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Clothing donation bins offer complex benefits

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Two B'nai Brith Canada clothing donation boxes in Toronto. (Jesse Kline photo)

When 35-year-old Torontonian Crystal Papineau died after getting trapped in a clothing donation box on Jan. 8, she was the eighth Canadian to perish in that manner since 2015. The incident prompted a national discussion that included manufacturers of the bins, municipalities, advocates for the homeless and charities who are affiliated with such boxes.

The City of Toronto is set to review its rules around clothing donation boxes in May. Many manufacturers have halted production of boxes with anti-theft bars, the mechanism that stops people that have fallen in from getting out, and many charities whose existing boxes contain the mechanism are retrofitting them to eliminate that safety risk.

B’nai Brith Canada is one of those charities. On the bin that trapped Papineau was the name and logo of the League for Human Rights, an agency of B’nai Brith that advocates for human rights and works to combat anti-Semitism and racism. Hours after learning of Papineau’s death, B’nai Brith spoke to the manufacturer of their boxes and, within days, disabled the anti-theft bars on all their boxes of similar design.

The retrofitting of the boxes was the latest of many changes to B’nai Brith’s clothing donation program, which has seen a total overhaul in the past few years since Michael Mostyn took over as CEO.

“B’nai Brith Canada is very proud of our clothing donation bin program,” Mostyn said in an emailed statement. “B’nai Brith is in full control over every aspect of this program, a program in which we help both the environment and the Jewish community. We redistribute clothes to members of the community living at or below the poverty line.”

However, since the updates to the initiative are still relatively new, Mostyn did not feel prepared to comment on its specifics, nor did he wish to comment on how the old program operated.

One way that B’nai Brith redistributes the donated clothes is through seasonal pop-up shops. They also sell some of the donated clothes to fund some of their services, including seasonal free clothing giveaways, affordable housing, seniors meals and programming, and combating anti-Semitism and racism, Mostyn said.

Jewish Family & Child (JF&CS) is another Jewish charity that operates its own clothing donation boxes, though the group only has six bins, compared to the dozens or even hundreds with which some large charities are affiliated. JF&CS uses the clothes from the boxes to stock its Just a Second Shop in northern Toronto, where the clothes are donated or sold at a low price to families in need. Donated clothing that isn’t suitable for the store is sold to a recycling company by the pound. The shop brings in about $50,000 annually, and that money is used to send children to summer camp.

But B’nai Brith and JF&CS are exceptions, each being one of the few charities that maintains full control over the entirety of its program. Most other charities, including Jewish non-profits such as Chai Lifeline Canada and the Jewish Russian Community Centre (JRCC), simply put their name on donation boxes that are operated by for-profit companies that collect and sell the donated clothes to thrift stores or wholesalers at bulk rates. Those companies then pay charities a cut of the profits or a flat rate per box, and the money they receive is used to fund many of their programs.

“We specifically wrote on our bins, ‘Supports JRCC programs.’ And we did that exactly for this reason, so that people are not misled,” said Rabbi Mendel Zaltzman, CEO of JRCC. “So if someone misunderstood it, sorry about that, but we’re trying to be transparent about it.”

Rabbi Zaltzman added that JRCC does provide some donated products to community members in need, most notably through the organization’s furniture depot, but that it isn’t practical to run a used clothing operation.

“It’s a nightmare of management that we don’t want to deal with,” he said.

Part of the reason it’s a nightmare is because of “bad players,” as Rabbi Zaltzman called them. Municipalities have cracked down a bit on clothing donation boxes in the last few years. For example, in 2013 Toronto passed a bylaw requiring boxes to be licensed. But these “bad players” might operate unlicensed boxes, or even steal other organizations licensed boxes to use.

“They’ll take the bin and then repaint it. We’ve found (boxes) where the inside… has our name on it, and the outside suddenly is marked as somebody else,” said Rabbi Zaltzman.

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The clothing donation industry is surprisingly cutthroat because the used clothing export industry is surprisingly lucrative. Eighty-five per cent of used clothing that Canadians put in boxes is exported, said Kate Bahen, managing director at Charity Intelligence, a Canadian charity watchdog. That amounted to $133 million in exported second-hand clothes from Canada in 2017, according to Statistics Canada.

Those exported clothes are packaged and resold to people in developing countries, who pay a lump sum for a bundle without being able to see what’s inside and must hope that they can resell the contents for greater than they paid.

Bahen likened it to a lottery, and like any form of gambling, she says, it’s impossible for anyone to come out ahead in the long run.

“We have people in Canada who need clothing, whether it be winter coats, good warm socks, new underwear… you know, people who are vulnerable. We have new immigrants arriving, or refugees, who don’t have proper winter coats. So good-quality second-hand coats are excellent,” said Bahen. “But putting our winter coats into a clothing bin and having them shipped to East Africa isn’t going to do any good. They do not need the heavy winter coats that we have here.”

Textiles cannot be recycled, Bahen added, so if your used clothes aren’t going into a Canadian landfill, they’ll probably end up in a landfill elsewhere in the world with less regulations and environmental codes.

Instead of dropping off used clothing in boxes, Bahen urges people to do their research, find charities that make an effort to donate the clothing to Canadians in need, and bring the clothes directly to the charity. Even though many charities make money off the current system, Bahen doesn’t think it’s an appropriate method of income for them.

“Charities have a different code of behaviour that they must uphold rather than for-profit corporations…. Charities, I would hope, are not to be involved in activities that are doing harm – not when people are dying, not when people are being trapped in poverty and dependency, and not when you are having tremendous environmental damages done,” she said.

But for non-profits, it may not be that obvious. For-profit companies are going to collect and export the donated clothing regardless of whether charities put their names on the boxes. By inserting themselves into the operation, charities get a significant amount of money to run programs and provide services, for minimal or no cost. For example, Rabbi Zaltzman said JRCC wouldn’t be able to afford all of its programs, which help vulnerable members of the community, without the revenue generated from its clothing donation boxes.