clothing donations charity
Secondhand Clothing

What Really Happens to Donated Clothes? [It’s Not What You Think]

With Spring cleaning in the rearview, many people have dropped off bags of used clothing to Salvation Army, Goodwill or other local charities in recent months. What happens next to your donations might surprise you. Most charities neither give clothes away to the needy or sell the majority of them in their thrift shops, as most of us imagine. Here’s what really happens to your donations, where they end up, and why it matters.

Most charities do not give our clothing donations to the poor. They sell our donated clothes to fund programming that helps the poor. Same difference?

Salvation Army is a religious charity that targets hunger, disaster relief, and homelessness among other initiatives, while Goodwill provides job training to those in need. Neither provides clothing to the poor as part of their mission. You can ask around in your community to see if there is a local church or shelter that will give your clothes straight to the poor, but make sure there’s a need first. Charities and disaster relief are often overwhelmed by unsolicited donations of clothing. While it may sound suspect, reputable charities who sell rather than give away clothing donations are in fact providing an affordable source of used clothes in their charity thrift shops, while also raising money through their thrift shops for programming that further helps the disenfranchised.

Charities do not sell most of the clothing we donate to them in their charity shops. There’s simply too much of it.

Shocking but true, charities are only able to sell about 15% of the clothing donated to them through their charity shops. The reasons for this are numerous: Donations are often off-season and not what’s in demand or needed (think giant puffer coats donated in July) or in poor condition. But the main reason charities can’t sell all or even most of the donated clothing they receive is that they receive way too much of it: More than 3.8 billion pounds of clothing are donated in the U.S. each year, the equivalent of 166,000 t-shirts donated every single minute. 


“More than 3.8 billion pounds of clothing are donated in the U.S. each year, the equivalent of 166,000 t-shirts donated every single minute.”


Surprisingly, most of our clothing donations end up overseas. Is it a good thing or bad thing? It’s complicated.

In conclusion, your used clothes aren’t going directly to the poor, and there’s a good chance that they’re not even getting sold in the local thrift shop. So what is happening to them instead? Major charities sell the remainder to textile sorting facilities, who sort the clothes based on condition. Those that can be worn again are exported to other countries all around the world where there is a demand for secondhand clothes. The items that are too worn out are also sold, but to companies that downcycle them into wiping rags, insulation and other repurposed products. Here’s a nifty graphic of how this system works. Once again, the charities use this money from that exchange to fund their programming. Now you know.

If you want to read more about the charity donation system and how used clothes are impacting other countries, I encourage you to order my book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.


used clothing donations



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