August 01, 2023 3 min read

What to do with outgrown and unwanted clothes

We’ve all seen them. The big yellow or green donation boxes of used clothes and shoes by the gas station, at the shopping center, almost anywhere. They are ubiquitous in the US. But what happens to the clothes shoved in those boxes? Do they go to help local families in need? Is this the “responsible” way to get rid of clothes your kid has outgrown?

Depending on where you are and the box you find, many of them are operated by for-profit companies that ship the clothes abroad to the developing world. “Well, at least they are going to people in need!” you say. Not so fast.

Many years ago, I spent a summer living and working in Rwanda. There, in the market places, you'll find giant stalls of clothes and shoes from Europe and the US. Think of this flood of cheap clothes as the Walmart that runs the mom-and-pop stores out of business. Throughout Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, there are tailors, dressmakers, and small-scale manufacturers struggling to compete with the cheap prices of imported second-hand clothes. This is not just a problem in Africa, but much of the global South. In fact, many countries are considering banning the import of second hand clothes from the US and Europe. If people are passionate enough about this issue to consider banning imports we should listen to them, and do our best to keep our secondhand clothes close to home.

So what can you do to avoid sending your kids clothes abroad? 

  • Buy less, buy better, and repair more. The biggest driver of this overwhelmed system is our desire for more and more items for ourselves and our kids. Just because it is a bargain, doesn’t mean your kids need it. Think before you buy another item. If family members want to buy clothes for your kids, help them fill in the gaps with quality items the kids actually need, and that will last. And, of course, get all the hand-me-downs and secondhand gems you can, and repair to make them last.
  • Focus on local charities. The big well-known charities are often so overwhelmed with clothes that they sell a lot of them at auction. And guess where they end up? (HINT: see above.) Smaller organizations may need the kids clothes you’ve got. Ask around for refugee resettlement agencies, domestic violence shelters, and other organizations that support families in need or in times of crisis. They may be thrilled with a collection of clean and well sorted kids clothes.
  • Organize a clothing swap. This is a great way to get rid of the clothes you no longer need and maybe pick up a few items you do. (PS- clothing swaps for parents over a wine or a whiskey is also a great thing to do!) I’ve seen parents organize school-wide clothing swaps as a fundraiser for the school. Pay a small entry fee at the door and get all of the clothes (or toys!) you need.
  • Be real about what’s unusable. Some things just can’t be salvaged and aren’t worth passing on. You can cut these up into your own household rags, or take them to a textile recycler. Our old neighborhood in Philly used to bring a textile recycler to a big neighborhood event. It was genius! Folks were already coming out to join in a fun event, and they could just bring their unusable items along to be made into rags and insulation.
  • Encourage the Next Generation of Donation Boxes. I’ve recently come across this interesting company, Helpsy, that is doing donation boxes differently. In addition to the usual local second-hand market and rags/insulation sales, they are partnering with fashion designers to upcycle the clothes they collect. Now they do sell some of their clothes globally, but as a B-corp (that is an independently certified company that benefits the social and environmental good) they might just hear the pleas to stop sending clothes abroad.

So I’d love to hear from you: what are you doing to reduce the social and ecological impact of your kids’ clothes? Have you found creative ways to buy less, buy better, repair or pass along? What works for you?