What Actually Happens to the Clothes I Donate?

Do you know where your donated clothes are actually going? Read on to find out what happens to the clothes you donate.

What actually happens to my donated clothes

Over the years I have probably donated thousands of shirts and pants. I’m not one to buy clothes just to be shopping. I keep my clothes for a long time before getting rid of them and most of them are gifts I receive for Christmas or my birthday. I usually take my unwanted clothing to the Goodwill store after I’ve had them for a while. After decluttering my bedroom this year and making a few clothing donations I started thinking, what actually happens to the clothes I donate?

Researching this subject was a real eye opener. According to Dr. Mercola, Americans are buying 5 times more clothing now than in the 1980’s. That’s a lot of clothes! Only 15% of the clothes we get rid of are actually getting donated or recycled. Most are just being tossed into the trash and ending up in the landfill. The average American throws away around 81 pounds of clothing a year, according to SMART.

85% of used clothes end up in a landfill.


What actually happens to the clothes I donate?

Goodwill employees sort through all the donated clothing items and if they are near perfect they will go on the sales floor. The clothing stays there for about four weeks. Items that have not sold will be sent to a “Buy the Pound” liquidation outlet, where items are sold by the pound or at a reduced per-piece price. The goal of the liquidation outlet is to keep as many items out of the landfill as possible.

Clothing that has not sold at the liquidation outlet is sent to Goodwill auctions. At these auctions you bid on an entire bin without knowing what is actually inside. This can be fun, or a little scary. You just never know what you are going to get! Remaining items are sent to textile recycling organizations.

Basically when you donate your clothes to a Goodwill site you just have no idea what’s going to happen to them. They might get re-sold or they might end up in the landfill anyway. There’s a fashion documentary called The True Cost that points out that the average American throws out 82 pounds of textile waste a year. This adds up to be about 11 million tons of textiles sitting in a landfill for 200 years because most of it isn’t biodegradable.

Textile recycling organizations determine which items are usable as clothing and which can be sold and processed back into fibers to make new products. For example, stuffed toys and pillow can become car seat stuffing and automobile insulation. Denim can be turned into home insulation. Soles of shoes can turn into paving material. (Read more here.)

The Life Cycle Of Rags
(Click the image to make it larger.)

Landfills are filling up fast. We want to keep as much stuff out of the landfill as possible, so what do we do with our unwanted clothes?

Consider donating to:

  • Operation Prom: If you have prom dresses or formal evening wear to get rid of, consider donating them to Operation Prom. The accept evening wear for high school students who cannot afford it.
  • Green Drop: Green Drop sells donated goods such as clothing, shoes and bedding and gives the proceeds to the National Federation of the Blind and other charities.
  • Career Gear: Career Gear offers interview appropriate and business casual clothing to help men who cannot afford them as well as mentoring and life-skills.
  • ThredUp: You can donate used clothes and accessories to ThredUp, which is an online thrift store, and they will give $5 to charity.
  • Local Church: Consider taking your unwanted clothing items to your local church. Perhaps they will distribute them to the needy within your community.
  • Local Women’s Shelters and Crisis Centers: Most women who flee abusive relationships do so with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Most shelters provide everything they need to get back on their feet, and they do it for free.

Recycle for Discounts

  • The North Face: The Clothes Loop program at The North Face encourages people to drop off unwanted clothing and shoes at retail and outlet stores in any condition. You will be rewarded with $10 off your next purchase of $100 or more.
  • Levi’s: You can return clean denim items of any brand to in-store collection bins to receive 20% off a single regularly priced item.
  • H&M: I love that I can get my shirts at H&M for cheap and then turn around and recycle them. They accept any brand of clothing, too! Just drop off used clothing in any condition in in-store garment collection boxes and you will receive a discount card for 15% off your next in-store purchase.


Clothing can also be upcycled and used for other purposes. Old t-shirts can be ripped up and made into cleaning rags. Used sweaters can be turned into leg warmers or stuffed animals. Denim jeans can be made into purses. Sarah at Garden Full of Dreams has instructions on how to make rope bowls. These can be made with any fabric, such as ripped up t-shirts. They are so easy to make and look great in any room of the house.

The possibilities of upcycling clothes are endless. Pinterest has tons of ideas on how to reuse old clothing. The next time you clean out your closet stop and think, “What actually happens to the clothes I donate?”

Do you donate your clothes or throw them away?

Thank you for sharing!

50 thoughts on “What Actually Happens to the Clothes I Donate?”

    1. Thank you! I agree. There’s no reason to throw clothes away when there’s so many people who need them. πŸ™‚

  1. I found out a long time ago that our local Goodwill just threw away all their donations without looking at it even when they “had enough merchandise.” UGH! That’s when I stopped donating to them. I now donate everything to our local women’s shelter or homeless shelter. I know it’s appreciated and used.

    1. It amazes me what the Goodwill actually does with our donations. Good for you! I’ll be doing that from now on, too. πŸ™‚

  2. I have donated in bulk to Goodwill, when I downsized (twice) and when my parents died. But generally I toss one thing at a time, such as a beat-up pair of shoes, and they do go in the regular trash. I’m sad at the idea that my parents nice stuff didn’t actually help anyone.

    1. It is sad. I throw away old shoes, too because I never realized they could be recycled. It’s crazy to think about.

  3. Now I’m glad we don’t really have a goodwill store near us! We have been donating to our local thrift store (I also shop there on occasion πŸ™‚ ) but they are not accepting anymore donations because they have TOO MUCH STUFF! Guess we need to figure out something else to do with the clothes we no longer use or need πŸ™‚

  4. Very interesting post! I donate almost all my old clothing to Goodwill, including bags & shoes. We also recently donated a ton of household items like vases & baskets as well. I only throw out clothing if it’s in seriously bad condition – like holes, horrible stains, etc – but that’s very rare. I also try not to overbuy clothing, and only pick up pieces as I need them.

    1. I have donated pretty much all of my stuff to Goodwill! I never really thought about what happened to my stuff after it was out of my house until recently. Crazy to think of what actually does happen! πŸ™‚

  5. Interesting! I’m like you, I keep clothes for a long time. I mix and match and get as much variety as possible.
    My daughters introduced me to “thrifting” a long time ago, and I get a lot of my clothes from second-hand stores. It may take a while to find something I really like, but then the few times I’ve been to Macy’s it took me a long time to find something I liked, too … and then it was too pricey!

  6. Michelle! This is fabulous…who knew our clothing could have such a storied life once it leaves our closets. Have you checked out some of those tutorials that use upcycled textiles to make throw rugs? I am totally going to try that one of these days, I just have to find a large block of time where I am not doing anything, lol!

    1. No I haven’t seen those! I’ll have to check them out. That would be so fun to make! Of course it may have to wait until I’m 80 years old with nothing to do. πŸ˜€

  7. This was soooo interesting to read! I knew that some of the clothes you donate to charity are then sold and used for other purpose, but never knew all the process like you accurately described πŸ™‚
    My only concern is about how much water and other resources are needed to turn “old clothes” into the 3 new categories?
    We all should learn to buy clothes only when necessary πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you! I never thought about the water and other resources before. Now you’ve got me thinking even more! I agree with you – “fast fashion” has become a very dangerous thing for the environment. πŸ™‚ Thank you for reading!

  8. Great post, I haven’t really looked into where clothes go when you donate them so it’s interesting to see. I don’t buy clothes too often either, I usually only end up buying some when something I love gets too old and worn so I get a replacement, but always like to pop all my old clothes and donate them!

    Chloe xx

    1. Thank you! I only recently started thinking about it and was surprised at what actually happens! Thank you for reading! πŸ™‚

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  10. This is really interesting. It’s already a challenge to make people aware that they can donate the clothes they no longer wear and were to throw away anyway. The second challenge is to make sure we donate to the right places. I’ve heard of a few sad stories about organisations that are not so ethical and don’t make the donated clothes reach who really needs them. Beyond that however I think it’s always better to donate. Thank you so much for this interesting and awesome piece!

    1. I agree. It’s sad that some places could care less and just end up tossing the donations anyway. There are so many people out there who could use these! Thank you so much! πŸ™‚

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  13. WOW I never knew this, I used to donate to Goodwill and often wondered what really happened to the clothes. I now give my clothes to a shelter and to a couple of places that I know the clothes go directly to people in need. Great post Michelle.

    1. Good for you for donating to in need. I was really shocked when I found out what happened to my clothes at Goodwill. My brother worked there years ago for a short time and he told me stories about that. Crazy!! Thank you for reading! πŸ™‚

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