Donations of used clothing and shoes to various freestanding collection bins in Portage County do not go to nonprofit groups with charitable missions, but are instead collected and resold by private for-profit companies.
Critics of the collection boxes say they hurt nonprofit organizations like Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul and Salvation Army that rely on the donations to fund their programming.
“We’ve struggled quite a bit with these (for-profit) operators,” said Doug Schacht, leader of donations for Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin (NCW). “The community is not receiving any programs or services for donations.”
The for-profit companies say they are similar to recyclers of other commodities and that they are trying to meet consumer demand for convenient disposal options while helping keep clothing out of the waste stream.
“Nonprofit and for-profit clothing recyclers aren’t competing against one another but rather each has a role to play offering consumers a convenient choice in how to divert old textiles from landfills,” said Scott Burnham, spokesperson for USAgain, a West Chicago-based company that has 12 for-profit clothing collections bins in Portage County.
“I can totally appreciate people wanting the convenience,” said Schacht, but he said convenience comes with trade-offs.
Schacht said that 82 cents out of each dollar Goodwill makes from reselling donated items goes to pay for programs and services in the communities it serves. “Eighty-two cents is left to reinvest… With the for-profit operators, it’s just the opposite; all those dollars are basically leaving the community.”
Debra Hunt, director of the St. Vincent de Paul Community Center in Plover, said store donations have continued to be strong. Its board of directors has not taken an official position on for-profit collection bins, but Hunt said, “It seems contrary to this community that there would be those types of (for-profit bins) when there’s so many places that accept donations locally.”
Hunt said there are numerous benefits to donating used items to area nonprofits, including helping fund a food pantry, job training for people with disabilities, as well as providing a place people can serve court-ordered community service. Hunt said St. Vincent de Paul also collaborates with Goodwill, Salvation Army and Portage County to provide items free of charge to people in emergency situations, like if they’ve lost possessions in a fire or other emergency event. “We offer a lot of different things for the community,” she said.
Hunt said that when she saw the freestanding clothing collection bins show up in the area about two years ago, she initially assumed they were for some kind of national nonprofit group.
Burnham said his company wants consumers to make informed choices and that it’s not trying to obscure the fact that it is a for-profit company. It’s newer bins state more clearly that it is a for-profit company and that donations are not tax deductible. “USAgain is just one choice,” he said. “People can donate to their church or a charity or something else as well.”
Schacht said there is a perception that the bins have charitable purposes and that some companies further this perception by where they place bins and how they word their disclaimers. “Some are incredibly deceptive,” said Schacht.
Operation Green is another company that has collection bins in Portage County. Part of its disclaimer says, “By depositing your unwanted clothes and shoes today you will be helping others in need.” It does go on to say it is “a commercial recycling company.”
Schacht said for-profit clothing recyclers like Operation Green, USAgain and others collect donations and sell them on the domestic salvage market or to overseas clothing brokers. “It’s become a billion dollar industry, with virtually no dollars or employment returning to the community from which those goods were collected,” he said.
Calls for comment to Operation Green were not returned.
Burnham said USAgain favors local regulation of donation bins. “Above all else, we need to ensure that collection bin operators are held accountable, adhere to high ethical standards, ensure transparency and act responsibly to maintain their bins to uphold community standards and guidelines,” he said.
USAgain first placed bins in Portage County in July 2010. The company reports it collected 43,696 pounds of clothing and shoes in Portage County in 2012.
Schacht said Goodwill of NCW had a pilot program in 2012 in three of the 35 counties it works in using its own freestanding collection bins. He said it went well, but that it will take time to expand into the rest of the region. “To our knowledge all the boxes in Portage County are for-profit,” he said.
For now people who want their clothing and shoe donations to benefit area nonprofits will have to take them to the drop-off points at the Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul stores or to other known charitable collection efforts.