Real Fashion For a Cause

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Have you ever noticed the clothing drop-off bins in mall parking lots and wondered what happened to the material? This isn’t just a way to unload last year’s fashion without rolled eyes from the thrift store fashion police.

In many cases, this material is not meant for a second-hand store at all, but is donated to a developing nation for reuse. Clothes stay out of landfills, and millions of people are provided with affordable clothing, and a viable recycling business is born.

Here’s how you can get involved with three of the larger U.S. organizations that provide this type of service.

Gaia Projects do simple things to keep water safe, clean, and available. Effective drilling techniques, pumps, irrigation systems and filters are built by the villagers. Photo: Gaia

Gaia Movement USA

Locations: Chicago, Ill., Fort Wayne, Ind. and Sacramento, Calif.

Number of bins: More than 820 bins (colored green), which collected 6 million pounds of clothing in 2009 alone

Materials collected: Clothing, shoes, books, toys

Need a new windbreaker for fall in the Windy City? You can likely find a Gaia bin in many of the places you shop for new clothing.

“We try to target locations that have high visibility and receive a lot of pedestrian traffic,” says Project Coordinator Mary Abeleda. “A perfect example would be a Walmart or mini-mall parking lot.”

Gaia has also taken to the Web through a partnership with freecycle.org as a way of acquiring more material. It also offers a reuse facility in Chicago for people to drop-off or pick-up material.

While Gaia does sell some of its material to secondhand clothing dealers in the U.S., it is also sent to the Ukraine, Honduras and Italy among other locations.

“Most of the clothes are shipped to other countries to be sold at discount prices,” Abeleda adds. “Unusable clothing is stripped and made into materials such as rags, blankets and other textile items.”

Gaia helps develop community gardens like this one shown in Senegal. The gardens grow many different vegetables which villagers can use as an additional food source or for money. Photo: Gaia

The funds used from sold clothing are invested into global projects. In 2009, that included the funding of an Eco-Service Center in India that educates people on sustainable topics such as water-efficient irrigation and vermicompost.

This project has already established 10 gardens, two organic pesticide units and two eco-sanitation toilets.

For those looking to donate clothing, certain garments are appreciated more than others. “Underwear and brasseries are not common items for donation,” says Abeleda, adding that they are in high demand.

But the bins are also subject to contamination, as she says they will find trash and beverage containers in bins. Gaia also turns glass bottles into solar water heaters for the windows at its main facility.

Mid-Atlantic Clothing Recycling (MAC)

Locations: Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia

Number of bins: More than 350 bins (colored light blue)

Materials collected: Clothing, shoes, linens, stuffed animals, belts, purses

Take a drive up the Atlantic Coast and you’ll probably encounter a few MAC bins, as the company has been collecting material since 2005 in grocery store, school and gas station parking lots.

Some clothing is provided to thrift stores in America, but much of it is sold to developing nations where it can be sold in open-air markets or secondhand shops.

MAC estimates that 50 percent of the clothing it collects is eligible for reuse.

For the other half, a quarter of the remaining material is turned into cloths and rags for industrial use, while the rest is recycled into insulation, upholstery, mattresses and even new textiles.

According to MAC, members of the clothing industry can “deliver a clean pair of damage-free pants to an underprivileged person in Africa for as little as 34 cents a pair. A warm sweater can find its way to someone who’s cold in Pakistan for about 12 cents. And that includes the transportation costs of getting it there.”

While MAC is a for-profit company, it does contribute proceeds to Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) America, which educates children about the impact of drugs and violence.

A partnership between Planet Aid, Inc. and the USDA's "Food for Progress” program made it possible to create development programs. Photo: Planet Aid

Planet Aid

Locations: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Kansas, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington DC

Number of bins: More than 11,000 bins (colored yellow), which collected 100 million pounds of clothing in 2009 alone

Materials collected: Clothing, shoes

Your best chance of finding a clothing recycling bin in the U.S. is through Planet Aid, as this organization has been around since 1997 and has bins in six of the 10 largest metro areas in the U.S.

The company provides both clothing and funding for programs to Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia, and its causes include sustainable farming and AIDS research.

There have been some questions raised about how much of Planet Aid’s revenue is spent on these causes, but the company reported donations of $14.7 million to these projects in 2009.

Planet Aid also offers a fundraising opportunity for schools, as those hosting a drop-off bin receive quarterly payment based on the amount of material they collect.

Three Bins, One Goal

These three organizations cover most of the U.S. with donation bins, and for those cities not covered, keep an eye out for bins in a parking lot near you. Your old wardrobe could have a second life across the world.

Keep in mind that these bins are for clothing, so find another spot for your garbage and recyclables.

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Trey Granger

Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.
Trey Granger

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