Goodwill is good for employment and the environment

Most of my clothes, furniture, and almost all the consumer products I buy are secondhand, mainly from thrift stores. Thereby I have probably saved about 150 000 dollars in my life. In addition, I have developed a style that looks uniquely mine, for which I have received a lot of positive feedback. Sometimes those admiring my clothes or other things get confused when I tell at which thrift store or flea market I have purchased them. By promoting all kinds of recycling and reuse, I also want to inspire others to save money and the environment.

Few seem to know that; the textile industry in particular, is one of the most polluting industries in the world. For example, over 50 million tons of oil-based polyester was produced in 2015. Because polyester garments are relatively cheap, people buy a lot of them and quickly discard them when the fashion changes. The same goes for many other garments made of synthetic fibers. In most of the world those garments end up in landfills where they will remain for hundreds of years.

Last week I had a unique opportunity to be shown around by Vern Dunn, the Vice President of Logistics & Salvage, at Goodwill’s salvage center for consumer products in Phoenix, Arizona. Goodwill is a chain of social enterprises founded by the priest Edgar Helms in New York 116 years ago. Helms’ approach was simple: collect garment and other consumer product donations, recruit unemployed people, such as new migrants to sell them and use the revenue thus obtained to improve employment.

This business model has proven extremely viable. Now the Goodwill chain has more than 3200 stores in 16 countries and online, for example at shopgoodwill.com

Goodwill has also set up business in my native country, Finland, a couple of years ago when the Sotek-foundation opened the first Goodwill thrift store in Kotka.

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Arizona’s Goodwill alone helped some 45,000 people get jobs last year. More than 4,300 of these were employed in Goodwill’s own processing plants and stores and the rest in the ordinary job market. In addition, tens of thousands of other unemployed people attended Goodwill’s training programs and took part in measures to improve their employability. Some also received employment-oriented financial assistance.

In Goodwill’s salvage hall of several hectares, I met the jovial Wayne, who has sorted shoes for 25 years. In front of him was a blue plastic bulk box filled with used women’s, children’s and men’s summer and winter shoes. They had come from Goodwill stores in Arizona after their 6-week shelf life had expired.

Wayne’s job is to find pairs of shoes, tie each pair with a strong rubber band and decide into which of the two other bulk boxes next to him the pair should go.  He puts some pairs of shoes into the bulk box on his right, the content of which apparently goes for sale abroad, and some into the “alternative future” bulk box on the left.

“I like working here, Wayne answers, when I ask why he has worked at the same place for so long.

The man in the adjacent shoe station was deeply focused on his work. He was standing behind a similar blue bulk box as Wayne. It was filled with paired shoes, tied together with a rubber band. The man took off the rubber band, put one of the shoes into a big plastic tote on his right side and the other shoe into a similar tote on his left side.

“Why do you separate the shoes”, I asked, surprised.

The man continued to work in his own thoughts. My host, Vern hastened to explain that the man “creates odd shoes”. They are sold in 500 pounds plastic totes for example to Pakistan.

“Who would buy a single shoe?” I uttered stunned.

Vern smiled mysteriously and did not answer. Maybe it’s a business secret. Later I found an explanation online, where I also found many sellers and buyers of odd shoes.

At the end of the salvage hall were large used mattresses in a long row against the wall. On the floor lay a mattress without its covering fabric. For the first time, I came to see the inside of a mattress.

“People don’t buy used mattresses in the US and for hygienic reasons we cannot even sell them”, Vern explained.

“This causes cities a big problem because used mattresses take up a lot of space at landfills. Therefore the City of Phoenix has contracted with Goodwill and pays us a certain amount for every used mattress that goes to recycle. That is why we collect mattresses, remove fabric and other worn parts, and sell them to mattress factories that use them as raw materials”.

Overall, Goodwill in Arizona sold 63 million pounds of salvaged items, thereby diverting more than 145 million pounds from going directly into the landfill in 2017.

According to Vern, Goodwill has many different forms of cooperation with private companies and municipalities. It offers, among others, commercial manufacturing, storage, sorting, transportation, packaging and various maintenance and administrative services to increase its turnover. Almost 90 percent of the proceeds go to the maintenance and development of Goodwill’s employment programs.

Inspired by the concrete evidence of how reuse and recycling benefits the environment and employment, I started spring cleaning and sorting various cupboards at home. Next step is to take the stuff to a donation center on my way to the gym. Luckily I have not hoarded so much that I would need to order a free transportation from Goodwill…

4 thoughts on “Goodwill is good for employment and the environment

  1. I am also intrigued by the commerce of single shoes. You do not give away the secret. I assume that these shoes are for people who lost one of their legs which was blown away by land mines in Pakistan. Pakistan has world’s second largest stockpile of anti-personnel landmines. Or is it a new fashion trend to have a different shoe on each foot?

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    • Hi Patrick,
      One-legged people are in fact a big target group. Another is people whose feet are of different sizes. There are also a lot of people who cannot afford shoes at all. Then it is better to have one shoe or shoes that don’t match than not to have a shoe/shoes at all. Maybe you lost one shoe and now need a second one… Shoes can possibly be repurposed to other uses.

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  2. Among the unemployed people being hired and trained at Goodwill are also people that other enterprises and the government will not hire: ex-convicts. Goodwill offers an opportunity for redress, learning good habits, and being in company of others with the same or similar experience. It’s a worthy rehabilitation enterprise.
    Thank Joy, for bringing the inner workings of Goodwill to our attention!

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  3. Thanks Isabelle for pointing out that Goodwill helps all unemployed. It has surprised me to meet many Americans, who believe it only helps disabled people. Maybe one could define “disabled” as somebody who cannot find a job on his own.

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