The process of donating used clothing used to be pretty straightforward, with most of it going to big charities like the Salvation Army, Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul.
In recent years, however, clothing donation has become more confusing — even as it's grown more convenient — as a wide array of colorful collection boxes has sprouted up in parking lots all over the nation.
During a day's drive around the Chicago area, the Tribune spotted about 10 types of boxes that ran the gamut from collecting the clothes almost entirely to benefit charity (Salvation Army) to collecting the clothes purely for profit (USAgain).
"In the last 15 years or so the landscape has changed," said Cheryl Lightholder of Goodwill Industries of Metropolitan Chicago, which phased out collection boxes here years ago. "These days you're seeing a lot more of those clothing donation boxes that are typically run by for-profit companies with really no connections to charity, while some might donate a small portion of their profits to charities."
Lightholder said her charity prefers to get clothing at its collection centers and in resale shops to ensure the items don't get damaged or rained on before they are sorted. This also frees up the group, she says, to spend its money on programs rather than trucks and gas for clothing collection.
But the Salvation Army still keeps about 75 collection boxes around Chicago in addition to manned collection centers and trucks for home pickups.
By government estimates, Americans throw 85 percent of their unwanted textiles in the trash each year. That may be, in part, because of a widespread perception that charities want only those items that can be resold in their thrift shops. While these are the most valuable donations, other castoffs can still make millions for charities on the secondary materials market, which includes selling used clothes in developing countries and recycling them for industrial uses.
So the Salvation Army's Maj.Mark Anderson stresses that he doesn't mind when people donate ripped jeans, stained shirts and coats with broken zippers.
"We want to receive any and all articles because, if we can't sell it in one of our stores, then we can sell it to what they call the 'rag market,'" Anderson said. "They can repurpose those textiles for anything from wiping rags or materials for new textiles to even as an additive to asphalt. (That revenue) is a big deal for us."
One of the oldest trades in the world, textile recycling today represents a nearly $1 billion business, according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles association (SMART), an industry trade group. Eric Stubin, president and CEO of Trans-America Textile Recycling Inc. in the New York City area, said many businesses work closely with charities to recycle clothes that can't be sold in domestic thrift stores. According to Stubin, used textiles unfit for resale in the U.S. can fetch up to 35 cents a pound.
Some of it is shipped to developing nations to be sold there, some is turned into wiping cloths for commercial use, and some is "reprocessed into fibers for furniture stuffing, upholstery, insulation, soundproofing, carpet padding, building and other materials," according to SMART.
"This symbiotic relationship between charities and private-sector recyclers efficiently recycles 2.5 billion pounds of clothing annually," Stubin said. "Unfortunately we have our work cut out for us, as this represents only 25 percent of all textile waste."
With more-established charities reducing their fleets of clothing boxes, commercial recyclers have moved in with their own boxes to tap into the valuable supply of discarded American clothing — sometimes, but not always, in partnership with charities.
Although some larger charities around the country have blamed the new boxes for a decrease in donations, local Goodwill and Salvation Army representatives say donations have remained generally stable, considering the economy.
Some of the more controversial new boxes are placed by recyclers who consider collecting used clothes to be a charitable environmental program or who create and run their own charity to which they donate funds.
One of the biggest players, Gaia, falls in the first category. Over the last several years it has been criticized for characterizing itself as an environmental charity with projects around the world, when most of its environmental work remains collecting clothes for sale. Along with the related organizations Planet Aid and USAgain, Gaia has expanded in the last decade despite its connection to the controversial Danish organization Tvind, whose leader was acquitted of charges of money laundering and embezzlement in 2006.
An example of the second category isFlorida businessman Jay Katari, who owns or has a stake in several textile recycling companies and has also headed charities called Shoes for a Cure and Cancer Free America, whose logos have emblazoned hundreds of boxes.
Critics contend that he gives very little of his profits to cancer causes, and the controversy led Johns Hopkins Cancer Center and Children's Center to stop taking donations from his organizations. Katari did not return phone calls from the Tribune seeking comment, but he said in one television report out ofMaryland that he has given at least $87,000 to cancer charities.
In 2009, boxes for a new cancer charity called Go Green for the Cause began to appear in parking lots across the nation. Nicole Leve, executive director of the organization, says it has about 1,000 boxes nationally and about 200 in the Chicago area that raise money for cancer charities. Commercial recyclers operate most of the clothing operations and pay Go Green for clothes deposited in the bins, Leve said. Katari runs one of those recyclers and has been a generous donor to the charity, she said.
The group's website says clothing donations "equate to hundreds of thousands of dollars for Go Green for the Cause nationally." But the charity's 2009 financial statements report just $14,500 in total revenue, with no money going to program services or cancer charities. Instead, the financial report states that "all funds raised have been utilized to cover costs to get started." Leve said that in 2010, the group donated $67,450 to theBreast Cancer Network of Strength and the Children's Miracle Network.
Audrey Traff, owner of MAC Recycling inMaryland, said she hopes consumers won't lump all of the clothing box operations together. Her for-profit company partners with Drug Abuse Resistance Education in 10 states where signs on the boxes (on the East Coast they're more like huts) clearly state that DARE gets compensation for each box bearing its name.
DARE receives $250 to $300 per box annually from about 1,500 boxes around the nation that are placed with the help of commercial clothing recyclers like Traff, said John Lindsay, vice president of program development. About half of that money goes into local programs and half into officer training, subsidizing workbooks and training conferences, he says.
Industry watchers advise concerned consumers to read the fine print on the boxes, to call the phone numbers listed there and to seek more information through Guidestar.com, state attorneys general websites, the American Institute of Philanthropy, the Better Business Bureau, Charity Navigator, Greatnonprofits.org and Philanthropedia.
"Some of (the boxes) have a very genuine purpose, and others unfortunately are not so genuine; they are more on the side of what they can attain," Anderson said. "But at the Salvation Army, we turn them into the dollars that operate our drug and alcohol rehab centers all over the country. So these donations are very meaningful to us."
Drop-off boxes not equally charitable
Some clothing-donation proceeds go to charities; others go to for-profit firms
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