A Realistic Guide
A couple of weeks ago, I took the first big step towards my goal — creating the ethical wardrobe of my dreams — by cataloging every item in my closet. After all, the first step in creating a sustainable wardrobe is taking a good look at what you already have!
As I was doing that, I also came across several items that no longer serve me and that I would therefore like to move on from.
The Big Problem with Donating
In the past I would simply have donated these items. However over the past several months, I have learned a lot about the fact that our donated clothes far too often end up in landfills (aka trash piles) in the Global South.
On some level I’ve known this for a long time...but it was way more convenient for me to ignore this truth.
In her book, The Conscious Closet, Elizabeth Cline explains that…
“charities sell only 20 to 25 percent on average of what we donate through their thrift shops.
So what really happens to the vast majority of what we donate, that other 80%? Charities and thrift shops pack it up and sell it by the pound to rag traders, who sort through it in giant warehouses and decide its fate based on trendiness, cleanliness, and condition. From there, most of it is exported overseas.” (pg.25)
Let’s look more closely at what happens to some of these clothes overseas through the work of The OR Foundation. The OR Foundation is a social and environmental justice nonprofit organization that works in the Kantamanto Market, a dynamic marketplace for secondhand clothing trade located in Accra, Ghana.
“40% of the clothing traded at Kantamanto ends up in landfill almost immediately. This amounts to at least one million pounds of clothing going to the landfills surrounding Accra on a weekly basis in addition to the unmeasured (but large) number of items that are dumped or burned informally, often in socially and environmentally sensitive areas...the Global North is relying on Ghana (and other nations) to take part in a waste management strategy necessitated by relentless overproduction and overconsumption...
“When markets are flooded to such a degree that the donations of well-intentioned and often misinformed consumers in the Global North are piled atop landfills, gutters and beaches, unwanted and unneeded, we wonder if waste dumping is the new colonial frontier?”
They also are careful to explain that of course some of the donated clothing does end up being resold and worn by other people, however the burden overall is insurmountable. After all, much of the clothing they receive is not even in a wearable state.
To further understand this topic and the problems with donating, I highly recommend visiting their website to learn more about their Dead White Man's Clothes research project!
I also recommend watching this video by Cynthia Dam, also known as inspiroue, on this subject (and all of her other videos)!
The bottom line is that, unless you can successfully compost it in your own backyard, any item you purchase or take in and then want to pass on will very likely end up burdening someone. I know that it’s a harsh thought and a sad reality but I hope it can drive us to be extremely intentional in the future.
Going forward, I will only purchase items I plan to keep for decades. That way I hope to ensure that this “getting rid of” clothing process is a rare occurrence in my life. Lucky for me, I have never been a fashionista or someone who enjoys shopping, but I still have bought or accepted many a thing I do not need.
All of that being said and being by far most important, we are only human. And sometimes, we’re going to want to move on from certain pieces whether because our bodies change or our taste does.
Full transparency about my personal starting point
Because I am at the beginning of my journey, I am allowing myself to responsibility discard of some items so that I can create this space upon which I can build a cohesive wardrobe. Most of the clothing I am getting rid of is clothing that I simply do not love, do not find flattering anymore and therefore never look forward to wearing.
Before I get into the details, I want to be radically transparent about where I am starting this process from...
I probably have less items than many people. I do not enjoy shopping so buying new items is relatively rare for me.
A little over two months ago, before I started this journey, I donated approximately 7 items by dropping them into a clothing donation bin that I did zero research on. I was moving back to the U.S. from Paris and took it as a chance to get rid of some stuff. However I did still have items in the U.S. in storage that I had to deal with.
When I was at the airport, I even *threw away* a pair of shoes to lighten my luggage.
Overall, I have donated many things without a care about where they were going. I have thrown away pants that had holes (that probably could have been repaired), and certainly old underwear and socks.
The purpose of this journey is to end my past relatively mindless behavior.
My step-by-step process for getting rid of my clothing, responsibly
First, I agree with whoever said that it is best to get rid of clothing according to the season you are in. When the weather is warm, that worn out long sleeve shirt may look like an unnecessary item taking up space in our closet. However in the winter, we are able to see that as an essential piece for layering.
Luckily (I guess?) I am temporarily living in New England where the weather is currently anywhere from 35-75 degrees Fahrenheit (sorry for everyone who is not American!) aka I get to experience all of the seasons.
After I had determined which articles of clothing I no longer wanted, I started to look at each item very carefully and divided them into different categories.
#1. Gift to Friends (with Consent + Intention!)
Lucky for me, a young friend of mine is currently attending nearby university. As I went through my pieces, I noticed items that I thought would look *really cute* on her. I emphasize the really cute because I wanted to ensure that the things I offered her were things that she would actually wear. I also considered how expensive these items would be fore her to purchase on her own.
I strongly encouraged her to only take items she was actually *excited about*.
From my visit, she ended up with a new “little black dress”, a professional dress, two bathing suits, a cape (to go over her little black dress), a fun leather dress that is a little too young for my taste at this point, a scarf, and a sweater. All of which are in great condition.
Here is Mia in her new (my old) little black dress.
Gen Z are amazing. They are certainly leading the way in making thrifting mainstream. I fully acknowledge the fact that thrifting and reuse is by no means a new practice, and that today this long-time practice is certainly being gentrified. One of my favorite bloggers, Lily, aka imperfect idealist, wrote an awesome piece about this. However I am glad to see that we are moving beyond the lie that brand new is better.
#2. Mend and Tailor
Look I am going to be honest here. I DO NOT SEW. I have never had an interest in sewing. I also learned in middle school, after regularly receiving far below average grades on our sewing projects, that I am also no good at it. Or maybe, that I just didn’t care enough to try to be? Whatever the case my be, I do not know how to sew!
Now, that being said, what I have learned so far in this process is that going to the tailor EXPENSIVE. But it's also a lot of labor for them.
I decided to upcycle some old jeans into shorts and to patch up some other jeans that had a big hole. (Again, to keep it 100, in the past, I would probably have thrown these pants out, genuinely not knowing there was much I could do.)
The tailor was amazing. He was able to create shorts out the pants and patch up the hole.
*Just a note, he told me that we would have preferred that I not cut the jeans myself before bringing them in as they are.
Total, this cost me $50…$35 for the shorts and $15 for the pants. Many people might think whoa but you could have gotten new shorts for way less than $35! And that is true...BUT what would I have done with my old pants?
While I do not regret spending this money, (and of course acknowledging how much privilege I have to spend this money, well... to accrue this debt) this is not going to be sustainable every time I have a little hole to patch up.
So here’s my commitment, next time there’s an opportunity to take a BASIC sewing class so that I can learn to stitch up some of the small holes I have in some of my items, I am going to take it. I just want to be able to sit with a teacher/ supervisor because I am WAY too afraid to mess it up!
In the meantime, I am holding on to my items that need tailoring until I can afford it and I am very lucky to know that that day is likely to come.
In a recent video I posted on Instagram, I showed how I repurposed this shirt (below) into a bunch of different items (that I actually use!) including: a yoga mat carrier, water/wine bottle carrier, and shoe covers for carrying.
I also upcycled this ill-fitting bra into two items that I love! A headband AND my new strapless bra! I truly think this is the best strapless bra I’ve ever owned.
I was able to do this because I ensured that there was no sewing involved! Tying knots has been my best friend. I love knots!
I also don’t care if these items look perfect. I’m proud of what I created :-).
I read somewhere that little kids are more likely to eat certain foods if they have grown it and/or cooked it themselves. I believe most of us are just like these little kids. I certainly am. I definitely appreciate these items on a new level even with the minimal labor I put in.
Before creating these new items, I thought I hated arts and crafts. But I actually had a lot of fun doing this. I think it’s because I was able to create practical things that I love using.
Sometimes upcycling doesn’t even require crafting! For example, an old pillowcase works great as a book protector.
The part of this process I have been dreading the most BY FAR was selling my clothing.
I do not know how to use the mail. Period. Sending mail terrifies me honestly. I always choose the wrong package, I have no idea how much it’s going to cost. It’s a mess.
But now was my chance to get over this fear. I heard Poshmark was a great place to try so I posted some items there. If that doesn't work, I am going to go to some of my small, local secondhand stores to see if these are items they may want to add to their collection.
I will have to report back on this part of the process because so far I have no hits on my posts so I have not yet had to mail anything.
#6. Make a quilt
Several years ago, I learned about a company called Project Repat that will turn old clothing into quilts.
According to their website, they work with ethical factories in the U.S. pay fair wages, which is awesome! However I do not know where the other materials that they use, like their fleece, come from. More research to do there!
I have now placed the many t-shirts I no longer wear in a bag with the plan that I will soon (when I can afford it!) send them to Project Repat to be turned into a quilt that I am sure I will value forever (and that can be passed down)!
#7. If you HAVE to donate
Here’s the thing. Getting rid of clothing is tough! It’s hard work. This has not been an easy process for me. In fact, it's been pretty miserable.
But now I know more than ever, purchasing new items comes with responsibility, particularly when we are finished with these items. So, we MUST do our best to go through every single process above before burdening someone else with our belongings and by that I mean donating them with out assurance that they are wanted and will be used.
However, sometimes we do need to pass on items with more speed than anticipated. I have heard for example that selling items on second hand sites can take a LONG time.
Lily (imperfect idealist) has put together a super helpful guide on how to *most responsibly* donate your used items, which includes what to do if you are going to donate them. I have not yet done this but I will circle back to this if I am unable to sell my items.
I also realize that I did not address things like old underwear or clothing that is "unusable". This has not yet come up for me, but when it does, I will be sure to write about it!
Let me know if you have gone through this process and what it was like for you!
I would LOVE to hear from other people who are on this journey.