Editor’s note: This article was published in 2013. It appears that many Goodwill locations may have changed their policies since then and will not accept damaged clothing as is quoted in this article. To find a clothing recycler, use our recycling search tool. In your search results, you will see Goodwill locations; however, these are for donation and reuse only. You will need to select a different recycler if your items are beyond reuse.
Most of us have some old, worn clothing items in our closets, and many people hang on to them because they don’t know what to do with them. We feel bad throwing these clothes in the trash, but fear donating them to a charity like Goodwill or the Salvation Army would be inappropriate, since no one would want threadbare T-shirts or torn jeans.
We’ll let you in on a little secret: Charities will accept all sorts of textiles, including those that you think are too worn or damaged to donate.
“As a general rule, there isn’t much that we won’t allow to be donated to Goodwill,” Michael Meyer, vice president of donated retail goods at Goodwill Industries International, Inc., told Earth911. “We take all textiles in any condition. All those textiles end up in our system and they’re sorted to determine where they will land.”
The misconception that worn and damaged clothing items cannot be accepted by charities like Goodwill stems from the use of the term “gently used items,” which was a tagline for charities seeking donations for many years.
“The reality of it is ‘gently used items’ is all up for interpretation,” Meyer said. “Really, that’s more of an internal thing for us to say the gently used items will end up in our stores, in our outlets and on our auction sites.”
How Donated Textiles Get Sorted and Sold
After arriving at a Goodwill donation center, textiles are sorted and the majority of them end up on the sales floor in Goodwill’s retail stores, Meyer said. Because of the vast quantities of textiles arriving at Goodwill locations, sorting does take time, but Goodwill employees have the process down to a science.
“They are very efficient at moving things through, and [sorting] is a job creator,” Meyer said.
If clothing items don’t sell after a period of time in stores, some Goodwill locations send these items to Goodwill outlets where they are sold by the pound. Some Goodwill organizations even have auctions to sell this clothing. If any textiles remain at the end of this process, Goodwill sells them to salvage textile recyclers, which is where clothing not suitable for resale gets sent as well.
Goodwill does everything it can to ensure clothing not suitable for sale in their stores stays out of the landfill, so they work with aftermarket textile recyclers who use old textiles in a variety of ways. The charity keeps the proceeds of these sales in local communities by using them to support programs designed to help families and job seekers.
The Fate of Unsellable Textiles
Once your old clothing is sold to a textile recycler, it may find new life in a few different ways. According to Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART), a nonprofit trade association of companies that recycle these materials, 45 percent of used apparel is sold in the U.S. or sent abroad to countries where the demand for secondhand clothing is high, 30 percent becomes wiping and polishing cloths and 20 percent is turned into fibers for things like upholstery, insulation and furniture stuffing. Five percent of the textiles are discarded because they are wet, moldy, contaminated with solvents, or otherwise unfit for reuse or recycling.
You might be wondering why a lot of your unwanted clothing ends up in developing countries, and SMART explains it’s because there is a market for those items abroad. A 2005 study by Oxfam, an international confederation of organizations that fight poverty, explored the impacts of the secondhand clothing industry on West African economies, and among their findings was the fact that the livelihoods of many people depend on this industry.
Where to Donate Your Beat-Up Clothes
SMART estimates only 15 percent of all textiles are being recycled, which means a lot of old clothing — an estimated 11.1 million tons — ends up in our landfills every year.
Next time you have old or damaged clothing, check with local charities before throwing it in the trash. Even if a charity like Goodwill can’t sell your torn jeans to someone in your area, they can sell them to a textile recycler who will find a use for them. Plus, the money from that sale will benefit your community. Just be sure the worn clothing you donate is clean.
The only potential downside to donating worn clothing to a charity — if you can really call it a downside — is you won’t be able to deduct the donation on your taxes because it’s not in the “good condition” required by the IRS. However, if you donate other items that are still in good condition, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
A number of businesses will also take old clothing off your hands for recycling, so if convenience plays a role in dealing with your clothing, see what clothing recyclers operate in your area. Wearable Collections Clothing Recycling in New York City, for example, places clothing recycling bins in apartment buildings throughout the city to make the process easy for residents. They also host collection events in the community, and a portion of their proceeds go to charitable partners.