Doorstep Clothes Bags

Mon, 12/08/2019 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

Now for a slightly different post.

Sometimes you get a bag like the one pictured above-right put through your letter box.

They are inviting you to fill the bag with old clothes you no longer need, and leave it out on the advertised day roughly a week later. They'll collect the bag from you.

It pays to look closely at the bag. Some charities collect clothes in this way to sell in their charity shops. If you put your clothing in one of their bags, you get rid of your old clothes and you help a good cause, without having to visit the charity shop yourself. Two birds with one stone. Marvellous.

I've long been aware that charities are not the only people to invite you to fill bags like these. Some profit-making businesses do too. So I've always advised people to make sure that the bag you're filling really does go to charity.

It seems that the money-making businesses are getting better at disguising their bags as charity ones. Take the one pictured above. The logo is that of the legitimate charity Against Breast Cancer. Their correct charity number is printed, as is the logo of the Fundraising Regulator. You're told "Over £1,500,000 raised through donations". The middle portion of the bag wrapper gives you some statistics on cancer. It looks like a bag to raise money for a breast cancer charity.

Now look a little more closely. 

The bag is issued by "Recycling Clothes Company Ltd". It actually says on the back that "Recycling Clothes Company Limited will donate £100 including VAT to Against Breast Cancer per tonne of goods received".

So actually, the proceeds do not entirely go to the charity. They go to Recycling Clothes Company Ltd, who sell the items given, and then give a cut to the charity.

What do we make of this? Two things to say: 1. It's all above board. 2. You could do better.

1. It's all above board

I have no reason to doubt them when they say, on the bag wrapper, that they are "collecting for Against Breast Cancer Charity". I assume that the charity knows and approves of the collections, as does the Fundraising Regulator. Against Breast Cancer have chosen to work with this company because they do get £100 per tonne (less the VAT), which is better than nothing. The only way they could get more would be to run their own vans and handle all the donated clothing directly. They've decided that this method of fund-raising is a good deal for them, and they are prepared to sacrifice getting 100% in order to save them these distracting overheads.

Furthermore, whilst the bag may shout "charity" more loudly than it shouts "Limited Company", and whilst the fact that the charity only gets a cut is in the smaller print - it is there. They're not actually hiding this.

So you could well decide to work with this company, live with the fact that they get their cut, and enjoy the fact that you're helping a genuine Registered Charity in the process.

2. You could do better

That said, there are some bags that are collected by charities themselves, so if you wait a month or two you may get given another bag for another charity, and your old clothing does even more good.

Take off the VAT, this company gives £80-£85 per tonne to charity. That sounds like a lot of money for old rope, but how does it stack up?

The amount a charity will get from selling old clothes varies according to the quality of the clothing and the time of year. Charity shops make most money by selling clothes off the rail. They then sell the rest - to be recycled into rags, or to be sold abroad. According to the Lets Recycle website, charity shops are able to sell the items they can't shift for typically £330 to £430 per tonne. The clothes they sell off the rail obviously raise far more. That means the charity is getting 19%-24%, and Recycling Clothes Company Ltd gets the remaining 76%-81% (less the cost of collection and processing)

Another way to look at this is to look at the company accounts. These don't show income and expenditure, as they are abbreviated, but they do show the balance sheet. The first accounts they filed were for year-end 31st January 2009. They showed cash at bank and in hand, and money owed from debtors, to the value of £19,816. 9 years later, 31st January 2018, that figure is £704,675. Their balance sheet has improved by £684,859 over the course of 9 years, £76,000 per year. We cannot see what directors' salaries have been paid, etc.

It's a little unclear when the statistics on the bag wrapper relate to Against Breast Cancer, and when they specifically relate to the fundraising done for them by Recycling Clothes Company Ltd. If the claim that "over £1,500,000 raised through donations" relates to the latter, then Against Breast Cancer has gained more than double than the fundraising company has. But the Recycling Clothes Company Ltd is certainly not doing this as a charity.

Clothes Banks

One final note: The same diligence is needed with clothes banks in recycling centres and car parks. Some are run specifically by a charity to raise funds for that charity; others are not. Often, you can get rid of your old clothes and shoes in two adjacent car parks, one of which will make someone a nice profit, and the other will support a genuine charitable endeavour.

It's worth being alert to do the maximum good you can when getting rid of clothes you no longer need.

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Margaret Guite's picture
Submitted by Margaret Guite on

Just to add that some   (perhaps most) of recycling clothes companies sell their clothes on the markets in developing countries, thereby undercutting local  clothing production. Countires  such as Tanzania have suffered serious impact of their domestic clothes manufacture as a result, with accompanying cuts in employment opportunities, etc.

This is the reason I don't use charity bags unless I am absolutely sure the clothing is going to be  re-sold in their own charity shops in this country, or (as Oxfam does) processed for rags whre it is not up to re-sale quality.


James Oakley's picture
Submitted by James Oakley on

Thanks, Margaret, that's another angle I hadn't even considered, so it's good to be informed. I suspect that, even with Oxfam, one needs to ask what they do with clothes that don't sell for several weeks / months.

Your comment prompts a couple of questions. 1. Does the same problem apply to recycling old spectacles for use in the developing world?

2. The problem with undercutting manufacturers in, say, Tanzania, may cut both ways. There's a parallel to the corn law repeal. Clearly, we don't want local clothes manufacturers to go out of business and so become unemployed. But, on the other hand, if second hand clothes from the UK are cheaper, do we impoverish ordinary rural Tanzanian consumers by insisting they buy from local manufacturers at a premium, rather than making cheaper imports available to him?

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