How-To: Clean Out Your Closet—Ethically

Elizabeth L. Cline, author of The Conscious Closet, teaches us how to get rid of clothes so they don’t land in a landfill.

How-To: Clean Out Your Closet—Ethically

Clothing is one of the most personal methods of self-expression but what happens when you keep wearing the same six things because that’s all you can find? Or your bedroom rug is your new “floordrobe” because you can’t find room to put anything away. It’s time for a closet clean-out—without harming the environment. Fashion is one of the most polluting industries on earth and changing the way we shop for, donate, and even wash our clothes can have a huge impact on the world around us. Elizabeth L. Cline, author of The Conscious Closet, teaches us how to do a mindful closet clean-out and where to donate, swap, or sell the clothes you don’t love to make way for the closet of your dreams.

My first piece of advice is to make time for your closet clean-out. Do not combine cleaning out your closet with the task of tidying up your home. Keep the two separate because clothes are personal and it takes time to part with them thoughtfully. As you think about what to hold onto, identify your Magic Wardrobe Number, which is the number of pieces you need that strikes the right balance of novelty and function. It’s likely far fewer pieces than you currently own. Some folks thrive with a small, 24-piece capsule wardrobe, but others need variety. Then, turn to your donation pile. Sometimes we use donating clothes as a justification to consume more but, out of everything we donate, it’s estimated that about only 15% of it gets sold locally by charity shops, and the rest enters the global second-hand clothing economy. Reusing clothes is a good thing, but as we get rid of more and more stuff, more of our donations are just ending up in a landfill in a developing country. Think of this clothing waste as you clean out your closet, and follow these tips to cut down on what you’re giving away.

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The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth L. Cline
The Conscious Closet
By Elizabeth L. Cline
Paperback $17.00
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  • Analyze your style. As you clean out your closet, examine what you’re not wearing and why. This will guide you in making better future purchases. If you still want to continue to wear trendy pieces, try doing that in a more sustainable way, like renting them or shopping secondhand. If you gravitate towards a more classic wardrobe, invest in staples you’ll keep for a lifetime.
  • Give everything a second chance. I understand the urge to purge, but my advice is to give everything in your closet a second or third try. If there is any part of you that feels like you might wear something again, put it in storage (under the bed is fine!) and come back to it when you’re ready. This especially applies to classic pieces like motorcycle jackets and blazers that will never go out of style.
  • Be picky about where you donate. Not all secondhand clothing stores are equal. Some are charities that sell clothes to raise money and some are for-profit organizations. Do your due diligence. Make sure it’s a charity whose cause you support, or if it’s a for-profit organization, confirm they’re being transparent about what they do with the clothes that don’t sell. Be wary of the bins you see popping up at gas stations and parking lots—they may seem like they’re collecting clothes for charity but a quick google search will tell you if they’re a reputable organization or not.
  • Sell it if you can. If you have items of value you don’t wear, I highly recommend selling them. You spent your hard-earned money on this item and you should recoup that money, and invest it back into your conscious closet in the form of a well-made piece you will wear—it creates a virtuous circle of sustainable shopping.
  • Never ever throw clothes away. We don’t want clothes to end up in landfills. If it’s not something you can donate to a thrift store, look for places that take items for textile recycling. Holey socks and worn-out undies can be shredded and turned into things like insulation and carpet padding. They’ll get a second life as another product.
  • Shop secondhand. From thrifting TikTok to AOC tweeting about the benefits of a capsule wardrobe, secondhand shopping has not only lost its stigma—it’s downright trendy. Sustainability is so important and it’s something I see a lot of people trying to do affordably and in a way that makes sense for their lifestyles. Secondhand shopping is a win-win. You can wear all the trends you want, rotate your closet, get something new to you, and reduce the impact on the planet, all at the same time.
  • Stop the (rinse) cycle. Americans wash their clothes too much. A lot of people use their washing machines to freshen clothes that aren’t even dirty—things that have been thrown on the floor in a pile and are a little wrinkly. But washing and drying clothes, in addition to having a very high environmental impact, is terrible for clothing. That is what fades your clothes, shrinks them, pills them, breaks the fibers. So, only wash your clothes as needed—it’s a really easy way to make them last longer.


What’s Your Fashion Personality Type?

Clothes are personal. We all have very different attitudes and needs when it comes to what we wear. Age, career, income, personal style, regional style, and our unique perspectives on life combine to shape how we feel about our clothes. Some of us love fashion and trends, and plenty of others just want to get dressed and get on with our day. No matter where you are on the fashion spectrum, you have a fashion personality type.

Your approach to building a conscious closet can be tailored around what I call the three Fashion Personality Types: the Minimalists, the Style Seekers, and the Traditionalists. Choosing a personality type will help you get the most out of your read and shift your consumption habits in a way that fits your lifestyle. The Fashion Personality Types are a loose framework that will help you dial in to your conscious-closet strategy, so don’t overthink them.

  • The Minimalists: At one end of the spectrum are the Minimalists. These personalities crave a finish line in fashion, buy for keeps, and tend to prefer a more timeless look. They want to cut the clutter out of their lives and build a tightly edited and attractive wardrobe.
  • The Style Seekers: At the other end of the spectrum are the Style Seekers, also known as Maximalists. These personalities love fashion, trends, and expressing themselves through what they wear. Some people are Style Seekers by trade, like those in entertainment or fashion. Most Style Seekers would wither if their wardrobes weren’t full of statement-making pieces and lots of change.
  • The Traditionalists: The Traditionalists are the halfway point between the two fashion personality extremes. They don’t crave fashion quite as much as a Style Seeker and prefer more novelty than a Minimalist; they want a stylish but versatile wardrobe and to update it each season with a few new looks.

What personality type speaks to you? I’m a Traditionalist with Style Seeker tendencies. Some of you might be Minimalists at the office and Style Seekers by night. Your personality type is also likely to change over time. Many of us are more trend-driven when we’re young and get more traditional as we settle on a career and a personal style. Adjusting your Fashion Personality Type can be a fun exploration in fashion and a chance to embark on new conscious-closet strategies. So just revise and update your type as needed.


Where to Ethically Donate

Here are Elizabeth’s favorite places to put clothes you don’t want.