Dec. 15, 2011 - The used clothing business is counter-cyclical and counter-intuitive because just when you think people would be hanging on to the clothes they have, they're donating even more to the charities that put them to use here or, increasingly, overseas. Jon Harvey is head of Central States Used Clothing, one of the behind-the-scenes resources in the charitable used clothing donation business. It turns out that used shoes can save the life of a kid in Kenya.

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Going in the Bin is only the Beginning – What Happens to Used Clothing After You’ve Donated

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Ever wonder what happens after you put some of your unneeded clothes in one of those donation bins you’re now starting to see almost everywhere? Or to the shoes your kids outgrew that you donated to your favorite charity?

It’s a two-part answer.

Part One: If the charity has resale shops the good stuff goes there. The less-marketable things end up -“ in Part Two

Part Two: If they don’t have retail outlets then the clothes, shoes and, in some cases, household items, as well as the leftovers from Part One go somewhere such as Central States Used Clothing, on the east side of Detroit.

Jon Harvey

There, Jon Harvey sells the clothes and other things by the pound to buyers from Mexico, Central America and Africa. “I work on behalf of five national charities,” Harvey says. “Easter Seals, Cystic Fibrosis, the Cancer Foundation -“ I buy used clothing from them. When their thrift stores run short, I sell them additional clothing.”

As with most industries, the used clothing business has its own jargon. “Credential” is clothing that has come “direct from Mr. and Mrs. Donor’s home, untouched, unsorted, ungraded,” Harvey explains. “Then there are hard goods, and there are several different categories of them. Things such as pots and pans, sporting goods, hardware -“ miscel [shorthand for miscellaneous] -“ like you’d see at a garage sale, 90 percent of that goes to South America or Mexico.”

Harvey’s company exports most of its used clothing to Mexico, South America or to Kenya or Ghana.

There, Harvey says, “I have agents, buyers and complete communities that buy the clothing.” He is particularly proud of his African work. “I can dress a child from head to foot -“ from hat to shoes -“ in the best clothing you ever saw for less than a U.S. dollar.”

“There’s a human parasite in Kenya that lives in the ground and it goes through the bottom of the children’s bare feet and goes up their blood system to their brain and kills them. We have a special project to purchase children’s used shoes to ship to Kenya. I even have a slogan for the project -“ let me find your old shoes a new pair of feet.”

There are only about a dozen similar businesses throughout the United States “and we all know each other,” explains Harvey. “It’s like the stock market. The prices vary literally day-to-day, depending on availability, the weather, politics. Sometimes we’re inundated in used clothing and miscellaneous household items and sometimes there’s a shortage that drives the per-pound price up. We check with each other every day to see what’s going on in Denver, L.A., Boston as to what we’re paying per pound for the product.”

Other factors play a part, says Harvey. “Each load is different, we have to cope with the trucking industry, the export industry and the containers you see on those container ships? I do 40 of those a month.”

Harvey is asked if, on a more macro level, his business tends to mirror the economy or is counter-cyclical. “The worse things get, the better our business. People can’t afford new clothing so they go to the thrift stores and shop and that stuff all came from me.”

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