Wonder what happens to your Oxfam donations? Sorted
Thanks partly to a huge recycling plant, Oxfam can spend 84p in £1 on helping others. Rebecca Smithers went to see for herself.
Rebecca Smithers, consumer affairs correspondent
The Guardian, Saturday 15 February 2014
From a vast metal cage at the end of a warehouse men in high-vis jackets are ripping open hundreds of bags full of clothing and more. A rainbow of sweatshirts, T-shirts, knitted sweaters, curtains, blankets and shoes – and even a striking adult dinosaur onesie – comes tumbling out on to a series of conveyor belts, signalling the beginning of a complex sorting process, virtually all of which is done by hand.
"I've had the occasional Vivienne Westwood number," chirps one sorter as she ploughs her way through a sea of clothes. Standing in a row of six "podiums", their experienced eyes are trained to spot quality or designer clothes, or leather or heavy wool coats that fetch good prices in eastern Europe.
We are behind the scenes at Wastesaver, the textile and clothing recycling facility run by Oxfam in West Yorkshire. Oxfam was one of the first major charities to launch such a resource, which aims to maximise revenue from clothing donations, while minimising the amount of textiles sent to landfill.
At the end of the conveyor belt the vintage and top-end fashion is sorted, steam-cleaned and photographed on dummies before being priced and listed for sale online. Causing huge excitement is a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes, which will be priced at £340 (they would probably cost double that brand new). Vintage wedding dresses, cashmere and "Gatsby-style" items all sell well.
Oxfam's pricing policy has attracted controversy. Its bookshops have arguably made life tough for the UK's struggling secondhand booksellers; some shoppers complain its secondhand clothes are too expensive, squeezing out its poorer customers; while others bemoan the lack of vintage bargains on the racks. But the charity says it has a duty to find the best price for donated goods, and if the Westwoods or Louboutins weren't priced correctly then they would simply be bought and resold on eBay, with the charity losing out. Fee Gilfeather, trading head of marketing at Oxfam, says: "It really is about maximising value for money for the charity, as we need to raise as much as money as possible for our work. Shop managers are given discretion to price donations, depending on their area. We would also be criticised if we priced items on the low side. We keep our costs very low – for every £1 donated to Oxfam, 84p is spent on emergency development and campaigning work."
On the conveyor belt I help sort the donations into nearly 100 different grades depending on type, condition, style and fabric. The premium grade is the most valuable and the most saleable – designer brands and vintage clothing which will either go on to the high street in one of Oxfam's nine "fashion boutiques", or be sold online. Good quality, lightweight cotton garments head to Africa, including to Senegal and an Oxfam-run social enterprise, Frip Ethique, where the workers make money selling the clothing on to local market traders. Denim, waterproofs, wellies, umbrellas and so-called "Nana blankets" (patchwork squares) are earmarked for the 10 temporary Oxfam shops that pop-up at music festivals.
At the bottom of the pile are the items too damaged to have much value. These are known as low or "wiper" grade and are sold on in bulk to recycling and reprocessing companies to be used as mattress filler, carpet underlay, upholstery, cleaning cloths or loft insulation.
The money Oxfam makes varies enormously. National logistics manager Lee Widdowson says: "The wiper grade items have a value of just £25 a tonne, which is a break-even situation once the costs have been factored in, while the high-end fashion, with prices dictated by what shoppers are prepared to pay, is worth anything between £20,000 and £30,000 a tonne."
The big brand and vintage goods for sale online now make more for the charity each week than any of its high street shops. It lists more than 111,000 products and sells about 1,000 units of women's clothing a week.
Many of the clothes arriving at the sorting centre come from its long-standing partnership with Marks & Spencer. It started on a modest scale in 2008 when the retailer encouraged shoppers to donate their unwanted M&S clothing to Oxfam to receive a £5 voucher. It has since morphed into "Shwopping", which encourages M&S shoppers to routinely donate clothing in-store when they buy something. Since the scheme was launched in April 2012, Oxfam has received 6.9m items worth £4.5m.
Each week, 200 tonnes of clothing arrive at Wastesaver – the equivalent of 36m items a year – disgorging bags from Shwopping, the 750 Oxfam clothing banks in car parks and supermarkets, plus the items that have failed to sell in the high street shops. Only 26% of the items donated to local shops are sold in them – the rest goes to Wastesaver.
"We get spikes in donations after Christmas and after major disasters," Gilfeather says. "We don't take real fur and we don't take electrical goods. We don't like to put off potential donors by imposing too many rules, so basically we ask that items are clean and in a strong bag that is not going to collapse."
Oxfam Online Hub Mill
Wastesaver website: http://www.oxfam.org.uk/search-results?q=wastesaver;show_all=ogb_mixed