I’ll be the first to cop to the strange dopamine hit I get from clearing out a closet or straightening a drawer. Call it joy, call it relief, whatever it is, I feel like I can breathe easier when drawers and closets aren’t filled to bursting.
Erin, darling, you’re so relaxed lately! What’s your secret?
Oh, I just spent the morning rifling through my childrens’ clothing drawers and pulling out everything that no longer fits or has been worn to shreds! Tra la!
But the flipside of the breeziness derived from a good closet purge is the muddling through what to do with the things I don’t have a place for anymore. Wantonly disposing of clothes that we’ve outgrown—physically, or, well, emotionally—might be a path toward a pared down wardrobe, but it isn’t a path toward a sustainable one. In our pursuit of a minimal wardrobe, in other words, we shouldn’t be shunting the responsibility for our choices onto someone else, or filling up a landfill.
This takes some work. It’s hard enough to think about adding new pieces to your wardrobe ethically, but it’s harder still to think about removing things from your closet ethically. I write about a lot of this in the chapter on getting dressed in my book, but I thought the subject deserved a little attention here, especially in honor of Fashion Revolution week. (Tomorrow marks the five year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, where we saw in stark numbers the human cost of our collective obsession with fast fashion.) I hope today we can all encourage each other with a few pointers for how to go about removing items from our closets as responsibly as possible.
The math is staggering, but simple: There are far more clothes produced and disposed of than can be reasonably and responsibly reused. And from clothing that breaks down and pollutes our oceans, to containers full of cast-offs disrupting local markets, thinking about what happens to our clothing after it leaves our closets can get overwhelming, fast.
I won’t say that we shouldn’t be clearing our hearts and homes of clothes that are no longer working for us, but I think an honest conversation is one where we disabuse ourselves of the notion that every article of clothing that we donate is going to do some direct good. To keep our clothes from causing problems for other people in other places, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Think of your friends, first: Before you toss out a tote of unwanted clothing, think about whether there’s an actual flesh and blood person in your midst who might better be able to use what you have. I realize that on the face of it this might sound a bit insular, but shunting so many of our clothes off to distant places isn’t always solving much and in lots of cases, it’s downright damaging. If you’re able, consider a clothing swap or an exchange among friends, as a first step. On a selfish level, I’ve found that this measure actually feels best too. It’s nice to know that someone you love can love something you…don’t. I recently accidentally shrunk a jumpsuit that I loved to the point that I couldn’t wear it anymore. But my neighbor is a few inches shorter than me and it looks beautiful on her! Clothing crisis averted.
Donate thoughtfully: Drop-off collections and clothing bins like the ones peppered throughout the city at farmers’ markets and in the corners of suburban parking lots across the country are terrific, but if you have specific items that might help a particular cause, consider starting there. Dress for Success, for instance, is an organization that collects work-appropriate attire for women as part of their mission to help women achieve economic independence. If you have an old suit or blazer that doesn’t work for you anymore, consider giving it to an organization that will put it to good use.
Clean up: Clothes that go to secondhand shops or thrift stores are often only given a limited window of shelf-time before they’re moved out to make room for something new. Most collection services wash clothes before reselling or donating them, but that doesn’t mean we should toss dirty laundry into the bin. Especially because ensuring that you donate clean clothes expands the likelihood that that garment will get the shelf-time it deserves in the first place.
Follow directions: In the same way that it’s important to know your local recycling regulations, it’s important to educate yourself about what can be donated. An out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach might make you feel temporarily better, but it will finish by clogging up the works for everyone else. Look into what’s accepted before you dump a bag in a drop-off bin or bag. If you’re in New York City, here’s a list of what the folks at Wearable Collections, who collect clothing at city Greenmarkets, can accept. If your local clothing collection site doesn’t accept old bedding or clothing scraps, don’t include them in your drop-off, but also, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Wearable Collections can’t accept donations of clothing that’s ripped or stained, including household rags and fabric scraps, but I gave a call and learned I could drop off a small collection of rags that had outlived their usefulness to our local Goodwill for textile recycling. If you’re looking for a spot to donate old comforters or pillows, consider contacting a local animal shelter. (And if you’re a designer or clothing producer in New York with a large number of fabric scraps, you can be in touch with FabScrap to arrange for textile recycling through them!)
Consider circles: Getting rid of clothing responsibly, of course, fundamentally has to do with accumulating clothing responsibly. Every aspect of a clothing’s lifetime—from materials to use—will affect what happens to it after it’s no longer serviceable as clothes. A lot of this falls on the manufacturer, but we can vote with our purchasing power. Making an effort to purchase clothing that’s been made using natural fibers, for instance, means that at the tail end of a useful life, clothing might be able to be recycled, or even composted. (PS. In case you missed it, these guys were the first kid’s clothing brand to get a gold rating from the Cradle to Cradle Institute.)
+ If you’re looking for ways to get involved in Fashion Revolution Week, here are a few easy ways to get started!
+ If you’re thinking about clothes you have that might be serviceable but that need repair, there’s a world of terrific resources out there to help. First step: Make a Sewing Kit.