How to donate clothing in a disaster: It’s a life and death issue

Donating clothes in a disaster might seem like a simple thing.

It’s not.

You and your group can actually do harm if you don’t get it right, so if you’re thinking about donating clothes to a disaster area, please take a minute to read this.

First, understand this about disaster zones:

Regardless of what the news media or Red Cross TV commercials might portray, they are painfully chaotic places.  And the chaos continues for weeks, if not months, after the initial catastrophe.

The people on the scene are in a state of near-constant overwhelm and believe it or not, one of the biggest sources of overwhelm is improperly processed clothing donations.

Clothing donations take up scarce and much-needed clean indoor space and add hours of work to already exhausted relief workers.

That’s why how clothing is donated becomes a life and death issue. 

Guidelines to follow

Clothing, to be useful, needs to be sorted by people and stored indoors.

Here’s the problem: on site relief workers will be busy with urgent, sometimes life and death, matters and dry, clean indoor space will be at a premium.

Random, unlabeled and inappropriate clothing donations literally choke relief efforts.

Please read that sentence again: Random, unlabeled and inappropriate clothing donations literally choke relief efforts.

To avoid this, here are specific guidelines for you and your group:

1. Find out what’s needed first and bring what’s needed – and nothing else

Please do not use a disaster as an opportunity to empty your closets, basements and attics of dirty, moldy and/or shoddy clothes. And please never show up at a pick up site and just dump your clothes and run.

2. Clean clothes in good condition only 

There are no laundry facilities in disaster zone and even if there were there will be no manpower available to sort dirty from clean clothes and do laundry. If it’s not something you yourself would happily wear in the condition it is in right now, then do not bring it.

You can always give less-than-optimal clothing to groups like the Salvation Army that have the staffs and facilities to handle such things.  People in disaster areas do not. Bad clothes pile up and become a painful burden by taking up precious indoor space, diverting the time and energy of scarce labor, and generally creating a depressing scene.

3. Seasonally appropriate clothing only 

If it’s freezing where the disaster has occurred, please don’t drop off bikinis and flip-slops. If the effected area is in the tropics, please don’t drop off heavy, hooded sweatshirts.

4. Brand new socks and underwear in their original packages are like gold

I was able to buy a package of 7 pairs of athletics socks for under $10. I was able to fill a shopping cart with the same for under $300.

If you can, donating new socks and underwear in their original sealed package is one of the best things you can possibly do. As every camper, hunter and infantryman knows, there is nothing so welcome as clean socks when you’re cut off from the comforts of civilization.

Note: In a cold weather situation, new warm hats, gloves, and scarves can be purchased for under $10 and these too are pure gold.

5. Sort your clothes, putting each type in a separate bag

For example, hats in one bag. Blankets in another. Bedding in another. Boys coats. Girls coats. etc. It’s a small effort for you, but on the receiving end where bags are coming in by the thousands, it’s a massive help.

IMPORTANT: If you are running a clothing drop off site…

1. Your job is to forward only appropriate clothing that has been correctly sorted, bagged and labeled

If you cannot do this, it would be better for you to NOT forward clothing donations to the disaster zone. Yes, the issue is that serious.

2. Your most important job: Sort the clothes

Sorting means:

a. Removing and disposing of inappropriate items (throw them out or send to the Salvation Army.)

b. Putting all similar items into separate bags neatly folded and labeled

3. Your most important tools: contractor grade garbage bags, light colored 3M duct tape, black indelible magic markers (sharpies) 

The bags will be handled often so the bags you use need to be sturdy. Hardware stores sell contractor bags. You might even be able to find them in the supermarket.

The sealed bags need to be clearly labeled. Otherwise they have to be torn open for relief workers to know what is inside. Not good.

Light colored duct tape is the best way to label the bags. 3M duct tape has a reputation for sticking the most reliably.

Use an indelible magic marker (sharpie) to label each bag. Indelible is important because again, these bags will be handled a lot and may spend time in the rain and snow and other less than optimal environments. (Remember, disaster zones are chaotic places with very scarce resources.)

Finally, it is of supreme importance that you bag like items with like items: mens coats in one bag, girls sweaters in another bag and so on.

Use common sense and use as your guide the picture of yourself on the receiving end of several hundred bags delivered at the end of a fourteen hour day.


It’s easy to bring the right kind of clothes to a drop off site. Just follow the directions above.

If you are operating a drop off site, you have a serious obligation to know these guidlines and to make sure that you are forwarding ONLY approrpriate, sorted, bagged and labeled clothes.

These simple steps add up to a huge difference within the disaster zone. You will free up manpower to do the truly important things like work with victims who need special attention. You will also make the work of the relief workers easier and help prevent them from burning out on labor-intensive  tasks when they already have more than they can possibly do.

Thanks for taking the time to read and consider these guidelines – and most of all thanks for following them.

This is what we want to avoid…

– Ken McCarthy

Unsorted clothing donations: A serious burden on relief efforts. (This photograph was taken in The Rockaways two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, but this scene is reproduced all over the disaster area.)

A short list of Sandy relief groups we endorse:


One Response to How to donate clothing in a disaster: It’s a life and death issue

  1. Jan Moore November 18, 2012 at 8:07 pm #

    very nicely put. I worked as a volunteer last year after Irene and worked in an area one day sorting clothes. What a task. And you are right. Unfortunately although formal dresses look very pretty they are a burden when donated to disaster areas ( and yes I saw formal dresses). Please think before you send and money is always the right color and goes a long way.