How to Sustainably Clean Out Your Closet

clothes in a closet
February 5, 2021
As 2021 begins, many people are making their New Year’s resolutions to clean out the old clothes in their closets, but what are the most sustainable ways to accomplish this goal?
Although we know that aspects of the fashion industry are harmful to the environment, it is difficult to accurately gauge its true impact. There are statistics indicating that fashion production makes up 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, dries up water sources, and pollutes rivers and streams; however, although widely cited, this data may not be accurate. In his Vox article entitled “Fashion has a misinformation problem. That’s bad for the environment,” Alden Wilker points out that many of the commonly cited statistics about pollution in the fashion industry are not reliable. He calls for the government and large fashion companies to invest in quality research on pollution data. Although more research may be necessary, one thing is clear: fast fashion is a problem. 
Fast fashion is a clothing manufacturing method that produces a large volume of clothing quickly and cheaply, with low quality materials, in order to replicate runways trends; however, this leads to overconsumption, negative environmental effects, and unsafe working conditions. Many fast fashion brands look to maximize their output of clothing, while minimizing their costs—ultimately, this means using the cheapest labor companies can find in countries that don’t have strict labor laws. Buying clothes that you throw away within a few years is an issue because it adds to landfills and—depending upon the fabric—clothing can take up to 200 years to decompose.
Generally, choosing sustainable clothing means buying clothing that takes both environmental and socio-economic aspects of the company’s business practices into consideration. Environmentally, this means that the company must minimize the environmental impact of the clothing production at every stage: transportation, energy usage, greenhouse gas emissions, and maximization of repairing and recycling of products and their components. Socio-economic sustainability means improving working conditions throughout all stages of manufacturing, including factory and production workers, by using ethical standards. These ethical standards include having livable wages for employees, safe working conditions, no child labor, and reasonable working hours.
You can read more about fast fashion practices here. One thing is certain: people need to be more conscious about the clothing they choose to add to their wardrobes and the ways in which they dispose of their old clothes. So, what can you do?

The most sustainable clothes are the ones you already have

Try not to buy clothing you don’t need. Challenge yourself to go an entire year without buying clothes. Someone who buys only what they need from fast fashion brands and keeps the clothing pieces for years are actually behaving more sustainably than those who buy excessively from sustainable fashion brands. Don’t buy clothing for a single occasion, instead invest in pieces of clothing that you can re-wear multiple times, also known as a capsule wardrobe. Similarly, you may want to consider buying classic clothing staples that never go out of style, so you can wear them for years and years. Before making a fashion purchase, consider how long the item will hold a place in your wardrobe. Simply extending the lifespan of clothes by three months per item—from five years and two months to five years and five months, for example—would lead to approximately a five to ten percent reduction in the carbon, water, and waste footprints.

Upcycle and/or mend your clothing, instead of throwing it away

If your clothes tear, sew and repair them. You can even get creative with patching, embroidering, or sewing fun buttons over rips, holes, or frays in your clothing. Cut pants that are not the right length into shorts (you can even use the excess fabric to make a bag, see this tutorial for inspiration). This makes the pieces more customized to your style too! This Buzzfeed tutorial is a great place to start to learn how to mend clothes by hand. Seek guidance from the Stain Removal Guide by the Cleaning Institute if your clothes are stained or discolored in some manner, instead of tossing them out.

Resell (online or in a consignment shop), give away to friends, or donate your old clothes in order to extend their life cycles

Find an organization near you that you believe in to donate your clothes. Here are some examples of places where you may look: foster care programs, prisons (especially donations of professional clothes), homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, or emergency youth shelters. Research local organizations to make sure they do not throw away clothing donations and ensure that your clothes are clean before donating. A few larger, item-specific organizations to consider for your donations are: Souls4Soles for old shoes and clothes (you can do this at any DSW store or North Face store) and The Bra Recyclers for any type of old bras (you can do this at any Soma store).

If the condition of your clothing is too poor to sell, donate, or mend, repurpose the pieces into other things

For example, cut them into rags for cleaning, make a blanket out of your old t-shirts, or make your clothes into yarn (see this tutorial to learn how to do this) and knit or crochet it into something else, such as a bag or a rug.

As a last resort, recycle your worn-out clothes and shoes

A few recycling programs for clothes are: Recycle denim at Levi’s stores, Nike’s Reuse a Shoe program for worn out sneakers, and TerraCycle Fabrics and Clothing Box for a paid service that upcycles or donates your old textile products. 

Buy secondhand clothing

Even new clothes from natural materials have an environmental impact. For example, growing enough cotton to make one pair of jeans takes about 1800 gallons of water, so, instead, extend the lifespan of your existing clothes.

Look for organic, rather than synthetic, fabrics

Some examples are: 100% cotton, linen, wool, bamboo, hemp, and silk. If you need to get rid of any of these fabrics, you can actually compost them (if you use a composting service, check to make sure they accept natural textiles, as not all do).

Research companies with sustainable and ethical business practices before investing in new clothes

You may want to start with websites like Sustain Your Style or these articles from The Good Trade and Going Zero Waste.