Can Worn or Damaged Clothing be Donated?

Clothes Barn

Worn or damaged clothing should never be sent to a landfill. Photo: Flicker/jmawork

Most of us have some old, worn clothing items in our closets, and many people hang on to them because they don't know what to do with them. We feel bad throwing these clothes in the trash, but fear donating them to a charity like Goodwill or the Salvation Army would be inappropriate, since no one would want threadbare t-shirts or torn jeans.

We'll let you in on a little secret: charities will accept all sorts of textiles, including those that you think are too worn or damaged to donate.

"As a general rule, there isn't much that we won't allow to be donated to Goodwill," Michael Meyer, vice president of donated retail goods at Goodwill Industries International, Inc., told Earth911. "We take all textiles in any condition. All those textiles end up in our system and they're sorted to determine where they will land."

The misconception that worn and damaged clothing items cannot be accepted by charities like Goodwill stems from the use of the term "gently used items," which was a tagline for charities seeking donations for many years.

"The reality of it is 'gently used items' is all up for interpretation," Meyer said. "Really, that's more of an internal thing for us to say the gently used items will end up in our stores, in our outlets and on our auction sites."

How Donated Textiles Get Sorted and Sold

After arriving at a Goodwill donation center, textiles are sorted and the majority of them end up on the sales floor in Goodwill's retail stores, Meyer said. Because of the vast quantities of textiles arriving at Goodwill locations, sorting does take time, but Goodwill employees have the process down to a science.

"They are very efficient at moving things through, and [sorting] is a job creator," Meyer said.

If clothing items don't sell after a period of time in stores, some Goodwill locations send these items to Goodwill outlets where they are sold by the pound. Some Goodwill organizations even have auctions to sell this clothing. If any textiles remain at the end of this process, Goodwill sells them to salvage textile recyclers, which is where clothing not suitable for resale gets sent as well.

Goodwill does everything it can to ensure clothing not suitable for sale in their stores stays out of the landfill, so they work with aftermarket textile recyclers who use old textiles in a variety of ways. The charity keeps the proceeds of these sales in local communities by using them to support programs designed to help families and job seekers.

The Fate of Unsellable Textiles

Once your old clothing is sold to a textile recycler, it may find new life in a few different ways. According to Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART), a nonprofit trade association of companies that recycle these materials, 45 percent of used apparel is sent abroad to countries where the demand for secondhand clothing is high, 30 percent become wiping and polishing cloths and 20 percent are turned into fibers for things like upholstery, insulation and furniture stuffing. Only five percent of the textiles purchased by these companies are unusable.

You might be wondering why a lot of your unwanted clothing ends up in developing countries, and SMART explains it's because there is a market for those items abroad. A 2005 study by Oxfam, an international confederation of organizations that fight poverty, explored the impacts of the secondhand clothing industry on West African economies, and among their findings was the fact that the livelihoods of many people depend on this industry.

  • Kathy Kalous

    Wow, this was really helpful!

  • Michael Molinski

    I would like to let everyone know this isn’t the case with all Goodwill outlets. This post gave me high hopes that were shattered recently.
    I’ve been on a mission with a “green” clean out of a hoarders property and I learned they dumped over 360 lbs. of clothes and textiles I donated because they”had no use in their store” For more details about the entire exchange, you can view my blog post about it.

  • Jen Brock

    Unfortunately, Cincinnati, Oh, area Goodwill does not recycle damaged clothing. I was hopeful after seeing this article and noticing on a Hamilton County, Oh, recycling website that Goodwill accepted damaged clothing, but I just spoke to them and was told that if the clothing can’t be resold in their stores, it is of no use to them.

    • Natalie Catprints

      Yeah, I just got the same response. :-(

      • kdy

        City of Cinti’s website will tell you where to recycle clothing

        • Natalie Catprints

          Thanks, will check it out. I was able to take my torn jeans to Jcrew b4 Jan.1 & they were supposed to recycle it into house insulation:-)

    • kdy

      Get on City of Cincinnati’s website. They have a ton of places to donate textiles

  • Natalie Catprints

    Are you still collecting denim? I have a dozen pairs or mens jeans with holes in one knee.

  • Juda

    I wish this article was true in all states too. I remember bringing items to a goodwill in Florida. People were bringing in stuff through the front door while someone was putting stuff in a dumpster in the back, that was overflowing. (Toys and stuff) And the stuff didn’t even look that bad to me. It was really sad. A lot of companies throw away an unimaginable amount on a daily basis. Probably the most biggest contributor to this is The Home Depot. At least some types of clothes are biodegradable. but the stuff Home Depot throws away… Forget about it.

  • magormissabib

    I saw a documentary and in India they pick thru mountaisn of grabage and sort all sorts of bits of plastic to be recycles. Recently I bought a rug that was made in India out of recycled plastic water bottles It was 50$ .

  • Want to be green!

    I work for a thrift store in Vermont. We were partnering with the Salvation Army for pick ups of unsaleable textiles to be recycled. They can no longer pick up. I contacted Planet Aid and was told this: It is with regret that we will no longer be collecting unwanted textiles from any thrift or consignment stores at any locations. The reason for this action is that our buyers expect original, unsorted donations in bales or sacks which we sell them…In order to keep our customers we need to discontinue knowingly collecting these sorted items.”

    It is frustrating that no where in VT participates or has the facilities to bale clothing to be used for rags, or recycled. We dont want to fill the dumpsters and are searching for a solution.