Clothes and clutter

Updated Monday 28th October 2013

Have you forgotten about what's in the back of your wardrobe?

Woman recycling clothes at clothing bank Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: © Katie Nesling | A woman recycles her clothes

Discussion on fashion and sustainability often focuses on how goods are produced, sold and disposed of.  It’s also useful to consider what happens to clothing that people buy but don’t use. According to one study, 85% of women own clothes that don’t fit.* and three quarters of British women confess to owning a bra that they haven’t worn for a year.

So why do people keep unworn clothes? And how could the fashion industry induce them to donate or recycle these items?

The most common reason for keeping material things is simply habit; after a while, clothes can either be ‘lost’ or forgotten at the back of the wardrobe. Other reasons involve complex emotions, including:

  • Nostalgia: Clothes are associated with a relationship (“I can’t part from this – it was a gift from my partner”).
  • Guilt:  It can be difficult to let go of items that were particularly expensive (“I can’t give that away – I feel bad for spending so much on it!”).
  • Anxiety: The thought that it might hypothetically be required in future (“I might need it”).
  • Fantasy: Perhaps most prevalent is the hope that one day it might fit (“I’m keeping that for when I lose weight”).

One of the strategies that I employ to help clients declutter is to find positive and purposeful ways to part from things, such as recycling and donating to charity. Two recent initiatives by fashion retailers have been particularly motivating:

  • M&S Shwopping invites customers to exchange unwanted items of clothing in-store for discount vouchers. The clothes are resold by Oxfam to combat poverty, forwarded to developing world charities or recycled.
  • Bin Your Brais a campaign sponsored by House of Fraser and Elle magazine. Backed by ITV presenter Lorraine Kelly, it appeals to women to donate unwanted bras to be resold in order to raise funds for breast cancer research. 

It’s too soon to assess the impact of these campaigns but they may be imitated in future by other retailers. This is good news for anyone who cares about sustainability – and anyone who needs encouragement to declutter their wardrobe!


*Bye, Elizabeth and McKinney, Ellen. (2007) 'Sizing up the Wardrobe: Why We Keep Clothes That Do Not Fit', Fashion Theory, Vol. 11, Issue 4, p.487.

This blog is part of the Institute of Social Marketing online sustainable clothing event


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