How to Declutter Sustainably

posted in minimalism, Thoughts

Last Updated on February 8, 2023

After Marie Kondo’s book and hit show Tidying Up launched, people around the world have been asking themselves if their stuff “sparks joy” and decluttering the items that don’t. While I love that the show has inspired people to think about their stuff and what they actually need and love, and personally I’ve experienced so many benefits of decluttering and being more mindful of my possessions, I think there’s a missing element of how to get rid of all the stuff in a responsible way.

Often people’s first response is to trash it as it’s the easiest and fastest way to get rid of things, but obviously this creates a ton of unnecessary waste. Thrift stores have seen an uptick in donations which might seem like a great thing (if you’re an avid thrifter get out there and enjoy it!), but actually comes with a series of issues as thrift stores and charity shops already get way more donations than they can sell.

Donating isn’t always “Good”

I’d like to clarify this because I don’t want to give the wrong impression – donating your unused stuff instead of throwing it away is definitely the way to go, but let’s look at ways you can do this more responsibly. People often feel that by donating their clothes and home goods to thrift stores they are doing something altruistic and helping others when this might not be the result.

The reality is thrift stores get piles of cheap, fast fashion clothing which no one wants to buy. If you can get a $5 top brand new, are you likely to buy the same top for $3 used? Also with cheap clothing often comes quality issues. A lot of donated clothing doesn’t even make it onto the floor and ultimately only about 25% of donated items actually get sold.

So what happens to the other 75%? They might be turned into rags, some end up in the landfill, but most clothes seem to get shipped to other countries. Africa has become a huge market for used clothing and some countries are fighting back, claiming that it’s damaging their local apparel economy. A few countries including Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda have attempted to ban used clothing imports to try and grow their own textile industry however the US hit back hard, threatening to impose tariffs. As a result Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda backed down from their ban. Rwanda however is moving forward and plans for a total ban by the end of 2019.

Another issue with this system is we are essentially selling our garbage to someone else. Clothing is packaged and sold in large bales, then the purchaser goes through and sorts out what they can sell, but what about the rest? I couldn’t find detailed information about what happens to it but I assume it most likely ends up in a landfill.

How can you donate better?

Make sure everything is clean and in good condition. If you wouldn’t wear/use it, it’s better to recycle and not donate it. Sorting out unusable items at donation centres requires time, resources, and energy and it might just end up in the trash anyway, so only donate good quality, good condition, saleable items.

Check with shelters, charities, and other local organizations who might want your stuff. It’s really important to contact them first though as most of these organizations only need specific items. Don’t just drop stuff off and make them then deal with things they can’t use as this ends up costing the charity time and sometimes money.

Do some research into any charities, thrift shops, and organizations you’re donating to. Do you support their causes? Organizations should be transparent about what they do with donations – are they given to local charities, sold, etc and what happens to items they can’t use/sell? It’s especially important to look into the charities with clothing donation bins as some of these have been found to be fakes.

Consider selling instead

Selling your clothes and household goods can actually be a great way to ensure the item goes to someone who will use it. You can use local buy/sell sites or groups, sell through consignment stores, or through online marketplaces.

This can be a great way to make some money back or you can donate the money you made instead. Donating funds to support your favourite organizations can be a lot more helpful than donating stuff as it gives them the flexibility to do/buy exactly what they need.

How else can you get rid of your stuff?

See if any friends or family members want your things. An easy way to do this is post what you’re getting rid of on social media and see if there are any takers. This way you know it’s going to someone who will use it. You can also see if there are any local Buy Nothing groups where you can give away stuff.

If you’re really into tidying up you might not want to bring anything new into your closet but if you’re getting rid of clothes and possibly also looking to add some pieces to your wardrobe, a clothing swap can be a really fun and sustainable way to update your closet. Invite friends to bring clothes they no longer want and make an event of it! Although be sure to also have a plan for any leftovers.

If you’re crafty you can also look into some upcycle projects. Pinterest, youtube, and blogs have endless project ideas – just make sure it’s something you will actually use/wear.


Anything that is broken, in poor condition, used up, or unsalable should be recycled instead of donated. Depending on the product and where you live there are different options:

  1. Check if the company has a take-back program.
  2. Look into local recycling facilities and what they accept. If they don’t take certain items like textiles ask if they know places that do.
  3. Read our where to recycle old clothes guide.
  4. Check out TerraCycle as they recycle many items that recycling facilities won’t take.

After the Tidy Up

Something else very important with the whole decluttering process is making sure you don’t just re-accumulate the stuff.

First, enjoy your new space! Hopefully you will get some of the wonderful benefits of a tidier home and closet – less stress, easier to find things, only having items that you use and enjoy, etc. Recognizing and remembering the benefits you experienced will help with maintaining that space.

Consider your shopping habits or how you got all the stuff that doesn’t “spark joy” in the first place. Do you shop for fun or stress relief? Easily get tempted by sales? Make a lot of impulse purchases? Changing shopping habits can be very difficult but trying to find your routines and triggers can really help with making those changes.

Try implementing rules for new purchases. Some people find this really helpful to change their shopping habits. The “One In One Out” rule is pretty popular – so in order to bring something new in you have to be willing to let go of something else. Other people will wait a certain time, like a week, after seeing something they want before they can buy it – this helps you to think and make sure it’s something you really want. I’ve also seen people impose a strict budget which not only helps you save money but also means you really have to think about what you do buy.

Whether you find rules work for you or not, something that’s always helpful when faced with a new purchase is to ask yourself these questions before buying.

Do you have any other tips for tidying up and getting rid of stuff responsibly?

Read some more Marie Kondo/Tidying Up Posts from other conscious bloggers:

10 Responses

  1. Rebecca
    | Reply

    I highly reccomend sharing your things in a local “Buy Nothing” group!!

  2. […] to charity, but overwhelmingly it left me wondering where all their stuff actually went. Check out My Green Closet for a similar […]

  3. Patricia
    | Reply

    I grew up in Namibia and lived in Moçambique and South Africa before moving to Germany. Clothing in Africa, unless it is falling apart, will never go to waste. Whatever items cannot be sold in the cities will be sent to the villages, what cannot be sold in the villages will be given away to the poorest. No one in Africa would ever think of throwing an intact piece of clothing into landfill. Everyone knows someone who can use old clothing. Sadly, there are too many poor who are grateful for any scraps. The best place to get rid of unwanted clothing is to donate to a charity that sends to Africa.

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on how many countries in Africa want to ban secondhand clothing imports, claiming they have way too many clothes coming in and it’s hurting local economies and creating too much waste. I assume you think that’s a bad idea? There are also reports of how so many unsalable, poor quality clothes, are coming into Africa that just end up being burned because they can’t be used. 🙁

      • Patricia
        | Reply

        Yes, the secondhand clothing industry makes it difficult for African countries to build their own textile industries. However I’m not sure that banning secondhand clothing imports completely is useful until local industry is ready to take up demand. (Yes I know this is a viscous circle) I am worried a ban will just open the way further for China, which will fill the gap and flood the markets with low quality, short use clothing that cannot be passed on to anyone else. As it is this is already happening, “China Malls”, shopping centres owned and operated by Chinese entrepreneurs, selling Chinese clothing and other products are popping up in many African cities. I know the idea is that eventually local industry will take over, however before local textile industry can compete with Asian imports there needs to be a lot of investment in infrastructure, power supply and technology.

        Also, informal traders make up the bulk of second hand clothing sellers. Stall holders sell at the city markets and others go to the cities, fill some suitcases with used clothing and sell at village markets. Banning second hand imports may force many to change their business model to buying and selling Chinese imports. From my experience clothing makes the rounds and is worn until it is truly useless, decent second hand clothing can go far. I would rather see a slow, gradual increase in Tarifs on second hand clothing (and simultaneously on Chinese imports, but that’s another story) this would give local industry time to grow and not put such a squeeze on sellers and consumers. An outright ban can’t achieve much if local industry is not ready to fill the gap. Zimbabwe and Nigeria tried an outright ban a few years ago and it was found that in both countries a black market in second hand clothing had developed. Local manufacturers struggled due to ageing equipment, bad infrastructure and electricity supply problems.

        Re clothing being burnt, this is quite shocking to me. As far as I know charities in Europe sell clothing onwards to importers in Africa who sell to market stall holders. Stall holders sell the best items at their stalls and re-sell remaining items to informal traders and travelling markets who sell in the villages. What cannot be sold or worn is made into cloths and rags and/or given away. In my days in rural Moçambique there were indeed piles of second hand clothing at the markets but I had never seen a villager throw anything away. Everything is used, items that cannot be worn are re-sown into other useful items or turned into rags and sold on to workshops and such. So for me, second hand clothing is more sustainable than cheap Asian imports flooding the market. However if even a quarter of the clothing from overseas is burnt then the system is obviously broken and needs re-thinking.

        Sorry to have written such a novel, hope I haven’t put anyone reading this to sleep 😟

  4. Bridget McVennon-Morgan
    | Reply

    This is a really useful post, thank you!

  5. Marie
    | Reply

    Thank you very much for this very informative post!

  6. Amy
    | Reply

    Thank you so much! I have been decluttering my belongings over the past few weeks, and I was wondering what to do with all these piles of clothes, pillows, textbooks, and bags. I initially thought it would be “ok” to donate them right off to good-will, but something about it felt wrong. I was worried that my belongings wouldn’t find a place and will end up in the bin anyways. Now I’m thinking of sorting them out to piles of recycling, donating and selling to friends. Or maybe even doing a garage sale on a Saturday morning. Anyhow, thanks for informing me about the realities of these thrift shops, I wouldn’t have known without you!

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      Glad the post was helpful 🙂 Those are great ideas of how to get rid of your stuff!

  7. Mama Squirrel
    | Reply

    I asked my husband for his opinion, and he said “things that are stored are not enjoyable.” We downsized to an apartment a couple of years ago; and while we rented a storage unit to hold a few things from our house (mostly tools), we closed it after a short time. We found room for the most useful items in our new space, but donated what we still didn’t have room for. (The local thrift store got our Christmas tree.)

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