Where Does Old Clothing Go?

Article By J.R. Labbe, Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Clothing covered the guestroom bed. Tattered T-shirts, cargo pants with a ripped pocket, shorts that are a smidgen too tight in the waist, men's dress shirts a tad snug in the collar, women's suits that are so last year.

Stained, torn and otherwise tacky threads go to the garbage pile. Everything else gets folded and put into boxes for Goodwill.

What's that you say? Goodwill will take the T-shirt you wore while painting the kitchen and the blue jeans with the inseams pulled apart?

Yup, says David Cox, director of retail sales and marketing for Goodwill Industries of Fort Worth. There's dollars in those rags. Plus a lot of hope.

The United States really is the land of plenty. Our conspicuous consumption leads to embarrassing excess. We discard perfectly good clothing just because it's no longer the latest fashion. About 80 percent of the nation's used textiles ends up in the dump. The other 20 percent is recycled, primarily by charities that make up the majority of the used textile market.

Getting a larger percentage of those old clothes out of the landfill and into a place where they do others some good is a worthy goal. Goodwill Industries and the Salvation Army do what they can to make that as easy as possible, with drop-off boxes and collection centers tied to their thrift stores. But there are new players in town -- for-profit businesses that see dollar signs in the demand for high-quality, low-cost used clothing.

Nothing wrong with that. Free enterprise is the American way. It's just a good idea to do your homework before assuming that all collection boxes are created equal. All clothing drives are not tied to charities that use the proceeds for helping disadvantaged people or families in crisis.

Take U'SAgain, a recycling company that targets the "collection and wholesale of reusable clothes, shoes and household textiles." According to its Web site, last year U'SAgain collected "6,700 tons of textiles, used clothing and shoes, translating into the conservation of 84,000 cubic yards of landfill space."

It's laudable that U'SAgain kept that much stuff out of the waste stream. But reading the company's Web site leaves one with the impression that this is a charitable endeavor, especially since it promotes "fundraising opportunities" for schools and churches willing to host a bin on their property. They would receive $20 to $40 for every ton of material collected onsite. The industry standard for the value of textile waste is a minimum of $100 per ton.

There's also some confusion about what Goodwill does with its donated clothing. Witness the questions that George Kessinger, CEO and president of Goodwill Industries International, was asked before he spoke at my Rotary Club: Is it true that the majority of clothing given to Goodwill is shipped overseas? That it doesn't go to people who need clothing but to companies that shred it for rags?

Yes and no.

Goodwill has two lines of salvage, said Cox. Textile that is unusable when donated because it's torn or stained is bundled into 1,000-pound bales and sold to salvage graders, who export it for industrial purposes -- rags, stuffing in furniture.

Trans-Americas Trading Co. is one such processor of secondhand clothing, vintage/fashion clothing, wiping rags, fiber and textiles. The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company estimates that 2.5 million pounds of unwanted clothing are recycled annually by companies such as Trans-Americas and charitable institutions such as Goodwill.

That's only 20 percent of all textile waste.

Usable clothing is displayed in Goodwill's retail stores for sale, but as at any retail operation, the merchandise has to change on a regular basis to keep folks coming back. "We go to every measure possible to sell what is donated to us in our stores, but we do have a five-week rotation," Cox said. "If it doesn't sell in that time, we bale it by pound, but we get a higher dollar amount for it because it's usable clothing."

Trans-Americas says that eight out of 10 pounds of clothing collected by large charitable institutions end up sold to recyclers.

Some of the clothing is exported intact to countries where last season's American fashions are very desirable.

"A young woman in another country can flip through the pages of a fashion magazine to see the latest styles," Kessinger said, "and find something from the clothing that American women have discarded."

Kessinger mentioned that some countries limit used clothing imports because they compete with domestic textile production. South Africa, for example, bans the import of worn clothing except for humanitarian purposes.

Whether the Goodwill proceeds come from retail store sales or salvagers who ship the textile overseas, the money supports the training and educational programs that Goodwill offers for people with disabilities so they can become self-sufficient members of society. And Cox is proud to point out that 90 cents of every dollar that Goodwill receives goes back into the mission.

"We have two options," said Cox. "Throw it away and it goes to the landfill, or reap some benefit from it with profit that supports our mission. We choose to be an eco-minded organization and get some profit and benefit to support our mission."