After two decades of collecting used clothing and selling it to fund charitable programs around the world, Planet Aid expanded into the thrift store business last October.
The store, located in Catonsville, is just another way for the large nonprofit to raise money for its charities, officials said.
The company is still collecting clothing from 23 states through big yellow bins, often found at places like gas stations or other recycling locations. But some of those items are now going into its store as well.
And after five months in business, the Catonsville store alone has generated about $75,000 for programs. The store employs 30 workers, including 22 full time.
County Councilman Tom Quirk visited the store Feb. 16 to recognize its success in the community, he said.
"It's a good business for our community; I'm glad they're here," Quirk said.
When planning the Catonsville thrift store, on U.S. 40 near Shoppers Food Warehouse and Planet Fitness, Planet Aid looked at what its competition is doing.
"As far as thrift is concerned, we're a nobody, you could say," regional retail manager Thomas Gentry said.
The company, based in Elkridge, wants to open one or two new thrift stores a year, Gentry said. Four of those will be in the Baltimore area.
The 32,000-square-foot store in Catonsville is considered large, according to Gentry, who has worked in the thrift industry for 15 years.
Gentry wanted a bright setting, so the company installed new LED lights, and kept the walls and ceilings white to make the store appear even brighter.
At any time the store has 50,000 items on the floor, and it tries to sell that amount every month. But the size of the space allows them to have wide aisles, and additional racks make shopping easier, he said.
The store also sells household and kitchen items, shoes and accessories.
"That's a lot of merchandise to process, and that's what keeps thrift industries going, is constantly moving the merchandise in and out," Gentry said. "We put out probably 2,000 to 2,500 pieces a day."
They see about 200 customers a day, according to Gentry.
"They like that we're in the community, they don't have to drive outside their own neighborhood," Gentry said.
Reduce and reuse
The store's competition in the area is limited — there is a Goodwill Super Store about three miles west on Route 40, and Catonsville is home to several small consignment shops.
Anything that Planet Aid is unable to sell is recycled, according to Gentry. Along with programs in developing countries, Planet Aid has a pro-environment mission.
In the back of the store, there are bales of cardboard and fabric ready to be sold to salvagers, along with bins full of books, scrap metal, purses and other items.
"We don't get much for it, but at least it's not going to the landfill," Gentry said.
According to Gentry, 15 percent of all clothing in the U.S. is donated, and the other 85 percent ends up in a landfill. John Nagiecki, communications director for Planet Aid, said one of the company's goals is increasing the amount of clothing that gets recycled.
"We can capture a lot more," Nagiecki said.
One way they try to do that is making their yellow drop-off bins convenient for people.
"Convenience is what really drives recycling," he said.
Clothes to farms
According to its most recent financial report, Planet Aid raises about $40 million a year through clothing collections to fund farming, education and health programs in developing countries. Of that, 85 percent goes toward programs, while rest is split between general and administrative costs and fundraising and development. According to its most recent tax filing, the company's president and CEO makes a little less than $145,000 a year.
Nagiecki has traveled the communities the company works with, and said the biggest thing that needs to be addressed is extreme poverty. Planet Aid does work in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
One way Planet Aid does that is through its Farmers' Clubs. Farmers in developing countries often grow barely enough to survive, and they use traditional practices, which leads to lost productivity, according to Planet Aid.
The three- to five-year Farmers' Club programs gives farmers the chance to experiment with new techniques. They learn about conservation agriculture, which emphasizes natural input, according to Planet Aid, and strategic water management.
The programs also show the farmers the results of these techniques — they apply what they learn to an experimental plot. Seeing the success of the new farming strategies makes it more likely that the farmers will apply them to their own land.
"We're helping subsistence farmers generate more income so they can rise from poverty," Nagiecki said.
Many of Planet Aids programs, Farmers' Club included, encompass multiple aspects of a person's well-being — finance, health, hygiene and education.
Another of Planet Aid's 11 programs is teacher training. Planet Aid supports training colleges for teachers in Mozambique, Malawi, Guinea-Bissau, India and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to its website.
Planet Aid also establishes community HIV facilities through its HOPE Project. The facilities are open to HIV-positive people, people who want to be tested and caregivers. The facilities also provide education about sexually transmitted diseases.
"Our main objective is to help the people who live in extremely poor areas get a hand up," Nagiecki said.