The Truth About Where Your Donated Clothes End Up

ByABC News
December 21, 2006, 11:55 AM

ACCRA, GHANA, Dec. 21, 2006— -- Christmas is one of those times of the year when many Americans clean out our closets and donate some of our used clothing to a charity. Perhaps we hope that Santa Clause will replace them with shiny new shirts, jeans, blouses and shoes. Or maybe we just want to do some good.

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In New York City, AnnMarie Resnick told ABC News why her family donates clothing at Christmas time. "By the time my kids grow out of it," she said, "it is generally in good condition, and I want someone else to get good use out of it." And who does she think is benefiting? "We hope, and we think we know, it is people in our neighborhood who just aren't as fortunate as us. And who need it."

And the same sentiment from Marc Kaplowictz, who told ABC News: "I am assuming that is helping people who need it more than we do."

But do most Americans really know what they're doing when they donate clothing? For instance, do you think you are giving your beloved but worn jeans to someone with no money to buy their own? Perhaps some poor person in your hometown, or even far away in Africa?

Wake up and smell the money. Your used clothes are usually sold, not given away.

According to various estimates, here's what happens to your clothing giveaways. In most cases, a small amount of the items, the best quality castoffs -- less than 10 percent of donations -- are kept by the charitable institutions and sold in their thrift shops to other Americans looking for a bargain. These buyers could be people who are hard up, or they could be folks who like the idea of a good deal on a stylish old item that no longer can be found in regular stores.

The remaining 90 percent or more of what you give away is sold by the charitable institution to textile recycling firms. Bernard Brill, of the Secondary Recycled Textiles Association, told ABC News: "Our industry buys from charitable institutions, hundred of millions of dollars worth of clothing every year."

So, at this point, the charity you have donated clothes to has earned money off of them in two ways -- in their shops and by selling to recyclers. Then the recycler kicks into high gear. Most of the clothes are recycled into cleaning cloths and other industrial items, for which the recyclers say they make a modest profit.

Twenty-five percent, however, of what the recycling companies purchase from charities is used not as rags, but as a commodity in an international trading economy that many American may not even know about. Brill, from the textile association, picked up the story. "This clothing is processed, sorted and distributed around the world to developing countries," he said.

Take that pair of bluejeans you may have recently donated. Your jeans are stuffed with others into tightly sealed plastic bales weighing about 120 pounds and containing about 100 pairs of jeans.

The bales are loaded into huge containers and sold to international shippers who put them on ships bound for Africa and other developing regions. Again, the price of your old jeans has increased a bit because the shipper had to buy them.