No, Closet Cleaning Isn’t Inherently Sustainable

Expert advice for cleaning and curating a personal, longer-lasting wardrobe.

A woman doing a seasonal closet cleanout

As the annual nudge to do a bit of spring deep cleaning returns — accompanied by the first few weeks of warmer weather and sunlight past 5 p.m. — with it is often a big seasonal closet cleanse. You may realize last year’s shorts don’t suit your taste anymore and stumble upon a swimsuit or two whose elasticity has gone kaput. As you organize items into keep, resell, and donate piles, it’s comforting to know that the market is quite saturated with companies that can give your garments another chance. However, if you’re looking to make a significant environmental impact, closet cleaning is only a small part of creating a more sustainable life and ensuring that your bag of unwanted items doesn’t just become someone else’s problem.

“We have this idea that [what you donate] goes off and it finds this beautiful better home and we can feel good about it because we’re giving back, we’re clearing up space in our own lives which is de-stressing,” says Maxine Bédat. “The reality is not exactly that.” Bédat, founder of the New Standard Institute and author of the upcoming book Unraveled: The Life and Death of Garment, has traveled across the globe to research where clothes end their life cycle. As she explains, what can often happen (even for the most well-intentioned donations or resales) is that garments that can't be used, inevitably end up in other parts of the world where other communities absorb the burden to dispose of them.

This realization is further disheartening when looking at some of the most alarming stats, including a 2018 report from the Environmental Protection Agency which found that 17 million tons of textile waste were generated just that year. Additionally, a 2020 report by McKinsey & Company and The Global Fashion Agenda says that the fashion industry contributes four percent of the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions, one third of which come from downstream operations including end-of-life use.

“It’s not to say to not clean out your closet,” says Bédat, “but it’s that continuous loop of ‘I’m going to cleanse my closet only to fill it back up with things that don’t make me happy, just to get rid of it again.’” In other words, responsibly cleaning your closet is only possible once this harmful cycle is broken. So, take a pause on filling up that giant bag with old tees and shoes that have been worn to shreds. This is actually what you need to keep in mind if a more sustainable and personally fulfilling closet — not more closet space — is your ultimate, spring-cleaning end goal.

Responsible Closet Cleaning: Evaluating What You Own

In order to carefully scrutinize the contents of your closet, you need to be honest with yourself about what you value the most and what fits into your lifestyle. In an unexpected way, the experience of living during the last year of the pandemic might be able to help make these realizations. “We’ve all inadvertently had a capsule collection closet,” says Aditi Mayer regarding the current pandemic when there haven’t always been occasions to dress up or break out a new office look. The influencer, photojournalist, and labor-rights activist audits — as she calls it — her closet seasonally and suggests looking at clothing through an emotional lens. “I’m looking at so many formal wear dresses and I can’t wait for a world where I can wear this again. That’s where the emotional attachment is: If you see pieces you obviously haven’t worn for a while in the age of the pandemic, is it actually something you’re looking forward to wearing when the day comes?”

Other questions Mayer asks: “When’s the last time I wore this? And if it’s been a while, I’ll ask myself is it because of a lack of fit? Is it a lack of style alignment? Or did I just forget about it? If I just forgot about it, that’s the beauty of a closet audit, right? It reorients you with the things you own.”

Natalie Tomlin, consumer communications manager from resale destination thredUP, says that consumers should also make use of the time it takes to clean their closets. “If you’re undecided about a particular item, try wearing it around the house while you’re cleaning out your closet,” recommends Tomlin. “Are you reminded of how much you love it and can’t wait to wear it again soon? Maybe it’s worth saving. If you took it for a test drive and couldn’t wait to get it off, then don’t hang it back up again!” Tomlin also suggests taking note of what in your closet still has tags on. “If you haven’t removed the tags from an item in your closet, this is a telltale sign that you’re not excited about it.”

Responsible Closet Cleaning: Showing Some TLC

Responsible cleaning includes knowing the difference between a garment that needs to go and one that needs some extra attention. “Knowing a good tailor and a cobbler is completely lifechanging,” says Bédat, adding that professionals can help ensure your clothing fits you properly and most comfortably. They can also extend the life of your pieces well beyond a few rips and tears. “I have a pair of jeans I got in college which was a while ago for me. I’ve gotten them repaired several times and I love each little fix on them.” As she sees it, tailors are part of the necessary infrastructure in your life in having a well-curated closet.

However, should you be a crafty individual, there are some DIY options, as well, including visible mending and brushing up on rudimentary sewing skills. “I’m developing a more tangible relationship with reimagining clothes,” shares Maye. “I’ve made it a point to learn basic sewing techniques from my mom, so when it comes to altering stuff that might not have the right fit anymore or stuff I’ve failed to wear because the hemline was too long, I’m empowering myself as an individual to make those tweaks on my own.”

Responsible Closet Cleaning: Resell, Donate, Swap, Or Recycle

There’s no easy and obvious answer as to where the clothing you no longer need or want should go once you cleaned them from your closet. But the options are plentiful and should be chosen mindfully.

The resale route can be financially rewarding, especially for garments that are new or in great condition. “For the clothes we can’t resell due to poor quality, we work with aftermarket and textile recycling partners to further reduce waste and promote a circular model for fashion,” explains Tomlin of thredUP’s process, adding, “Reuse is one of the best ways to extend the life of clothes and reduce fashion’s impact on the planet.”

However, while sites like thredUP (or similarly, The RealReal, Poshmark, Depop) can provide a market for a garment’s second or third life, you can also focus your efforts more locally. “In terms of looking at where you live, ask if your local shelters have a request for specific items,” suggests Mayer, who says she calls women shelters in Downtown L.A. to see if they have specific needs for items like socks or jackets. “That's a really good way to ensure that your items are being used after their disposal.”

Another option is to engage in clothing swaps, which can be as convenient as hitting up the members of your favorite group chat to find a new home for your garments. “I’m a big proponent of clothing swaps,” shares Mayer. “Obviously in the age of the pandemic it’s harder to do events that are larger scale, but even if it’s your immediate close friends you can do that. And there are also virtual clothing swaps on sites like Rehash or Swap Society.”

Finally, when it comes to recycling items in your closet, one easy step is looking for fashion brands that offer buy-back programs, such as Renew by Eileen Fisher, Patagonia’s Worn Wear, or Levi’s in-store denim recycling. “It’s something to think of when you think of the brands you want to support,” says Mayer. “Where will this end up in and will the brand contribute to a more circular economy?” Otherwise, look to companies such as Terracycle, Green Tree Textiles, or Council for Textile Recycling, who might have a local drop-off location in your neighborhood. Should you be in doubt if an item can be donated rather than recycled, Bédat recommends taking the donation route to be safe. “They are the experts,” she says of the employees, “and know better what to do. If there is any question, I would include it in a donation rather than not.”

Responsible Closet Cleaning: Changing How You Shop

Closet cleaning can create many opportunities to extend the life of your clothing and find a new purpose for textiles that would otherwise end up in landfills but, as experts have shared, it’s a limited concept. In fact, it’s only a fraction of a larger effort to be more sustainably minded, all of which starts with conscious fashion consumption. “That’s at the heart of what we can do. That’s really going to move the needle: adding a layer of being conscious when we’re purchasing something,” says Bédat.

Shopping consciously encompasses its own range of considerations, including fabric choices and their ability to decompose, production conditions, treatment of workers, waste reduction, and supporting brands whose social values align with your own. It’s a layered process but can begin with a pause. “If we just spend a moment thinking about ‘Is this something that’s really additive to my life?’ it’s going to be really important,” says Bédat. She suggests considering the Japanese concept of Mottainai, translated commonly as “what a waste!” While she says Marie Kondo’s Konmari method may be the gold standard for closet cleaning, Mottainai can be a guiding principle for shopping (or not shopping). “As we’re buying things, take that moment to think if we really want that in our lives, and when we get rid of something, we also take that moment for regretting wasting a resource, not just like telling ourselves this myth that it’s going to some better place.”

Some immediate ways to shift and shop with less regret is to shop second-hand. “Fast fashion culture has perpetuated a cycle of overproduction and underutilization, clogging our landfills and draining our planet's natural resources,” says Tomlin. “As we prepare to get dressed again [post-pandemic], we have the opportunity to cultivate more sustainable fashion habits.” She recommends thrifting items, especially when trying out a new style. “It allows you to test-drive ‘new’ looks and get more daring with your style without the financial or eco costs of shopping new.”

Mayer also agrees that the normalization of fast fashion, in particular, has been harmful to closet building and cleaning. “The project of fast fashion exists to homogenize culture, style, and make us follow arbitrary trends,” she says. “But I think the beauty of a sustainable wardrobe is one that truly reflects personal style. Personal style is an inherently sustainable concept, in that way.”