St Vincent de Paul: My commenter recommended St Vincent de Paul as an organization that sells unwearable clothing as rags. This sounds promising except that the nearest location is almost 50 miles away (in Fredericksburg, VA) I decided to focus on organizations closer to home.
Goodwill: I sent an email to Goodwill inquiring about what happens to clothing they are unable to sell in their thrift stores, and they responded quickly with a lengthy explanation:
We have over 2300 in the US and Canada. The items that don’t meet the quality standard are sometimes sold at Goodwill clearance centers, such as outlets or “by the pound” stores. Not all Goodwill headquarters have such centers, but where present, this is a good way to squeeze more value from donations, keep more product from reaching landfills, and fund our job training programs and employment placement services. Any remaining product is then offered for sale to textile recyclers, which extends the life of already manufactured goods.
Some of the used clothes sold to textile recyclers are recycled into rags, carpet fibers and other products. This is an environmentally sound process - we have seen estimates that textile recyclers divert approximately 2.5 billion pounds of used clothes from landfills.
PlanetAid: I also contacted PlanetAid as they operate in Washington, DC, not too far away from me.They emailed a message including this response:
The clothing and shoes that are donated to Planet are resold to international used clothing brokers. The profits derived from these sales are used to fund sustainable development projects in Africa, Asia, & Latin America.
The brokers that buy our clothes actually have sorting facilities. Once they receive a load from us, they sort through clothing. The stained, ripped, or unwearable clothing is sorted out and then it is resold to actual textile recyclers. The textile recyclers then use that material to make shop rags, carpet padding, insulation, and other by-product materials. As you can see, there is an extensive chain of recycling that goes on within this industry.
The Salvation Army: I couldn't find a contact email for The Salvation Army so I called them. According to the two representatives I spoke with, they sell the higher quality clothing in their thrift stores. Less desirable but still wearable clothing is baled and shipped around the world to areas in need. If clothing is soiled or completely unwearable, it does end up in the trash. Good to know!
This research has led me to reassess what I am donating. I'm donating clothing that is often not resellable in a thrift store, but it is still wearable. I cannot think of anything I've donated recently that would have gone into the trash. I think that most of my items (if not sold in the thrift stores) are being packed into bales and being shipped to people who will hopefully find them useful.
I'm glad I did this research and learned a little more about where these clothes are going after I donate them. We will stick with donating to Goodwill for the present because it is conveniently located very close to our home. It's nice to know that any of these organizations in our area will treat our donations responsibly and have multiple ways to reuse clothing and keep them out of landfills.