Giving clothes a second chance
Anar Virji is a producer in Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau.
I donate clothing to charity a few times a year – things I haven’t worn in a while or no longer fit me.
It’s a common thing to do in the United States, so common that there are donation bins in neighbourhoods and parking lots, and even in my local supermarket.
Much of that clothing goes into shops, which charities such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill use to fund their work.
At the Salvation Army in Alexandria, Virginia, dozens of employees at workstations sift through donated items, separating out goods that will be sold in their stores from those that will be sold to textile dealers and items that will be trashed.
The Salvation Army is one of the biggest charities in the country; the money it earns from shop sales and from selling clothes to textile dealers is ploughed back into its charity work, which includes disaster relief work and drug rehabilitation programmes.
Some of the people working in the warehouse the day we’re there filming are recovering addicts in the Salvation Army’s programme. The work is part of their rehabilitation efforts.
There’s a huge variety of clothing in the warehouse: Striped tops, pressed trousers, colourful dresses, baby clothes with whimsical prints, and more.
In the shoe area, I spy spiked heels, running shoes, and men’s dress shoes in creamy brown leather. The manager of bulk sales at this Salvation Army outpost tells me he thinks the variety is due to the area where the store is located: that part of Virginia has a diverse population.
Used clothing is also a growing export business. The US sends more than half a billion dollars of secondhand clothes out of the country every year, and that number is rising. Some of that used clothing is sold by charities to secondary dealers.
This growing market presents opportunities for people like Farid Khan, who works for a small exporter in the state of Virginia called Khyber Traders, and after filming at the Salvation Army, my cameraman and I go to the small warehouse where Khan works to speak to him about his business.
Just over a year ago, the company started selling used shoes it bought from the Salvation Army. The shoes were too worn out to appeal to Americans, but there’s a demand for them overseas, and Khan says what started out as sales to Pakistan and Egypt is expanding.
This month, they’re sending their first shipment of shoes to Ghana. The shoes fill the warehouse – they’re piled ceiling-high, in stacks and in white bags for shipment. I pick up a few pairs and examine them.
Some are slightly worn, some are out of fashion, but some look almost new, like the previous owner just forgot to wear them. My cameraman and I spin tales of where these shoes might end up and the women who will wear them to work or to parties.
It’s easy not to think about where these donated items go once you hand them over to a charity. But with an increasing demand for secondhand clothing, it’s worth knowing where your donations will go, and how they’ll get there.