Clothing Donations: Not as Helpful as I Thought

Credit: Barret Anspach
Credit: Barret Anspach

By Sara Knutson

We can’t handle all your clothes.

At least, not at the food pantry where I volunteer. The pantry focuses on food, of course, but also maintains a small thrift shop, and we are drowning in donations.

When I arrived on Wednesday, two weeks’ worth of clothes had accumulated due to limited Labor Day hours, and my fellow volunteers and I picked through dozens of garbage bags of clothes. The very best went to restock the shelves. Other good clothes were set aside for a fellow Catholic organization known for clothing distribution, and the older and out-of-season ones were earmarked for Goodwill.

I’d estimate we kept 5-10% of the donations. On a regular week that number is higher but always below 50%. It seemed unlikely that either of the other two sites could use everything either.

According to Elizabeth Cline, who covered the subject in Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, my hunch is right. As Cline puts it:

“Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes. According to John Paben, co-owner of used-clothing processer Mid- West Textile, ‘They never could.’”

(A longer excerpt can be found here.)

Pope Francis has regularly lamented our consumption-oriented society, decrying its “culture of waste.” I saw the truth of his words in a fresh way at the pantry this week. We have so much stuff that even the donated items of people conscientious enough to give them away cannot all be used.

This situation should be a clarion call to Christians. We can no longer justify new purchases with the idea that someone else will be able to use our excess. That’s possible, but it’s more likely that we are contributing to the burden on our already over-worked planet and cultivating a mindset too comfortable with consumption and its consequent waste.

Americans have grown up with the three R’s—Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—but many of us never learned that the words are in that order intentionally, going from most to least desirable.

Too often, we see recycling and reuse as wholesale solutions rather than limited options. Donations and thrift stores and textile recyclers are good things, but ought not take the place of buying less in the first place.

So let’s reclaim “Reduce.” Let’s prayerfully consider how we can decrease our consumption, how we can teach ourselves and our communities to tread lightly in the retail sector. Only then will we be able to leave the culture of waste behind and freely follow Christ.


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