The New England chapter of the Epilepsy Foundation brings in about $500,000 every year by collecting and reselling unwanted clothes and household goods, using the proceeds to support children and adults with the disease.
But the foundation has seen the normally staid business of clothing recycling disrupted by upstart businesses that have taken a page out of the Uber and Airbnb manuals and introduced a more convenient service for people who no longer want their old clothes.
These startup recycling companies have formed partnerships with Massachusetts communities to provide curbside or in-school pickup of clothing donations. But nonprofits that have relied on clothing donations say that convenience has come at their expense — the local Epilepsy Foundation said its revenues are down around 11 percent.
“There’s so many choices now for people to donate clothing and choice is a great thing, but the for-profit companies are hurting my nonprofit, which is trying to raise money and funds for people with epilepsy,” said Brad Rich, president of the Epilepsy Foundation New England Donation Center. “Most people don’t realize when they donate to a for-profit company that they’re hurting a nonprofit.”
Epilepsy Foundation New England sells its clothing to the retail thrift-store chain Savers, and the proceeds of the donation program account for about half of the chapter’s funds. Rich said he is concerned about the foundation’s finances if clothing collections continue to fall.
Another nonprofit feeling the squeeze of competition is Catie’s Closet, which accepts new or gently worn clothing and shoes and donates them to low-income students at in-school “closets” in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Executive director Mickey Cockrell said donations are down 10 to 15 percent over the last year.
“It’s terrific that everyone is trying to keep clothing out of landfills, but recycling clothing has become such a big business that many people don’t understand who it’s serving,” Cockrell said. “We build free stores in public schools for disadvantaged youth and we really appreciate it when people donate to us, so that we can refuel our own communities. It’s been a struggle.”
One of the new competitors, Simply Recycling, has agreements with 15 Massachusetts communities to provide curbside pickup of residents’ unwanted clothes on trash day. The service is free to residents; Simply Recycling sells the clothing and other textile goods such as rugs and sheets to donation centers, international exporters, and recycling centers, and pays $20 to towns and cities for each ton it collects.
The company said it has collected 585,000 pounds of textiles across Massachusetts since January, but there is a much, much larger amount of unwanted clothing that is thrown out.
“The fact of the matter is most of the stuff is not making it to donation centers,” said Sonny Wilkins, vice president of municipal relations for Simple Recycling. “This is the fastest growing category of the residential waste stream because there’s millions of tons of clothing ending up in landfills.”
And Wilkins added that Simple Recycling isn’t targeting people who give to nonprofits.
“When people bring their items to donation centers, it’s either because they want the tax write-off or they believe in the mission. That’s not who we are looking for,” Wilkins said. “We’re actually looking for the vast amount of people who do not already give to those groups.”
Clothing waste has steadily risen over the last few years: some 10.5 million tons of textiles — clothing, rags, sheets, carpets — went into landfills in 2015, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Nearly all of that could be reused, but only a small amount — 15 percent — is donated or recycled, the agency estimates.
Kathryn Larsen, recycling development coordinator at Bay State Textiles, a for-profit recycling company that partners with schools, blames the escalation of fast fashion, lower-priced goods that are too often treated as disposable. Larsen said most people assume torn, stained, or ragged clothing is unacceptable to donate; but the recycling world welcomes all of it, she said, even sweat-stained shirts and single shoes.
“For many years, charities’ messaging has been that everything has to be in good condition,” Larsen said. “We’re trying to change the mind-set that clothing should go into the trash.”
Other nonprofits that rely on clothing donations, Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries and the Salvation Army, said they have not felt an impact from the recycling companies. James Harder, director of communications for the local Goodwill, said its donations have steadily increased over the last year.
“In some ways, these recycling initiatives kind of create more awareness around donations,” Harder said. “If people are hearing a lot about textile recycling, they may also be thinking about donating to nonprofits.”