CLICK HERE to read about how one women entrepreneur in Guatemala earns her living from used clothing.
You have sorted through your closet, picked out the things you no longer want, and taken them down to your local Planet Aid donation box. As you release the bin handle and send the bags on their way you consider how much better to recycle than dispose of clothes in the trash. You never wore that knitted sweater you got as a gift, and those deck shoes had gotten a little worn, but were far from worn out. Someone could get months and maybe years of additional use.
Like most people who recycle their unwanted clothing, you also think about someone less fortunate than yourself benefiting from what you gave away. You would like to think that the sweater you put in the collection box would maybe keep someone warm on a cold night. You perhaps feel a kind of connection to that person, though you have no idea who they might be or where.
Your items will benefit those who are less privileged, but first they will likely embark on an odyssey that leads across oceans to far off lands.
So that you understand the process and context, here is a brief description of the typical sequence of events after you drop your clothes into our bin.
Cared for from the Start
While inside the donation bin, your bag will stay dry and protected. Our bins are waterproof and securely locked. We generally pick up at each of our bins twice a week. We monitor how much volume a particular bin receives and may increase (or reduce) the pick up schedule accordingly. Once in the truck, your clothes will make their way to one of our 14 warehouses, eventually arriving at the end of the day along with 5,000 additional pounds of clothing in the truck.
As the truck is unloaded, we make sure no one mistakenly donated something other than clothes or shoes. Our bins are posted with instructions that indicate we only accept clothes and shoes, but sometimes people donate other items too. That makes our job a little harder, as we are only equipped to handle clothing. Nevertheless, we try our best to find someone who will take non-clothing items.
We do no sorting of clothes ourselves but take what you have donated (in the very same bags in which you placed them in our bin) and load them into our baling machine. The baling machine wraps the clothes in a protective cloth or plastic wrapper and straps them tightly together into a large package that weighs approximately 1,000 pounds. These bales make it easier to handle and ship the clothes from the warehouse to the final destination. The bales may remain in the warehouse for a few days, but generally no longer as the demand for the clothing is very high.
Domestic or International
Everyday we load the bales into trailers for domestic buyers or in shipping containers for overseas customers. These loads may be sold to a sorting house or "grader" -- a business that will go through the individual items and sort them according to type and quality. From there the sorter may sell a portion of the clothing to a domestic thrift store. However, as described on our "Global Demand" page, most of the clothing donated to Planet Aid gets sold directly to overseas customers. Why you may ask? Because the demand for used clothing is intense in developing countries (for a quick introduction to the world of secondhand clothes, see this clip from the documentary Secondhand Pepe from Haiti).
Some people are put off to learn that their donations are sold. However, most countries will not accept free items as it would disrupt local economies and put merchants out of business.
It is important to point out that Planet Aid is not unique in selling the used clothing it receives. Major charities in the United States all do the same. Planet Aid is distinct in that it uses the net proceeds from the sale of the clothes it collects to support development projects that help the poor. To read more about the projects we support, see our Community Development page.
So What Happens Next?
Let's say that the container your clothes get packed in is sold to an importer in Guatemala. After some overland travel to a U.S. port, the container will be loaded onto a ship (bound perhaps to Puerto Barrios on the Gulf of Mexico). Once unloaded from the ship, the importer will unpack the container and sell individual bales that had been packed at Planet Aid. For example, a woman who operates a used clothing stall in a local outdoor market may buy a few bales each week. She would transport the bales to her stall and unwrap them, taking out the clothes in the very same bags that you had donated them. She will sort the items herself and set the price for each, placing a higher price on quality name brands and lower prices on other items. Some better off customers will buy the higher priced items and the relatively cheap items (often sold for pennies) bought by those with fewer means. In the end she will sell or give away everything. It is a very efficient system of distribution that is based on the market. (Read a real life case story in the Planet Aid Post of a mother in Guatemala who has made her living selling used clothing)