So what do we do with the clothes that no longer serve us? With the horrifying statistic that says on average, we only wear an item seven times before bidding it farewell, the responsible disposal of clothes is a predicament we find ourselves in on a regular basis. We asked the experts in the business to run us through the best ways to donate your preloved goods, because as you’ll soon find out, chucking your bags of unwanted clothes in the doorways of charity shops isn’t the way to go.
The problem with op shops
Unfortunately, offloading your clothes to op shops isn’t the wipe-your-hands-clean solution to the problem of overconsumption. Only 10-20% of donated clothes are actually sold, and as Aja Barber tells Refinery29 Australia, “the other 80% either goes to landfill or it gets packaged up and sent back to the Global South where people have to deal with your clothing castoffs that they don't even want.”
According to the ABC, approximately 15 million used garments enter Ghana’s capital city Accra each week from the UK, Europe, North America, and Australia. About 40% of them are immediately dumped into landfills because of their poor quality.
As consumers and potential donors of these clothes, we have a responsibility to reduce the number of clothes ending up in landfills. This begins with our purchasing decisions, but continues all the way until the end of a garment’s lifecycle.
How do you know if an item is op shop-worthy?
The rule of thumb across the board at op shops is: if you wouldn’t give the piece to a friend or family member, then don’t donate it to a charity shop. The end goal is to hopefully rehome the garment, and if it’s something you don't deem to be good enough for a loved one, then it’s probably not good enough for a fellow community member either.
“Think of our op shops as a destination to extend the lifetime of your preloved fashion and give it a second lease of life,” Red Cross Shops’ Head of Retail Richard Wood tells Refinery29 Australia. “We love preloved fashion from any season, as well as beautiful homewares, but we don’t accept electrical goods or furniture."
Geri Wang, Vinnies Victoria’s Retail Marketing Manager, says that good quality items across clothing, homewares and furniture are always wanted. “What we really don’t get enough of is menswear and good quality winter clothing. At certain times of the year, homewares is a challenge to keep up with the demand as well,” she tells Refinery29 Australia.
How to prepare your clothes for donation
Illegal dumping of op shop donations is a serious problem that’s both environmentally unsound and expensive — The Salvation Army alone spends $6 million a year on landfill and disposal fees for donated products that can’t be sold.
Leaving bags of clothes when stores are closed is illegal, and it increases the chance of damaged goods due to the weather and the possibility of people trawling through them. A Salvation Army's store manager said that he estimates only 5% of donations are actually put out on the shop floor because of this.
Wang’s recommendation is simple — bring your good quality items in when the shop is open; opening hours and donation FAQ can be found on each charity's website. If you have a lot to donate, “Just [bring your donations] in a bag or box. Homewares we recommend bringing in a box so [they don’t] get damaged, [and] clothes could be donated in any bag,” she says.
One store manager recalled a time when someone had taken the initiative to write recommended prices for their donated pieces, which helped staff pinpoint the value and quality of the garments.
Where else can I donate my unwanted clothes?
There are endless options for a clothing item’s next phase of life after it’s no longer wanted in your closet. Perhaps you could upcycle it into something new or mend any imperfections, or participate in a clothes swap with your friends, or a digital swap with strangers through platforms like Circolare Club. You could also try to make a buck or two on reselling sites like Depop, eBay, Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree — or via consignment stores like Goodbyes and SWOP.
Or if you're looking to participate in a guilt-free secondhand clothes haul, InRo creates monthly rental boxes of curated, preloved, everyday clothes. You can also donate your own clothing to them in exchange for store credit.
You might want to donate your goods directly to those in need, by calling your local shelters — search ‘crisis accommodation or ‘social housing’ — and asking whether your items are needed.
There’s growing innovation in the field too. SCRgroup has over 1,600 collection hubs nationally, and it sends donated items to local and international communities, as well as turning clothes into rags and biofuel. The group also buys from local charity shops, including clothes that have been damaged or soiled, helping economically support op shops.
Through a meticulous sorting process that separates the donated goods into over 40 categories, waste and low-quality products are removed in order to ensure that clothing is fit for wear when distributed to those in need. Through biofuel technology, all waste (including plastic bags) that is collected is recycled.
SCRgroup’s National Executive Alexis Todorovski knows that this isn’t the end solution, telling Refinery29 Australia that reuse and upcycling are key focuses in its business model too. “We are continually researching technology that can replace this that is better for the environment. We have a new innovation that has just come out where clothes that are unfit for wear are being upcycled and converted into bags, which are being sold through Australian charities,” she says.
What do you do with clothes that aren’t good enough quality for op shops?
Have a pair of unsightly socks that have more holes than actual material? Yeah, they’re not op shop appropriate but they could be useful as cleaning rags for the home. “Old t-shirts are best salvaged at home and reused as rags. Dated and unusable quilt covers could be used for your next home renovation job,” recommends Red Cross Shops’ Wood. Donating these used sheets, towels, and blankets to animal shelters is also an option.
Other clothes that have seen better days can be downgraded to loungewear and pyjamas. Of course, these solutions do have expiry dates and clothes will eventually end up in landfills (but some can be composted!).
Current quick fixes can only go so far, and this serves as a reminder of the complicated sustainability practices around our clothes. So before you purchase a new wardrobe addition, don’t just ask yourself where you’ll wear it out to, but reflect on where it will eventually end up.