The Skinny on Clothing Recycling




It should be a simple process; if a charity appeals for your unwanted garments it should be committed to making the most out of them, both for the financial return for their cause and for the good of the planet. However, the various methods used to collect and make use of these items differs greatly and it's worth exploring the finer details, so that you are fully informed when you make your next donation.


What happens to the clothing you give to charity shops?


It is generally recognised that taking your unwanted clothes directly to your local charity shop (during opening hours, rather than dumping them on the doorstep to get peed on by territorial dogs or tampered with disreputable passers-by) is the best option for donating clothes to charity. It is more cost-effective for the charities, as there are no collection costs associated with it, and, if the items are of reasonable quality, they will make more money for the charity being sold directly through the shop than they would being collected by a third party in a door-to-door collection.


What happens to clothing that gets collected in door-to-door charity collections?

For anyone who struggles to get to a charity shop in a town or city (especially with a big bag of clothes to donate), these door-to-door collections, where an empty bag is dropped off on one day and then that same bag full of your donations is picked up on a designated future date, can seem like a godsend. Whilst they are undoubtedly better than throwing your unwanted garments in the bin, this method of donation makes less money for the charities than donating directly to the shop.

Firstly, they are usually run by third parties, who need to recoup the cost of the man-power and the vehicles needed to co-ordinate and perform the drop-offs and pick ups before they transfer any profit to the charity. Also, they usually calculate their donations by weight, so a certain amount of money (usually between £40 and £120) is donated to the designated charity for every tonne of clothing they collect. I have borrowed the following example from, as it is a great illustration of the benefit of donating your clothes direct to the shop.

Example: A good quality winter dress weighs around 1kg, which is only one 1,000th of a metric tonne,

  • If you give the dress to a house-to-house collection, it will raise between 4p and 12p for the charity (where if your collector gives £40 per tonne, £40 is divided by 1,000 and if they give £120 per tonne, £120 is divided by 1,000).
  • By contrast, if you take the same dress directly to a charity shop, it could be sold for around £10. Even by subtracting 75% for the shop's overheads, this means around £2.50 net income for the charity.


What happens to the clothing you give to clothing banks and recycling centres?

Another option for donating clothes you no longer require are clothing banks and recycling centres. Clothing banks are often found in the car parks of big super markets, which means you can often multitask like a pro, dropping off your donation and doing your big shop at the same time, which with today's busy lifestyles is often really helpful!

However, take care to read the information on the clothing bank carefully, as there are re-use and recycling banks in circulation and one is better for the planet than the other. If you donate to a re-use bank, your items will be used again in their existing form. A recycling centre will process all the items it collects back into materials and re-manufactures them, which is less good for the environment (but again, better than sending them to landfill). It is also worth checking to see if the unit is maintained by a charity itself or by a third party. A commercial third party usually transfers a very small fraction of the proceeds to its designated charity, so it may be more beneficial to donate them by a different method.


What happens to clothes that are donated to charity shops but which do not sell?

By this point in this article it should be fairly obvious that donating directly to your chosen charity shop is the best way for your unwanted garments to be given a new lease of life and for a charitable cause to get the most benefit from what you have to give. Even if you are worried that your donation may be a bit threadbare or far too unfashionable to a modern market, take it along anyway, as people use charity shops for a variety of reasons.

Aside from being an eco-friendly, cost effective way to add to your every day wardrobe, they are also great places to find fancy dress costumes and school play outfits, so even things that may seem a bit random should be included in your donation. Rest assured that any clothes that a charity shop can't sell are usually sent off for re-use or recycling elsewhere. Almost all charity shops that sell clothing have an arrangement with a recycler, who buys any unsold textile items from them. Such goods will then be recycled, or exported and sold overseas. If you have a selection of worn, torn and stained (but clean!) items, some places will accept donations labelled 'for rag' that can be sent directly to cloth recyclers.


Are there alternative ways to give your unwanted clothing a second (third or even fourth) life?

One way to take full control of the process of clothing re-use is to organise an event yourself by hosting a clothes-swapping party with friends and family. This has the added bonus of assuaging the doubts of anyone who is put off by buying from charity shops by the unknown provenance of the garments. Our one word of advice we would offer is put your guest list together carefully! You will achieve the best buzz and the most amount of swapping if you either invite a good mix of different sizes (and make sure there's at least one match for each size), or stick to inviting party-goers who are within one or two sizes of each other. If you want to add a charitable element to this, ask for a small donation from all attendees. This way you can do something for a cause whilst simultaneously feeling reassured that you know exactly where your new favourite dress came from!


I hope this article has helped to shed some light on the intricacies of clothing re-use and recycling. Whatever you do, remember that landfill should always be the last possible option. Even that t-shirt that you have had for years, is stained, full of holes and as miraculously escaped several previous wardrobe culls has a last incarnation as a few household cloths before it is thrown away. Think of it as a game, where opening the bin lid is an automatic lose, both for you  and for the environment. Bear in mind that you get a bit of a 'Get out of Jail Free' card in this imaginary game if you buy clothing made from natural fibres, as these will bio-degrade naturally at the end of their lives (when the bin really is the only option left), rather than polluting the environment with synthetic particles.