I usually go into chagim and chol hamoed all caught up on laundry. But the week leading up to the Nine Days, and I started off with three full loads of dirty laundry that will have to wait until next week. Luckily, I had enough time to get them sorted and ready to go. I’ve long been wanting a laundry sorting center but decided it wasn’t a strong enough need to purchase something new. (“Reduce”—as in reduce your purchases—comes first in the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra because it has the biggest impact.) But not buying doesn’t mean doing without. I’ve created a workable low-waste system made of a worse-for-wear laundry basket and a storage tub. (I have roomy, sturdy laundry baskets for bringing clean clothes upstairs from the laundry room, but I don’t use them for dirty clothes, which harbor bacteria.) My new sorting is one a friend was getting rid of. It’s a bit beat up and on the smallish side, but it’s perfect for holding a load of whites, darks, or lights until it’s time to wash the load. A neighbor was decluttering her house and getting rid of a storage tub that lost its lid. That holds a second load. It’s so perfect and such a common size that I feel sure I’ll find another lidless one just like it. The third load goes straight into the washing machine until the machine is full and halacha allows it to be washed.
Clothing is, especially in America, a considerable part of the waste stream. Every year Americans throw about 13 million tons of clothing. That’s a whopping 26 billion pounds of clothes going into landfills every single year, just in America, or approximately 9 percent of materials in the waste stream. (To make that number more real, that’s 80 pounds per American per year of clothing alone that goes to waste. And EU shopping trends, while not as dramatic as in the United States, are also on the rise.) A report from the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company says that six out of every ten clothing items end up in the trash within one year of being made. (The 15 percent of clothes that are currently recycled are estimated by the US Environmental Protection Agency to be the equivalent of taking one million cars off the road.)
And that’s just the problem at the end of a piece of clothing’s life. Making a piece of clothing involves a lot of water and land that could be better used by people, animals, and crops. Many steps in the process of making textiles create chemicals that pollute the environment. The cost of so-called “fast fashion” is also subsidized by paying workers low wages and not offering safe working conditions. It’s not just the planet that suffers from our need for the new; it also impacts our bein adam l’chaveiro.
Let’s go back to that McKinsey report. As J.B. Mackinnon points out in The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves, “Imagine, then, you have been buying ten articles of clothing a year. Take away the six you typically get rid of within a year and you end up with four. Now imagine that you’re buying half as many garments, or five each year. You’re still left with four to keep and one to throw away.” With three, bli ayin hara, busy children, most of the clothes that get tossed out at my house are because a skirt is stained with latex paint from an art project or because there’s a rip in the knee of yet another pair of my son’s school pants. But my wardrobe? That’s a different story. It has been a while since my pre-kid days, when shopping for clothes I didn’t really need was a frequent lunchtime activity. I am still tempted to indulge in online “retail therapy” on days when I feel like, despite a closet and a dresser (and off-season clothes in a storage tub in the attic), I have nothing to wear. By far, the most significant improvement in my own habits in this area has been to commit to only buying new clothes when absolutely necessary. Instead, whenever possible, I acquire clothes second-hand, whether that is from thrift stores, yard sales, or friends and neighbors. In this, I have two secret weapons: my mother-in-law and the amazing Cleveland Jewish community.
My mother-in-law loves, loves, loves to go to yard sales and thrift stores. So, when I am looking for something in particular, say size four boys winter boots, I let her know, along with how much I’m willing to spend. She enjoys the hunt, and she’s incredible at finding what I’m looking for. Depending on where you live, yard sales (garage sales, trunk sales, boot sales, tag sales—whatever you call them) may be more or less plentiful and may be year-round or just for a few summer months. I generally find out about them from online postings in community WhatsApp groups or the local newspaper’s classified ads. And of course, thrift stores, charity shops, and consignment stores are open all year. You may have success buying from online clothing resellers, as well as making a bit of cash from clothing you no longer wear. I’ve been hesitant to try this as more than one member of my family tends to veto clothing they would otherwise like based on how it feels, but U.S. News and World Reports has a list of top sites you might try. I’d love to hear if any of these have worked for you and if you have tips for success.
My mother-in-law does best when she’s looking for my husband and son, who don’t have as many style and tznius concerns to contend with. We were both more successful looking for things for my daughters when they were younger. But as teens, my girls want to try stuff on and make their own selections. I understand that my girls are unique, so this technique may not work for your teens, and it’s absolutely not worth pushing the issue if yours are resistant. My motto on all things low-waste when it comes to my kids is “Inspire, Don’t Require.” I’d rather they pick up some habits they can sustain long term and IY” H pass on to their own families in the future. When they are the ones paying the clothing bills, they may be more receptive! The fall before COVID, my mother-in-law found a like-new and very cute winter coat for one of my daughters, who had outgrown hers. One problem: my daughter didn’t like it. There wasn’t anything specific she didn’t like; it just wasn’t for her. After searching a bit more without success to find something to her taste, we bought her a coat from Land’s End. I make it a habit to regularly ask my kids if there is anything they want or need to wear that they don’t have and then running to get it. We also buy new dresses for yom tov, although not every yom tov.
If secondhand shopping isn’t for you right now, you might try something as simple as shopping the clearance rack first, snagging clothes that will soon be discarded if they aren’t sold. There are so many other ways to reduce your family’s clothing footprint, and I hope to cover them in future blog posts. But for now, I’d love to hear one of your most amazing secondhand finds. Mine is a new (with tags still on it) calf-length wool Shabbos coat with a hood that cost $1.
One of the many incredible things about Cleveland’s frum community is the sharing of resources that goes on in our WhatsApp groups and on a Facebook group called Cleveland Jewish Freebay. In a community with, bli ayin hara, large families and all the expenses that come with frum life, people are very committed to helping each other out by passing on things we no longer need. It’s rare that a day goes by without someone offering a collection of items–such as “boys, size 10,” or “womens, small and medium.” (This isn’t even to mention the gemachs that stock things like school uniforms, maternity clothes, and simcha dresses.) If you have friends who aren’t the type to do this, you might let them know that you will accept hand-me-downs when they are cleaning out their closets or pass things on for them if you have time and they don’t.
I don’t have the time or space to host my own gemach, but I do what I can to encourage clothing reuse. A few people with more kids and busier schedules than me have permission to drop clothes by my side door when their kid goes up a size or when they clean out the closet at the end of a season. (You might also do this for people in your community who don’t use the internet.) With the help of my two very good girls, I sort the clothes in each bag by size and pass it to others. First, I do a quick check to make sure there aren’t any stains or tears in them. (Stained or ripped clothing can be cut down to make schmattot after buttons and zippers are cut out to keep or pass along.) If we have time, we fold everything neatly so the experience of looking through them is more pleasant for the next person, making it more likely they’ll want to continue sharing and wearing not-quite-new items. If something comes to me that’s a special item, such as a coat or clothes for a simcha or yom tov, I put out an offer for that item separately and with a photo to increase the chances it will be seen by someone who will use it. I also try to make a trip to my house kedai for whoever takes what I’m giving away by combining parts of a few small bags to make one big bag of great things that’s worth the schlep to get it.
Before I wrote this, I reached out to someone I trust for advice to ask if revealing that I rarely buy new clothes except for certain things—uniform shirts and skirts, underthings, socks and hosiery, along with layering shells and men’s and boys dress shirts—seemed, well, nebachdik. But honestly, I’m more selective now that I’m shopping second hand than I was when I spent my lunchtime at the local shops. I certainly wear more name-brand clothing than I ever did.