Secondhand Syndicate: That concert T-shirt you “donated” was more valuable than you thought


| March-April 2009



Second Hand Donation Shirts

image by Getty Images

About a mile from my parents’ house in Cleveland, there’s a yellow “donation center” that could easily be mistaken for a Dumpster. This particular drop box belongs to Planet Aid, which sells donated clothes “to support education, community development, and HIV/AIDS programs in Africa and Asia.”

When I was growing up, I never knew how Planet Aid accomplished these things; I just knew that my dad’s Velcro lawn-mowing shoes would reach a noble destiny.

Drop box anonymity has its benefits: Donors avoid the shame of watching someone paw through “gently used” MC Hammer T-shirts and velvet track suits, while recipients avoid answering questions about what exactly happens on the other end of the steel repository.

The two big names in American textile philanthropy—Salvation Army and Goodwill—moved away from donation bins in the 1970s as the oil crisis tripled transportation costs. The two charities focused on in-store donations, which put the burden on donors to transport their used goods. As Goodwill and Salvation Army bowed out, nonprofits like Planet Aid and for-profit organizations moved in.

“There is a huge latent market,” says Planet Aid spokesperson Doug Bailey. Since its inception 12 years ago, Planet Aid has grown from a tiny nonprofit to one that earns $20 million in annual revenue. The organization sells goods to secondhand clothing companies and to salvagers, which resell textiles to underdeveloped markets or refashion them into products like furniture stuffing. All Planet Aid’s revenue is funneled back into operating costs or international development programs, Bailey says.

The company doesn’t operate without criticism. In 2007 the American Institute of Philanthropy gave it a failing grade because it devotes a lower percentage of its revenue to philanthropy than other clothing charities do. Planet Aid says it needs to devote more money to operating costs because it deals exclusively with donation dumps—86 million pounds annually.