Guilt-Free “Tidying Up”: Cleansing Your Clutter Responsibly
I have got to say... I am DELIGHTED that Marie Kondo’s trend of clearing away clutter and simplifying your space has had a resurgence in popularity with the premiere of her Netflix series. Seeing so many people showing off photos of their piles and piles of donations, their freshly organized closets and pantries, empty storage units… it makes me SO happy. Discovering the joy of living with less is something that should never be frowned upon, no matter how ‘trendy’ it may be right now.
As wonderful as it is, the more I've seen Facebook and Instagram inundated with these posts, the more I think about where exactly those donations are going. I know that, of course, everyone is just trying to do the right thing - cleansing their house of unused items and sending them back out into the world for someone else to enjoy! Let me just say this up front so no one gets confused: I believe it is always better to try and donate something instead of just throwing it in the trash. But if you do a little research, you’ll find that it’s often not as simple as you donating an item and someone else buying it. I’m not saying you should have to go through an existential crisis every time you want to drop a box off at Goodwill, but it’s worth taking the time to understand what happens to your donations after you drop your bags and boxes off at the thrift store.
It’s worth taking the time to understand what happens to your donations after you drop your bags and boxes off at the thrift store.
When I started my downsizing process, I fell down a bit of an internet black hole doing research about the environmental impact of donating your old stuff to charities or thrift stores. To be honest, it felt a bit too easy to just dump your old stuff on someone else’s doorstep, like there has to be something they aren’t telling us. So I set out to educate myself.
I had heard a few people claim that thrift stores tossed all kinds of stuff into the dumpster without a second thought, but after a decent amount of research, that claim doesn’t seem to be substantiated beyond a few special cases. After all, that doesn’t make much sense - if something can be re-sold, it’s money in their pocket! Thrift stores certainly do contribute their fair share to landfill waste, but they are often just trashing things that the previous owner should have thrown away or recycled in the first place instead of attempting to donate them. That being said, the sheer -volume- of items that thrift stores receive means a lot less individual attention is paid to your donations, and sometimes good stuff can go to waste.
So what did my research tell me? For larger organizations like Goodwill, you can follow the trail of unsold items pretty far. The exact process depends on the organization, but this is how the chain normally goes:
Anything damp, moldy, or otherwise ‘contaminated’ is thrown away immediately. This makes up approximately 5% of all donated items.
Donations in decent condition are put out into the stores for approximately four weeks.
If the items haven’t sold in the allotted time, they are shipped to thrift store outlets (yes, those exist!), where customers and clothing salvagers can buy items by the pound.
From there, unsold items are packaged for live auctions where people can bid on boxes, without knowing exactly what’s inside, for extraordinarily low prices.
Next, items can be passed off to recycling programs. Organizations like S.M.A.R.T. recycle some of the remaining clothing into industrial rags, insulation, or even paper products. Or…
Items can be sent in bulk overseas to developing countries. Though exporting old clothing to less developed countries might seem like a kind and helpful gesture, studies have shown that it actually has very negative effects on the communities it is supposed to be benefitting. Importing cheap used clothing takes a lot of very necessary business away from local artisans, and has become enough of an issue that some countries are turning away the bales of second hand clothing. Or…
The end of the line, things can be sent to the landfill. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the US produced 15.1 million tons of textile waste in 2013, and around 85% of that ended up in landfills. That amount has certainly fluctuated in the years since (and I could not find a reputable source for a more recent study), but without major changes to the fast fashion industry, it's easy to assume that today's levels are somewhat comparable.
After all that research, I looked at my giant pile of donations, blog posts and articles ringing in my ears, completely paralyzed by the thought that my stuff could just fall down the entire chain and end up in a landfill. I think a lot of people use the ‘out of sight out of mind’ philosophy - drop your giant piles at the donation center and never worry about them again! It’s true that ignorance can be bliss, because once I was more educated, I felt like I really couldn’t just dump it at Goodwill and be done with it. So what do you do?!
You’re never going to know exactly where all of your stuff ends up, but that doesn’t mean you should keep it.
At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s necessarily a 100% perfect answer. You’re never going to know exactly where all of your stuff ends up, but that doesn’t mean you should keep it. I started small. I tried to be more thoughtful and intentional about who would most likely have use for all of my old things. I tried lots of different methods of giving away, donating, selling, and recycling, and stuck with the ones that were the quickest and most efficient. Bit by bit, my giant pile of donations started to disappear, and I, miraculously, was not consumed by guilt! I felt like my old stuff was much more likely to get a new life than if I were to have just dropped on a thrift store shelf.
If you are paralyzed by the idea of packing up that giant corner of donation boxes currently parked in your dining room and dumping them on the doorstep of your local thrift store, read on! In the hopes of helping those of you out there who may be struggling like I was, I’ve compiled my favorite ways to get rid of stuff that do not involve emptying a truckload of bags and boxes on the doorstep of your local Goodwill. Some of them may even make you some money! I've included a bunch of pro-tips I've learned, which will hopefully help you on your downsizing journey, so keep an eye out for those.
Sell your stuff online
In my experience, selling online can be a lot more trouble than it’s worth, but I did do a fair bit of this! It does mean keeping that stuff in your house until it can be sold and shipped, and most people don’t have the luxury of that extra time or space. Trust me, I know first hand how frustrating that can be. It can be a good way to make some extra cash, though, if you find the right buyer! Pro-tip: I have always had more success with good ol’ CraigsList than I ever have with sites like ebay or apps like Poshmark or LetGo. Your audience is narrower, but that means the offerings are narrower as well, you’re not as likely to be fighting through a sea of posts without being seen. And not having to worry about shipping makes it easier on you and the buyer!
Sell at a consignment store
Consignment stores are generally a bit picky about what they buy from you, but that discerning eye leads to a much higher chance of the items they put on their shelves finding new owners. They are generally looking for very lightly worn items, things that could almost pass as new. Based on my experience with selling to consignment stores, I added a few pro-tips below to ensure you have the highest likelihood of unloading your stuff!
Find some locally owned and operated places! Local establishments are generally less crowded and more flexible on what they can take.
Keep in mind that consignment stores are really looking to stock their store for the upcoming season, so you’re a lot less likely to get some cash for that big wool coat during spring cleaning. You’ll get more bang for your buck if you cleanse your closet of outdated items before you hit the season you might normally wear them in.
If you have the time, don’t just visit a single one, different stores take different kinds of items.
Most consignment stores will give you more store credit than cash. I always take the store credit, then hold onto it until I need to go shopping for some new outfits. I’d rather get a new dress for free later rather than a $10 bill today, and most consignment shops have high quality brands available for a fraction of their original price.
Find specific charities for specific items
If you can think critically about who might have the most use for your old items, you are much more likely to find them a new home where they can truly be useful. I’ve included a few examples below to get you started!
Prom dresses - Locally we have the Cinderella Dreams Project, which, like I mentioned above, collects formal wear, dry cleans them, then makes them available to families that might not otherwise be able to buy things like prom dresses for their teenagers. I’d be willing to bet you have an organization like this local to you as well.
Professional-wear, suits, general business attire - Dress for Success is the organization I donated my items to, but if you don’t have a local chapter, homeless shelters also often have related programs that help dress and prepare people for job interviews!
Appliances, building supplies, housewares, furniture and tools - the Habitat ReStore is a great place to clear out the stuff you don’t need from your old house, and stock up on all the things you need for your new house! They even offer free pick-up services for large items like appliances.
Toys, infant carriers, toddler clothing, all manner of baby items - You can almost always find collection drives for refugee mothers, foster families, or other family assistance charities, as long as the items aren’t too worn out.
Sometimes it’s tough to be honest with yourself about whether or not someone will actually want to use your old stuff, or if something has really just outlived its usefulness. Sometimes, it’s better to just save those thrift store employees the work, and take stuff to the recycling center yourself. Instead of tossing it on the pile at the local recycling center, there are a few ways you can recycle more effectively as well, so I've listed a few of those options below.
Electronics - That giant mess of cords and chargers you haven’t touched in three years? The printer that ran out of ink three years ago? That desk fan you keep meaning to fix? I guarantee you, you don’t need them. Best Buy has a great recycling program that is almost always free; there are some items they charge for (like TVs), but they’ll tell you upfront. Occasionally, they offer coupons to replace what you are recycling, like printers. In general, if you're looking to recycle some kind of electronic, just Google "recycle + batteries/printer cartridges/old phone chargers/etc." and you'll find an option that is cheap or free. Pro-tip: Have a bunch of old smartphones? Check out Gazelle - I made a quick $100 by selling them my old devices (without SIM cards and completely wiped of all memory, of course - they’ll even walk you through that). They even send you packaging and pre-printed shipping labels!
Unsalvageable clothing - What do you do when your favorite jeans rip? Or your favorite t-shirt finally has one too many moth-holes? If it is something that truly cannot be repaired (i.e. never doubt the value of a little sewing kit to get more mileage out of your beloved items), definitely don’t drop those into the donate bin. There are a good number of organizations that will repurpose your old clothes; the blog Trash is for Tossers put together a great guide with a long list of specific recycling options linked here. Personally, I cut a lot of my unsalvageable clothing into rags. Pro-tip: If you’re about to build a tiny house (or a big house!), you will need rags FOR. EVERYTHING. This cannot be overstated. I have a giant bag of them, and I use them for everything from applying countertop stain to cleaning sawdust off the windows.
Miscellaneous paper and plastic - Got a giant bag of old plastic bags? (Who doesn’t?) Put them in your trunk to return to the grocery store collection bin next time you go. Got a giant stack of broken down cardboard boxes? Find a friend who is getting ready for a move and pass them along. And check your local recycling center’s guidelines on what they are willing to take, you may be surprised! Pro-tip: you can also compost your old scrap paper! Don’t do too much, but shredded paper is a good stand-in if you don’t have dry leaves or clippings to add to your kitchen scraps.
Buy Nothing groups
This was REVOLUTIONARY for my downsizing process. They are Facebook groups you join for your given town/city/neighborhood, and all you have to do is search for one on Facebook, ask to join, and familiarize yourself with the basic rules of posting. The basic premise of these groups is to be a clearinghouse for free and/or borrowed items. So if you have something to give away for free, or are looking for something specific that you’re hoping to find, you post about the item, and other group members comment to express interest or let you know if they have the item you want. Often, if you are giving something away, the interested person can come to YOU to pick your stuff up. I frequently left items tucked away on my porch for pickup so I didn’t have to worry about coordinating exact timing - you may not feel comfortable with that, but people are generally pretty flexible about pick-up arrangements. But arranging pick-ups means no loading your car up to trek across town to the donation center, which was invaluable to me! Among many other things, I was able to donate a file cabinet to a teacher who needed more storage for her classroom, some unused picture frames to an art student, and a dresser to a new mom trying to furnish a nursery! There is an amazing sense of satisfaction that comes with putting an item directly into the hands of its new owner, and it’s even better when you know you are helping someone who really needs it. Pro-tip: Post items one at a time! If you're trying to get rid of 10 items at once, it's really easy to get confused about who is picking up what and when, so I don't recommend it. And you may even end up annoying other people in the group by overloading their feed.
Give your stuff away to family or friends
It may seem obvious, but this is the BEST way to get rid of the toughest stuff, and by far my favorite way of downsizing. If I was hung up on getting rid of something that I used to love, but definitely wasn’t going to have room for, my first stop became asking friends, family, even co-workers if they wanted to take it off my hands! Any time I was headed to a friends house, or home on vacation, I would text them photos of a few things I thought they might want, like books, artwork, or kitchen appliances - all of a sudden I was Santa Claus, dropping off presents everywhere I went. Pro-tip: Host a 'trunk sale!' I pulled my car up outside my office during lunch one day, popped open the trunk and set up my donations so everything was easy to see. I invited my co-workers to come pick through my books, clothes, kitchenware, etc. and snag whatever they wanted! I got rid of a ton of stuff, then dropped the leftovers off at the thrift store on my way home. Those boots I loved but never wore because they were a bit too small? Now I get to see my co-worker rockin' them like I never could.
It takes time to be intentional and thoughtful about where your donated items are going, but it’s always well worth it...
Getting rid of your stuff is already stressful enough, so I hope these tips help anyone who may be struggling with starting their downsizing process, or just want to purge some of their clutter.
It takes time to be intentional and thoughtful about where your donated items are going, but it’s always well worth it, to know that something you loved and made space for is having a new and useful life somewhere else.
PS: It should go without saying, but I am nowhere close to being an expert on this topic! I relied on reputable sources that I was able to access online, which are all linked below. If you have supplementary information on this topic that would be helpful, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will make updates to this post!
I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but this book comes highly recommended when it comes to the environmental impacts of the fashion industry:
[Royalty free stock images: Pexels]