PAWTUCKET — English immigrant Samuel Slater helped launch the Industrial Revolution in America by memorizing the secret design of Britain’s advanced spinning technology, smuggling the information illegally into the United States, and building, in 1793, on the Blackstone River, our country’s first textile mill. He could hardly have imagined some impacts of textiles more than 200 years later:

● A country awash in clothing, driven by consumerism and marketing surges like fast fashion.

● Overfilled landfills, including plenty of usable clothing.

● River bays and land polluted with microscopic plastics from polyester clothing.

● Heavy use of water, electricity, and chemicals to manufacture clothes.

Starting in the late 1990s and ramping up since then, Americans have applied their ingenuity to earn profits – and to help the poor – by collecting and reselling used clothing and other textiles.

Rhode Islanders are familiar with the multi-colored bins scattered across the landscape inviting people to drop off used clothing and textiles (bedding, linens, etc.). The names on the bins are familiar: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Rhode Island, Goodwill Industries, Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul, Kiducation, St. Pauly Textile Inc., Upcycle Collaborative, and more.

Collecting and reselling textiles is competitive  and getting more so, with a growing influx of people getting into the game for profit. They are following the lead of non-profits that have been collecting and selling textiles for charitable purposes for decades.

Business is so good in this arena now that many charities that operate public donation bins outfit them with GPS trackers because they may be stolen and sometimes repainted and re-purposed by competitors, or even sold as scrap metal. Leaders of charitable organizations doing this work say they know of instances where shady operators game the system by stealing clothes or bins, or, more often, conveying the impression they are charities when they are not.

In a recent letter to the public, Katje Afonseca, CEO of Big Brothers Bid Sisters of RI, wrote, “Textile recycling is a fascinating, lucrative, often grimy business peppered with all kinds of organizations vying for the second-hand cloth that sits in our homes.” 

Afonseca continued, “Most bins and pickup services are operated by for-profit companies [that] will contract with a charity and offer a donation or grant for the use of the charity name. The charity is receiving pennies on the dollar for the clothing and the for-profit is making millions by selling the ‘donations’ overseas.” She implored readers to choose wisely when making donations “while supporting programs in our community that change hundreds of lives for the better.” offers advice for people with clothes to donate:

● Drop-off boxes aren’t invariably connected with charities. If there’s a phone number on the bin, call it for information. Be wary of names you don’t know or that seem similar to ones you do. Some bins belong to for-profit businesses, but that may not be obvious from the labeling on the bin.

● Not all thrift stores are run to benefit a charitable cause. While the name of the store may identify the charitable affiliation, charity-sounding names have been used by for-profit stores with no connection to charity.

In 2018, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 11,300,000 tons of textiles were sent to landfills in the United States. Also in 2018, 2,510,000 tons of textiles were recycling in the U.S. The EPA estimates that 85 % of American’s used clothing is simply thrown away.

Another argument for donating and recycling is that people in underdeveloped countries create clothing resale businesses in their own towns to help neighbors who need cheap clothes; these stores are supported by clothing sold in bulk by richer places like the U.S., Canada, Europe, South Korea, Australia, and Japan.

The price of bulk textiles – which are shipped in compacted, 1,000-pound cubes — varies based on supply and demand in a global market. People who do collection and resale in Rhode Island say prices can vary from 10 cents to 45 cents per pound.

Choosing a Pathway for Good Old Clothes

People are sometimes emotional about garments that have given them good service over the years. Some donors expect that a good used coat or pair of boots will move directly from them – at no charge — onto the back or feet of someone in their own community who can’t afford to buy new. That direct act of giving can happen, but it is rare. The journey of used clothing or textiles can take different routes:

●  Some charitable organizations sell donated clothes (and other goods) at low cost to the general public and also occasionally give clothes to people in need. The cash raised from retail sales goes to operations and to the service mission of the charity.

● Some charities give some clothes to people in need and also sell clothing in bulk to global distributors who send the clothing overseas. The cash raised from bulk sales goes to operations of the organization, to non-profit partner groups like churches or schools, or to other charities.

● Some for-profit enterprises sell the textiles to distributors and also voluntarily give money or services to charities of their choice.

● Some for-profit enterprises keep their proceeds. Unscrupulous ones may give the impression to the public that they are giving money to charity. “The less information there is about an organization the more people should be careful,” said David Wetzel, administrator of the Salvation Army of Rhode Island. “The big players are transparent.”

In Rhode Island,  organizations collecting and selling textiles to support their charitable works include Big Brothers Big Sisters of RI, Goodwill of Southern New England, the Salvation Army, Planet Aid, and St. Vincent de Paul.

Leaders of the major charities are justly proud of their work. In Rhode Island, Big Brother Big Sisters provides help to underprivileged children through volunteer mentors supervised by staff counselors.  Goodwill of Southern New England provides job training for people with disabilities and other barriers to employment. Salvation Army runs a free residential rehabilitation center for people with addictions and homelessness. Planet Aid sells clothing into developing countries in Africa and Latin America, where people may establish small resale shops, selling to people who need cheap clothes.

These summaries of major non-profits are from officials in the organizations:

● Big Brothers Big Sisters of RI – Youth mentoring program began in 1996 and the donation center opened in 1997 to support that program, serving 200 mentor-youth pairs. Spending includes emergency aid to families and enrichment programs like music lessons or summer camp.  Donated clothes and household goods are sold to Savers, a for-profit company. Sales of clothes pay for 70 percent of the cost of the mentoring program. In the last five years, BBBS has collected 3.95 million pounds of textiles. When a non-profit partner hosts a BBBS bin, that group gets 30 percent of the income from the bin. The national organization is rated 97 % and four out of four stars by Charity Navigator. Almost all regional branches are in the high 90s.

Bringing donations to Savers in Warwick — Photo by Mary Lhowe

● Goodwill of Southern New England –Bins are located only at municipal transfer stations or on Goodwill store properties. Employs 1,000 people. Runs an advanced processing facility in Hamden, Conn., and will soon build a second such facility in East Providence. Sells donated clothes in stores. Any that cannot be sold are bundled and sold to distributors. Gives free goods or coupons to families in emergencies. Many listings for local branches of Goodwill are shown in Charity Navigator; most are rated 90 to 100 % with three or four stars.

The Salvation Army – Clothing is collected by scheduled pickups, at donation bins, and at five donations centers / thrift stores in the state. An estimated 2.5 million garments are donated every year. Clothing and textiles that cannot be sold at retail – about 100,000 pounds a month — are bailed and sold by distributors. Prices vary by global demand, ranging from 7 cents to 50 cents per pound. Rated 100 % and four stars in Charity Navigator.

● Planet Aid –Sells most textiles in bulk internationally. Operates 10,000 collection bins, including 110 in Rhode Island. Since 1997, collected 1 million tons of textiles and raised $100 million for community development around the world. Shares revenues with nonprofit partners. Gross revenue in 2023 was $35 million. Of that, $26 million was used for operations and $3.7 million was donated to schools in the U.S., Central America and Africa. Rated 87 % and three out of four stars by Charity Navigator.

● Kiducation – This is a brand name used by a New Haven, Conn.-based non-profit called Community Crusade for Children. According to its website, CCC donates to Unto – a Cru Ministry, headquartered in Plano, Tex., which works on children’s welfare programs overseas, and other non-profits. In 2017, CCC sold its Kiducation operations in Rhode Island to Zack Madison, who is head of a group in Rhode Island called Upcycle Collaborative, with a headquarters in Pawtucket. The sale allowed Madison to continue using the Kiducation brand name for a few years after he acquired ownership. Rated 70% and two stars by Charity Navigator.

A much younger and Rhode Island-born for-profit company is Curbside Textile Recycling, founded in 2019 by Melanie Flamand, an insurance professional, and Marjorie Muller, a retired banker. Some charities will pick up textiles from homes via appointments, but Curbside ramped up the element of convenience by offering curbside pickup on a regular schedule. Curbside drivers patrol Rhode Island neighborhoods on regular municipal recycling pickup days, scanning the streets for Curbside-labeled bags. Customers may also schedule pickups.

Curbside sells textiles overseas through a distributor, for 10 to 40 cents a pound. Curbside donates two cents per pound sold to selected charities favored by the owners, including shelters for women and aid for animals.

Curbside is a for-profit enterprise, but, the co-owners said it has made very little profit, not even producing a paycheck for either of them in four years. Still, they said, they are motivated by worries about the environment and a desire to keep more textiles from flowing into the state’s Central Landfill. They say Curbside has kept 838,000 pounds of textiles out of the state landfill. They noted that when cities and towns keep their solid waste quantities low, they can avoid incurring higher charges on tipping fees at the landfill.

Who’s Legit and Who Isn’t?

Almost all the managers of these operations say the game is getting rougher in recent years as mysterious or fly-by-night operators get involved.

Fred Olsson, founder, CEO and president of Planet Aid, said, “Today, most donation bins are owned and operated by for-profit and traditional non-profits are getting the short end of the stick.”

Olsson said for-profit collectors of clothing donations come up with hokey names to slap on their bins like “Together We Share” or “Better World” or “God’s Hand,” to “disguise” them and create the appearance of a charitable organization when it is not.

Managers of charities urge the public to make informed choices about where their castoff clothing is going and whom it will support.

“These operations support 70% of our mentoring program,” said Tina Santos, director of marketing for Big Brothers Big Sisters. “So, competition is worrisome. If [donors] are looking to help Rhode Island, they should donate to an organization that supports this state.”