At the beginning of this zero waste journey I was very gung ho- I had done a massive declutter of our house, held a garage/ yard sale and market stall to get rid of some stuff, then sent my (now husband) to the local charity store with a car boot full of stuff that didn’t sell.
It felt pretty good at the time, and I thought I was being a global citizen or something by not throwing out my old stuff and sending it to landfill- but then the reality set in- *what* exactly happens to the stuff you send to the charity shop? Does it all get sold, does it get thrown out, does it automatically go to people in need.
After a week or so of feeling guilty, I emailed the charity store in question- not with enquiries as to where donated goods go, but to set up an interview for a volunteer position at the store itself (almost like going under cover).
It wasn’t glamarous. I started out pushing in bins filled with old clothes, into which I dove in head first to retrieve items. Then there was the mind numbing but oddly comforting process of colour coding all the clothes for sale. I progressed quickly because I have a knack for what’s deemed “quality” and “fashionable” (read: what will sell in store), started dressing the mannequins and doing the in store displays, and even choosing and pricing garments to sell.
What I learned:
- As soon as a donation drops, it gets very quickly sorted into piles– very good quality to sell straight away in store; ok quality to send to one of the smaller stores; and “rag it”- think old sweatpants and motheaten jumpers- possibly to be turned into rags, but more likely to end up in landfill somewhere (be it here, or Africa)
- Plus size clothing is highly revered, and no matter how horrendous or odd quality the item is, it will make it to the floor
- There are way too many punch bowls, fondue sets and soup tureens in the world- please stop buying them new and end the post Christmas madness
- Being forced to interact with rude people is very painful. People would come in and point out things to you on the shelf saying they could buy something like that at Target for less. Not the point, buddy
- A LOT OF THE STUFF YOU DROP OFF TO YOUR LOCAL CHARITY STORE GOES STRAIGHT INTO THE BIN. Actually- it’s a gigantic dumpster and we have to pay someone to pick it up and dump it in landfill. As well- meaning as it is to give us half-used deodorant sticks and McDonalds happy meal toys, there is finite storage space for donated items.
- People really really like to dump their rubbish on the steps of charity stores because it makes their problem “go away”, but they choose to do it in the dead of night. There is no “away”- especially when someone else is standing in the pouring rain peeling your old holey t shirts off the concrete early in the morning, next to the very obvious sign that says “no dumping”
- The 20 extra copies of Jodie Picoult’s “my sister’s keeper” every charity store gets likely goes straight into the bin. Ditto for the Da Vinci Code. (I used to rescue the books and hide them back in the storage pile in the back room, because I can’t stand seeing books being thrown away- but they always somehow managed to get thrown out by somebody else on my day off)
My time working in a charity store was a real eye opener. I felt like it was a penance for all those years of fast fashion and impulse buying that I would spend my free time elbow deep in someone else’s discarded clothes. Eventually, the horrible waste and throwaway culture I was witnessing was too much to bear. I would rescue small things like tea tins etc from the dumpster to bring home because they were useful to me (if not to anyone else), but I couldn’t bring home a world’s worth of waste (and it would have defeated the purpose of decluttering in the first place).
I felt like I had served my hard time after a while and called it quits, mainly because being at the frontline of our throwaway culture really takes its toll. But I did experience first hand that charity shops get inundated with discarded items, and in all honesty there were some days where I didn’t want your old clothes at all, because we had so many on the shop floor there was no rail space, I sometimes ran out of coat hangers, and all the rag bags were full.
This is a reminder to purchase mindfully, and also donate mindfully.
There is no “away”,