growing a minimalist wardrobe: responsible decluttering.

April 23, 2018

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.)

Other things:

+ 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

+ Kid’s clothing company, Misha + Puff has been doing a terrific series on their blog this month about clothing repairs. Lots of good ideas this way.

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44 Comments

  • Reply Sarah April 23, 2018 at 9:58 am

    We have to move in May, so I’m eager to purge. (My partner reminds me we just moved a year and a half ago, so surely there can’t be much to get rid of? Ha.)

    I rarely donate clothing to Goodwill. I’ve had success donating clothes to local charities that serve just my neighborhood or city and that I know have a robust client base to distribute to. And by success, I mean I feel good about it and the orgs are reputable. I don’t actually know whether my things get used after I hand them off.

  • Reply Beth Ramos April 23, 2018 at 10:31 am

    Amazing post! First, I wholly concur with your sentiment about the bliss derived from a freshly-organized space! I often open an organized drawer just to gaze upon its beauty! Love these ideas about how to responsibly donate. I recently had my bestie over to assist in a closet purge and she ended up taking half of my castoffs. Made me so happy! I love your creative and bright ideas. Thank you, Erin!!

  • Reply Judith April 23, 2018 at 10:35 am

    So one question I have is what to do with clothing that has become unwearable? Worn out shoes, for example are not candidates for consignment or Good Will. And old underwear? Do you throw it in the trash or compost it? Another reason to go for natural fibers.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 23, 2018 at 10:44 am

      Hey there: So this was part of the question I asked my local Goodwill. They will take unwearable clothes/rags/scraps to send them for textile recycling. Depending on things like fabric composition, these textiles might be used in insulations or, rug pads, etc. Underwear is tricky because most of it includes Elastane or Lycra or a similarly non-compostable, non-recyclable fiber. I think the only answer is landfill in this case.

      • Reply Bridget April 23, 2018 at 11:35 am

        Hanky Panky recently announced a lingerie recycling program:

        https://blog.hankypanky.com/introducing-lingeriecycle/

        • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 24, 2018 at 10:19 am

          Yes! I just learned about this and included it in a post here…and then forgot! Adding a note above! Thanks for the reminder!

      • Reply Sadie April 23, 2018 at 11:47 am

        I just learned that Hanky Panky has started a recycle program for used underwear and bras: Lingeriecycle (https://www.hankypanky.com/Lingeriecycle). If you make a purchase from them, upon request, they will send you one or more envelopes for sending in used items. Their underwear and bras don’t work for me, so I e-mailed them separately, and they sent me a bunch of envelopes without a purchase. Yeah!

        • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 24, 2018 at 10:18 am

          Yes! Of course. I just included this in my Friday post a week or two ago and then promptly forgot about it! Adding a note in the body of the post. Thanks for the reminder here!

    • Reply Ris April 23, 2018 at 1:18 pm

      Worn out tennis shoes can be recycled–I’ve had luck with Googling around for dropoff bins.

    • Reply Lindy April 23, 2018 at 10:32 pm

      H&M will accept old underwear for textile recycling.. also if the underwear is still wearable there are people that buy it..

  • Reply Rebecca April 23, 2018 at 10:38 am

    I joined my local buy nothing group when I moved to Portland, and it has changed the way we do so many things. People post what they no longer need, and requests for something they do need. We’ve yet to buy a pair of shoes for my toddler, and I now know the kids that are a size under and over his little feet- it’s been a great way to build community and reduce our footprint.
    We recently transitioned him to a toddler bed, and were suddenly in need of a solution to keep him from rolling out- within minutes someone had responded to my request for a bed rail. My wife sprained her calf in a softball game yesterday- within minutes someone had offered up a pair of crutches. We don’t all need to have crutches stored in our homes (and bed rails certainly don’t need to be one time use), and it sure is nice to feel more connected to our neighborhood and to be sharing our things as needed.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 23, 2018 at 10:47 am

      Yes! Excellent! I meant to mention these groups! They’re so great. (Strangely I also feel like they can sometimes have the funny effect of encouraging folks to fill up on things they don’t really need, but, hey, if it’s things that already exist and would be tossed out otherwise, not a terrible thing!)

      • Reply Kelly April 23, 2018 at 2:56 pm

        I’m an admin for my neighborhood Buy Nothing chapter in Roslindale. I really, truly love it. We have neighbors passing along extra dinner when they make too much – or donating items for local drives (like Free the Girls Bra drives).

        I also love what I’ve kept out of the landfill. For example – I had a 3/4 full container of men’s body wash. I had no idea where it came from, but a neighbor happily took it. We also have a lending library within our group for things like folding tables, baby travel harnesses (CARES), and other items that you only need once in awhile….

        • Reply Rebecca April 24, 2018 at 12:02 pm

          Isn’t buy nothing amazing? The same kind of things are happening around here- meal sharing, cupboard clean outs, rallying around immigrant families to stock their houses and fill their bellies. It warms my heart, and as a new citizen of Portland, it has made me feel at home in this community.

  • Reply Liz April 23, 2018 at 10:58 am

    I love this article! My son wears his clothes hard and are often in bad shape when he’s done with them. I’ve been taking them to H&M (ironically a purveyor of fast fashion) for recycling. They take clothes in any condition. Do you know anything about the merits of this program?

    https://about.hm.com/en/sustainability/get-involved/recycle-your-clothes.html

    Also our local animal shelter happily takes old sheets and towels.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 24, 2018 at 10:21 am

      Hey there: I hear you on wearing clothes hard. We tend to keep Faye and Silas in the same things until they’re really truly unwearable. Honestly I don’t know much about the specifics of H&M’s program. On one level it irks me when large companies in part responsible for the state of clothing consumption offer these kinds of measures. But I also think it’s probably better than not offering them at all. Because some textiles are not recyclable, I’m not sure how everything gets used that’s collected through their system, but would be eager to learn more.

      • Reply Anna April 24, 2018 at 2:04 pm

        From what I’ve been able to find out online about the H&M program, only a very small percentage of the materials collected are used to make new clothing. The vast majority of it gets down-cycled into insulation etc.

        • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 24, 2018 at 4:50 pm

          Yes, definitely imagine that that’s the case, especially because so many clothes would contain materials that aren’t truly recyclable.

    • Reply Claudia April 24, 2018 at 2:05 pm

      About the H&M program:
      http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/clothes-recycling-marketplace-1.4493490

  • Reply Katherine April 23, 2018 at 11:09 am

    I volunteer with a refugee resettlement program that gives new refugees a month long crash course in American culture/how to survive in America. Many of these people lack very basic education (Women from Afghanistan who are completely illiterate, elderly people from African nations who have never gone to school, etc.) and they come to the country without proper clothes, no furniture, and no resources outside their caseworkers for books, etc.. Consider giving to causes like that! In Virginia, Commonwealth Catholic Charities runs the school in my town, and it is a completely wonderful course. In a month, someone who has never read or written, could fill out a doctor’s form, can recite their address and phone number, and can navigate my city’s bus system.

  • Reply Lexie April 23, 2018 at 11:13 am

    My local H&M collects ALL textiles for recycling, no matter the condition! I have dropped off (CLEAN!) unusable kitchen towels and almost disintegrated socks and cotton underwear. It’s a great program to take advantage of!

  • Reply Bridget April 23, 2018 at 11:42 am

    For tights and pantyhose, No Nonsense used to accept items back for recycling, but not anymore. It looks like Recycled Crafts still does, though:

    savemyhosiery.yolasite.com

  • Reply Kate April 23, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    I also take a certain pleasure in putting items out by the sidewalk, but I’m careful — a sunny weekend day, neatly folded, perhaps a little sign. I live in Portland (OR), where it’s a common practice, but one we abuse sometimes, i.e. leaving a box of total junk out in the rain. Thanks for calling attention to this issue.

  • Reply Anna April 23, 2018 at 1:11 pm

    My friend has an annual kids clothes and toys swap before the holidays which is a great way to share what I don’t need and find a few things that my kids would like. I also donate kids clothes and toys to a children’s closet at a church which is open to anyone who needs the things for their kids. It always feels better to give things away to people or organizations who will give them directly to people who need or want them.

  • Reply Emily April 23, 2018 at 1:20 pm

    Love this!

    I also find that in a big city, one of the easiest ways to “donate” unused goods (specifically books, kitchen items, furniture, home decor) is to leave it on your stoop! I swear that NOTHING I leave on the steps of my Brooklyn apartment remain there for long, and I’ve definitely picked up favorite books and some housewares just by walking through the neighborhood!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 24, 2018 at 10:23 am

      Yes, agreed. We use the stoop method very frequently and agreed with a commenter below, it’s sometimes helpful to leave a little note to ensure that what’s left out gets put to good use!

  • Reply Ris April 23, 2018 at 1:20 pm

    I’ve joined a local clothing swap group and it’s one of the best things ever (I found them on FB). It’s a great place to get rid of clothes that are perfectly good but no longer my style and I’ve met a lot of fun people through it as well. If you can’t find one in your area, start your own! It’s like the story of giving your overalls to your neighbor, but with a much bigger distribution web 😉

  • Reply Hannah April 23, 2018 at 3:24 pm

    Two thoughts…1) When I realized that pregnancy and breastfeeding had left me with a lot of barely-used bras that wouldn’t ever fit again, I did some research and stumbled across a non-profit called Free the Girls that accepts gently-used bras and uses them to help women get free from sex trafficking. Just wanted to throw it out there in case it’s useful info for other mamas!!
    2) Erin, this is really way off topic, but I’ve been wondering and thought you might know–how does Storq’s maternity wear do postpartum? Do things actually fit and look good on a not-pregnant-right-now mom? I’m not currently pregnant, but in the middle of the childbearing years, and wanting to be mindful of buying basics that will serve me well despite the near-constant body morphing that will probably happen over the next 5-7 years. I’m especially interested in their tanks, tee dress, and pencil skirt. Thank you so much!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 24, 2018 at 10:29 am

      Hey! I think it depends a bit on how regularly you wear them and how much they stretch during pregnancy. I wore my dress through two pregnancies but by the time I was no longer pregnant with Silas, it was pretty stretched out for wear as a regular dress. Other items, like the caftan, which isn’t stretchy in the first place is more wearable postpartum, but you have to like the loosely fitted look! I think that’s kind of how it goes regardless of maternity line. Your body really does morph so much in childbearing. You can certainly find things to wear on a non-pregnant body and a pregnant body, but in my experience, you’d have to be ready for a pretty loose fit while not pregnant.

  • Reply Em April 23, 2018 at 3:25 pm

    Perfect timing! I’m in the throes of a serious closet purge to make room for a couple big purchases. For years I’ve maintained a delusion of virtuousness by shopping second hand, but turns out used clothes can pile up in exactly the same way that new clothes can. The only thing that blunts the cutting edge of consumerism is paying attention, so thanks for being a herald of the move toward true sustainability.

  • Reply Charlot April 23, 2018 at 4:06 pm

    I enjoy your blog very much – – have been inspired to do a lot of de-cluttering at my home. What I need to read is help for minimizing things in our utility area. Cleaning supplies, laundry cleaners, extra light bulbs, watering cans, trash and recycling bins take up a lot of room. Where do you keep these things?

    • Reply Lindy April 23, 2018 at 10:40 pm

      Use them all up first then rebuy mindfully. First rule is use/ reuse.. I am using up till the end and rebuying carefully.. It’s taken a long time but otherwise it just creates more garbage and more consumerism..

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 24, 2018 at 10:31 am

      Hey there! I tackle a lot of this in my book, but in an apartment without a utility area to speak of, we necessarily have to really limit what we keep in stock. We have a teeny tiny under-the-sink kitchen trash and a basket for recycling!

  • Reply Lindsay April 23, 2018 at 5:06 pm

    I moved recently, and took the opportunity to do some downsizing and decluttering. I also work at an NYC nonprofit that receives unsolicited clothing donations from time to time, despite our inability to accept them (due to limited storage and laundry facilities, risk of bedbugs, and general limited capacity to sort and distribute them). I really struggled with what to do with my castoffs, and ended up throwing away several, much to my disappointment. It made me MUCH more mindful about purchasing new things, and I really appreciate your focus on mindful, sustainable purchasing.

  • Reply Jenna April 23, 2018 at 5:22 pm

    I have been wanting to go through my closet to create a “minimalist” wardrobe for FOREVER… Now that I am home for the summer, I am totally going to use this post to actually do it. 🙂 Thank you so much!
    -Jenna

  • Reply Lindy April 23, 2018 at 10:18 pm

    I have to tell you.. I found myself in a post of having to quickly live in less rooms in my condo and all I could think of was yr book/ blog/ insta on how to live in a tinier space and share spaces and how to pare down and organizer to the lowest number of things while living as simple and beautiful ly as possible..

  • Reply Lindy April 23, 2018 at 10:29 pm

    Great post.. instead of giving to Goidwell today I tried to repurpose.. it wasn’t a great piece for them to resell.. H&M I take my items for textile recycling.. My Goodwill does not accept.. and yes we are so overconsumed.. my local thrift store is with care ful looking too if the line..

  • Reply Codrut Turcanu April 24, 2018 at 5:56 am

    I like to give away clothes, but I didn’t know there are organizations that accept donations… will check here locally in Bucharest, Romania. Best wishes!

  • Reply Mickey April 24, 2018 at 7:17 am

    We were moving abroad and decided to only take two towels with us (one each). Of course we had accumulated about 12 towels up to that point, some of which had been with my husband since his grad school days.

    We donated the surplus to an animal shelter, and the ladies at the counter seemed genuinely pleased to get them. They said they go through towels, sheets and rags way too fast, and sometimes it’s a pain to try and get the mess out of them. They said we should let others know, in case any other family members wanted to donate these items.

  • Reply Amy April 24, 2018 at 9:57 am

    There have been some great suggestions already, but I have one more. If you have wearable clothes, household items, books, magazines, furniture, etc. look for local non-profit groups to donate to directly. I’ve donated to halfway houses, assisted living homes, and treatment centers before.

  • Reply Jess April 24, 2018 at 10:35 am

    Thank you for the post! My friends and i hold the most epic clothing swaps a couple times a year. Sometimes as many as 40 women attend- so many pieces find new excited homes. And, sometimes, a piece will cycle through 4, 5, 6 women before being donated to a local shelter. So fun.

    Also- for those with teenage daughters- they also attend which is really sweet as it is hard to find opportunity to have multiple generations of women enjoying time together.

  • Reply Rae D April 24, 2018 at 12:55 pm

    This is a great post. Thank you. And I recently watched the True Cost and was horrified about the amount of unused clothing. I just have a question that I was hoping either you or your readers could help. I have two girls (6 and 8 years old) who go through clothes pretty fast. I try to mend them when possible, but sometimes you just can’t do that. Are there any responsible children’s brands you would recommend that are in a little bit lower price range than Misha & Puff? While their clothing is adorable, spending $150 on a child’s dress isn’t my reality. Thanks!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 24, 2018 at 1:08 pm

      Hi Rae: Yes: Kids wear clothes so hard. Faye was only 18-months old or so at the time that I wrote this post, but a lot of these folks make clothes through size 10 or so. Will see about working on an update, but I think much of that post still holds!

  • Reply Amanda Krieger May 3, 2018 at 8:53 pm

    Night to Shine is a prom night experiences for people with special needs, ages 14 and up. If there’s one in your area, they always need formal wear donations: http://www.timtebowfoundation.org/ministries/night-to-shine

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