Donating with Dignity

Sarah Mirk  /  3 Min Read  /  Worn Wear, Our Footprint

The dos and don’ts of donating your used clothes.

All illustrations by Sarah Mirk 

I’m wearing my daily pandemic outfit, which is labeled with arrows: My pandemic outfit. sweatpants, Zoom shirt, slippers, thick socks. Narration: During the pandemic, I stopped wearing about 90 percent of my clothes—especially my “professional” outfits.
A bunch of classy blouses on hangers. The shirts have little angry faces. Narration: I don’t think I’m ever going back to the office … or to office clothes. Blouse: You used to love me! Blouse 2: I was your “good” shirt!
Me carrying a trash bag full of clothes. Narration: At first, I sold my “professional Patagonia pants” back to Worn Wear and then donated a bunch of clothes to thrift stores. But then I began to wonder if there was a way to donate directly to people in need.
Me sitting on the floor holding up one of my blouses. Me: Is donating clothes actually helpful? Do they want clothes like this? Or am I just trying to make myself feel good?
A Vietnamese restaurant has a sign on the door that says “PDX Free Fridge coat drive!” My first stop is a mutual-aid group that started during the pandemic’s lockdown period. The PDX Free Fridge group set up collection boxes for winter coats.
Me dropping a coat into a yellow donation bin. Narration: I had a nice one that no longer fit as I grew from a large to an extra-large during the pandemic. Me: Goodbye, friend! Be well!
Narration: Many shelters in my city, Portland, Oregon, also take clothing donations. But they don’t want to be burdened with donations that aren’t clean or useful. A labeled drawing of Blanchet House in downtown Portland. Label: Blanchet House offers food, shelter and aid to people in need. Narration: They took in 56,745 pounds of donated clothes last year.
Portrait of Julie Showers, Blanchet House Communications and Marketing Director, labeled with her name and job. Julie: “We ask people to donate clothing with dignity. That means we don't offer our guests dirty or stained clothing because that can feel humiliating.”
A volunteer holding a mask holds up two different shirts on clothes hangers. Narration: In non-pandemic times, Blanchet House has a clothes closet where people can choose whatever they want to wear. During the pandemic, they switched to having volunteers choose a couple options for guests at the front door.
Julie speaking in front of the clothing items she mentions. On one side of her are useful items (jeans, sweatshirts, sneakers) on the other side are not useful ones - fancy suits, skirts, wingtip shoes. Julie: “Most of our guests need clothing that's appropriate for outdoor wear: jeans, sweatshirts, jackets, appropriate shoes.” Julie: “People frequently donate dress clothes, formal wear and men’s suits. But for our guests who are actively experiencing homelessness, that's not really an item they need or want. Suits take up space and are heavy and rarely needed.”
Me reading on a cell phone. Narration: I got some good advice: Check the shelter’s website for what they need. Shelters don’t want a bunch of special-occasion clothes they’ll have to put in storage for months. Me: Oh, they don’t need any of my business clothes. Dang.
A room full of boxes labeled with different clothes at the JOIN headquarters. Narration: Next, I head to JOIN, a nonprofit that helps people transition from homelessness to permanent housing. They have several rooms full of donated clothes they give away.
Portrait of Sara Rudolph and Matthew Vrvilo, working at the counter in JOIN’s Day Center room. Label: Sara Rudolph and Matthew Vrvilo, JOIN Day Center Workers Sara: “Things that people really need are survival gear: sweatshirts, coats, warm clothing that's in good shape. Stuff that we call fast fashion or disposable fashion is not so good because it can’t take a lot of wear.” Matthew: “People sometimes think we’d want all the stuff they clean out of their attic or their shed—the stuff that they would just dump at Goodwill. But we don't want junk.”
Sara and Matthew’s speaking heads float above a bunch of junk donations. Sara: “Nobody wants partially used toiletries. Nobody wants used deodorant. We’ve gotten straw Easter baskets for Easter decorations, TV remotes ...” Matthew: “People get this sense that they're helping out. But in reality, it really hampers our ability to do what we do best.”
Two nicely labeled boxes surrounded by heavenly clouds, giving off rays of light. Next to them are three bottle of soap. Label: The Dream Donation Box Clean, folded clothes that are sorted by type, seasonally appropriate and labeled with sizes. Bonus! The donor called and asked if they could pick up anything helpful at the store.
Me sheepishly holding up a blue shirt. My other business clothes are on the counter. Narration: Of all the clothes I’m hoping to donate, most are not durable enough. But two T-shirts make the cut. Voice: We’ll take that one!
Portrait of Amanda Ives speaking. Label: Amanda Ives, Raphael House of Portland’s Development Director Narration: Some places get so overwhelmed with donations that they’ve generally stopped accepting clothes altogether. Like Raphael House, which supports survivors of domestic violence. Amanda: “Our emergency shelter is in a confidential location for safety—so we can't have donors come to Raphael House.”
Volunteers sorting through a mountain of clothes. Amanda: “That means spending time off-site to meet donors, accept items, sort them, put them together, box them, bring them back to Raphael House, unload them into the right space and move them from that space into areas where they can be accessed by staff and participants.”
Amanda speaking on a Zoom screen. Narration: Instead of having open-ended clothing donations, Raphael House staff prefer to have quick one-on-one conversations with donors to review what they want to give. Then, if they can use any of the items, donors can either mail in their clothes or bring them to one of Raphael House’s monthly Donation Drop-off events. Unlike other shelters, they need less “survival wear” and more high-quality, everyday clothes and professional wear. Amanda: “I always say, if you wouldn't give it to someone to wear to a job interview or out with friends, then we probably won't be able to accept it. Survivors deserve really wonderful, nice things that make them feel good.”
I hold up two of my blouses to the Zoom screen. Narration: Over Zoom, she checks out my business-casual offerings. Amanda: Those look really nice! We can use those. Me: Yes!
Packing my clothes into a box to mail. Narration: Donating clothes takes time, energy and research. I don’t ever want to dump my old clothes on someone. Me: I hope you make someone happy.
Me shipping the box at a post office box. Me: I should only buy clothes I’m absolutely going to wear … and, hey, maybe with the cash I save, I can support all these good groups. You know what’s always a useful donation? Money.
Big clipboard with a checklist How to donate clothes with dignity DO: Check the group’s website to see what they need Donate only clean clothes that are free of rips and stains Sort and label clothes by size and type Fold clothes and put them into a box Hold onto donations until they’re seasonally appropriate (like coats in winter) Contact the group to see if they need anything else you can donate Recognize that it takes time and energy to process donations—be nice! DON’T Dump clothes without asking Don’t Donate things the group specifically says they don’t need Don’t Stuff clothes into a garbage bag Don’t Include random other items you want to get rid of Don’t Donate clothes you would consider too stained or torn to wear Don’t Be a jerk

Visit Worn Wear to learn how to trade in your well-loved Patagonia gear for credit toward purchases in Patagonia retail stores, on WornWear.com and Patagonia.com.

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