waist bootcut jeans again, so what are we going to do with them?
First, step away from the trashcan. Landfills received 10.5 million tons of textile waste in 2015 alone, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Fortunately, from reselling for some extra cash to upcycling, there’s tons of uses for those unwanted clothes.
Both clothing resellers like Buffalo Exchange and vintage shops buy from individual sellers. Generally, vintage pieces, designer labels, and in-season wares are more likely to be accepted. And you’ll get the choice of cash or store credit for everything you sell.
Don’t want to spend the weekend schlepping bags of clothes around town? Online resellers like Poshmark provide an easy way to sell your clothes on consignment. Poshmark takes a $2.95 commission off items under $15 and a 20 percent fee off all sales above $15, but never-worn and designer items might go for higher than what you’d get in a resell shop.
Give them back to the retailer
Some major retailers have their own textile recycling programs, and they might even reward you for it. H&M accepts old clothing, regardless of brand, and will offer a voucher for accepted items—the same goes for Madewell, Levi’s, and The North Face. Each company works with their preferred recycling charity, so your old clothes will find a new purpose, somewhere.
Clothing swaps are fun, economical, and eco-friendly. The premise: Everyone gathers clean, useable stuff they’re no longer wearing and brings it to the swap location (usually someone’s living room). The clothes are laid out—it’s easiest if you put like items together—and attendees start helping themselves. Re-gifting kids’ clothes can be especially helpful for new moms, and if you have a friend with like-minded taste, offer them first dibs on your selection.
Clothing can be upcycled into tons of useful (and fun) stuff. If you’re handy with a sewing machine—and down for a labor-intensive process—those beloved band T-shirts from your college days can be transformed into a quilt. Not into sewing? Etsy artisans and companies like Project Repat will do the quilting work for you for a fee.
Some shirts are worn out but not especially beloved; in that case, give them a permanent spot on the floor. You can make them into a bathmat (no sewing required!) or a doggy bed. You can also repurpose your old threads into new apparel like a scarf created from old flannel shirts or using old bras to give a backless dress more support. Even those worn out leggings can be transformed into a lampshade.
Both local and national charities take clothing donations. I donate clothes regularly to NYC-based Housing Works, which help fight AIDS and homelessness; and to the Cauz for Pawz thrift shop, which supports local no-kill animal shelters (if you’ve made doggy beds or quilts out of your old clothes, it’s likely that your local shelter will welcome those donations as well).
There are also organizations that collect specific items; for example, Dress for Success—with affiliate locations nationwide—focuses on business clothes for out-of-work women aiming to re-enter the work force. And of course, there’s always Goodwill, which has an A rating from Charity Watch, and local charities, like food banks and homeless shelters, may also welcome clothing in good condition.
Another choice for keeping clothes that are stained, torn, or threadbare out of the trash is textile recycling. Here in New York, I’m devoted to the program run by GrowNYC, which has booths at the city’s greenmarkets for textile drop-off. Nationally, there are nonprofits drop-off bins like Planet Aid.
However, keep in mind that textile recycling isn’t likely to support your local community, or even country. The majority of clothing will be sold overseas or repurposed and resold as rags, insulation, and raw material. And be aware of what bins you’re using—some donation bins are ostensibly labeled with a local charity’s organization, but are actually operated by for-profit recycling centers, which in turn only send a portion to the advertised charity.
Whether you’re crafty enough to convert beloved finds into heirloom quilts or you’re giving hand-me-downs to your local charity, pretty much everything in your closet can escape the landfill with a little effort.