Americans love stuff. As professional organizers, we know anecdotally what the numbers bear out: although our homes are getting larger, we have far more possessions than we have space for. A recent article in The Atlantic notes that, in 2017, “the average size of a single-family house in America was 2,426 square feet, a 23 percent increase in size from two decades ago” and that “there are around 52,000 [self-storage] facilities nationally; two decades ago, there were half that number.” The television show Hoarders, now in its ninth season, chronicles the lives of those Americans whose relationship to stuff has reached a physically and psychologically unhealthy level. Websites like Craigslist are loaded to the brim with a cavalcade of items for sale, but it can be awkward (and potentially unsafe) to invite prospective buyers into our homes. So, after we’ve cleaned up, taken inventory, and decreased our clutter, what should we do with the clothes, furniture, and knick-knacks with which we’ve decided to part? That’s where the thrift store comes in.
According to the Association of Resale Professionals (NARTS), nearly twenty percent of Americans shop at thrift, consignment, or antique stores each year, generating more than $17 billion in revenue. In 2014, the nation’s best-known thrift store, Goodwill Industries, reported in excess of $5 billion in retail sales at more than two thousand stores and online. NARTS notes that “there is no typical resale shopper, just as there is no typical resale shop [because] no one is immune to the excitement of finding a treasure and saving money.”
But donating your lightly used items to a thrift store is about more than just clearing out your personal space. By definition, thrift stores exist to serve the communities in which they are located. (Generally, consignment and antique stores are for-profit, while thrift stores are non-profit.) Profits from The Carousel, a thrift shop affiliated with the Southport Congregational Church in Connecticut benefit the church, the charities it supports, and the greater community. If you shop at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store in Minneapolis, Minnesota, you’re helping thousands of residents of the Twin Cities whose families have been impacted by poverty. On their website, the Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center (SPARCC) Treasure Chest in Sarasota, Florida notes that not only do one-hundred percent of proceeds fund their services but also that “SPARCC participants receive vouchers to shop for free for the items they need.” And in New York City, the United War Veterans Council (UWVC) runs a recycling program in which the revenue from sales of donated items supports the program’s mission to “provide all veterans and their families with the care, recognition and opportunities they have rightfully earned.” Deborah Menich, the executive director of the UWVC’s recycling program, explains that the “UWVC collects approximately 12 million pounds of clothing annually,” which both “expands the diversion rate of unwanted items in landfills” and provides jobs to local residents.
Over the past several years, there has been some concern that thrift stores do not resell all of the donations they receive. In a recent article for the Huffington Post, Ray Tellez, Goodwill’s vice president of retail operations in southern California, reassures customers that items do not move directly from Goodwill’s retail stores to a landfill. Instead, those items are sent to a Goodwill outlet store; if they remain unsold, they are recycled. (Goodwill estimates that their recycling efforts keep more than 42 thousand tons of textile waste out of landfills each year.) Sustainability expert Jacqueline Tran reminds us that “people don’t realize most clothing is made from plastic…When it goes into a landfill, it’s just going to sit there for a long time.” Donating those clothes—and ensuring that they are reused or recycled—is an important step toward creating a more sustainable world.
Thrift stores help their communities, offer places for people to connect with one another, provide employment and volunteer opportunities, and encourage good sustainability practices. They should be the first places we think of when we consider how to declutter, simplify, and organize our lives. Those seemingly simple donations of new or gently used clothing and goods can help to create real, meaningful, positive changes, both in our communities and across the country.