Why Charities Collect and Sell Used Clothing and Shoes

Drive past a grocery store parking lot and you will probably see one or more colorful donation bins. Clothing drives are now commonplace, as are school campaigns encouraging students to donate clothes and shoes. Millions of tons are collected by charities and clothing banks every year. Yet, even when their volumes are combined, all non-profits, businesses, recycling centers, and thrift stores collect only 15 percent of all potentially recyclable textiles.

Fast, 'drive-thru' fashion

As new clothes purchases increase, so does the outflow of used clothing. The abundance of mass-produced attire, together with our tendency toward "fast-fashion" creates a growing pile of disposable clothes. Each year, the U.S. produces between 9 to 12 billion pounds of excess textile. Today, 85 percent is buried in landfills or combusted in industrial incinerators. Of the remaining 15 percent, the majority is sold overseas where there is a growing demand, while only a small fraction is sold in U.S. thrift stores.

Clothes overload

Many charities, whether local or national, end up selling most of what they gather to wholesalers. The reason for this is simple. They can't sell or give away enough of the volume they collect. Only 20 percent of used clothing is sold in thrift stores. Some is recycled into everything from soundproofing insulation to paper plates. Most gets shipped to overseas recyclers who supply it to lesser-developed nations. These countries receive much needed low-cost clothing and income opportunities.

Used clothing pays for aid

Selling clothes makes perfect sense for nonprofit organizations. Charities need multiple ways to fund and operate their programs. Fundraising requires a constant and multilevel effort, ranging from expensive direct mail campaigns to bake sales. By selling donated clothing, organizations can supply humanitarian aid, pay expenses, house their operations, and hire workers.

No free lunch

National charities are very good at clothes collections. But it takes resources to support and maintain their efforts. For example, a substantial collection and processing infrastructure must be employed that involves thousands of donation bins or trailers, warehouses, mechnanical balers, and the trucks and other equipment needed to move the clothing around. There are also the drivers, sorters packers, and other staff that must be hired to get the job done.

That's just a snapshot view of the very interesting but relatively unknown clothes recycling business.