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What happens to Berlin’s second-hand clothes?

If you’ve ever dumped your old clothes into one of Berlin’s 6000 donation containers, you might be surprised to learn about who actually benefits from your goodwill. Benji Haughton investigates.

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With a total weight greater than that of Cologne Cathedral, if you loaded all of Germany’s used textiles into trucks you would have a queue of vehicles running from Kiel to Innsbruck. Germans donate, recycle and throw away 1.6 million tonnes of clothes every year, and that number is only going up. The rise of fast fashion – Primark now has 32 branches in Germany – and ever more transient trends have made clothes more disposable than ever. Meanwhile, second-hand is more sought after than ever by fashionistas of all ages and social conditions.

Around 80 percent of these increasingly low-cost, low-quality garments end up in a collection, be it a container, a charity shop or a recycling point. From there, these clothes begin their journey – to the local homeless shelter, a regional sorting depot and even the international second-hand textiles market. For people looking to dispose of garments with minimum effort, the containers are perfect: just throw in your clothes and forget. But what happens next?

How charitable is your container?

Go on the hunt in Berlin’s backstreets and you’ll spot metal cube after metal cube: lurking in car park corners, behind apartment blocks and outside supermarkets. These old clothes containers are everywhere, and while some bear the names of big German charities like Deutsches Rotes Kreuz (DRK), there are other more mysterious boxes with neither a name nor a number to identify them. But it isn’t just charities in on the game; for-profit firms operate containers in Berlin too. Second-hand textiles have a value on the international market, and the huge volume of clothes being discarded has turned the containers into an attractive business proposition.

There is nothing illegal about operating a for-profit container, but the problem is when we are led to believe we are donating to charity. “People want to give their things to a non-profit organisation, but they don’t realise that the container can be from a profit-making company. It’s fine if a commercial firm is collecting, but they have to say so,” explains Thomas Ahlmann, the managing director of Fairwertung, an umbrella organisation for non-profit clothing collectors that works to uphold better ethical standards in the industry. But that’s the issue: often firms aren’t open about their intentions.

One common trick used by unscrupulous operators is to decorate containers with images such as outstretched palms or globes, leading donors to wrongly believe they are giving to charity. In general, if there is no name listed on the container, you can assume it is operated purely for profit, without NGO involvement. And it isn’t just the container firms making money: the boxes typically sit on private land owned by real estate companies or shopping centres, who themselves take a cut in the form of rent paid by container owners. Landlords can earn around €400 per year by renting out space for a single container.

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So, if you’re looking to donate to a (good) cause, make sure the name of your charity of choice is printed on the container. But be warned: donating to a charity doesn’t necessarily mean that your hand-me-downs will end up with the needy (for free) or be sold in a non-profit store. The main reason for this is that charities, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of clothing, often resort to outsourcing the emptying, sorting and recycling of the clothes to commercial collectors, who sell any excesses that the charity doesn’t need on the global market. “On average, the containers have to be emptied at least once a week depending on where they are located, and many local charities simply do not have the logistical resources to do this,” says Ahlmann.

Take the Deutsches Rotes Kreuz, which – with around 800 street-side boxes – is one of the city’s biggest players. However, only around 10 percent of the collected clothes are kept by the charity for its citywide network of four Kleiderkammer – services which provide homeless people and those on low incomes with clothing. The remaining 90 percent is sold to a for-profit textile sorting company, with the reported €13.5 million in proceeds used to fund the DRK’s social projects. In the name of transparency, DRK containers now direct the public to a website where the process is explained.

Although commercial sensitivity prevents charities and collecting firms from naming their partners, DRK is reported to have had agreements with a firm called Texaid, a large commercial textiles sorting firm based in Switzerland. While such contracts between NGOs and for-profit collections companies are the norm in the charity container sector, all this opaque complexity often leads to one thing: confusion on the part of the general public.

Your used clothes: a global business

Regardless of whether a container is run by a charity or is purely for profit, the garments inside typically get sent to multinational textile sorting firms. In addition to Texaid, the German market is dominated by Dutch firm Boer Group and German company Soex, which operate containers both for charities and by themselves for profit. Soex, for instance, has around 600 collection boxes in Berlin, with 500 of those operated in conjunction with charities. The firms are equally tight lipped about their container businesses. While a spokesperson for Soex wouldn’t provide a list of containers or partners, they did confirm that the company’s Berlin boxes are sited in public locations, such as outside supermarkets.

After emptying the containers, the firms send the items to huge facilities where they are sorted and graded. According to a national analysis of clothes collections by Fairwertung, the companies typically send the best items – the so- called “Cremeware” and “Quality I” garments, comprising 12 percent of the collection – to second-hand shops. Texaid, for instance, has its own chain of vintage shops called ReSales, operating 11 stores in Berlin, including hipster favourite Vintage Revivals. The lower-grade but still wearable items – Quality II & III – are typically purchased by wholesalers in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East, often passing through numerous intermediaries before reaching consumers. In the end, around 55 percent of the collected clothes get a new life somewhere in the world, with the remaining unwearable items re-cycled into insulation or cleaning cloths, or thrown away. And while precise destinations vary from firm to firm, the bulk of Berlin’s containers are linked to this global market, meaning that your old trousers are as likely to be sent to Tanzania as they are Treptow.

Some players integrate this whole chain by setting up their own containers, sorting facilities and shops. Humana, Berlin’s biggest second-hand retailer, is one such operator. Describing itself as a “social business”, the organisation is part of a global labyrinth of companies and charities called Humana People to People, and has its own containers and a sorting plant in Hoppegarten, Brandenburg. There, Humana sorts clothes into different quality categories, sending high-grade stock to its shops while selling lower-value items to low- and middle-income countries.

Julia Breidenstein from Humana’s German arm says the money generated gets reinvested for the common good, pointing out that 3.4 percent of its total revenue from sorting clothes is put into development work, which includes supporting schools in Mozambique, child aid initiatives in South Africa and farmers’ projects in India. The organisation says that this share amounts to all of the money left over once personnel costs and taxes have been deducted. “As a social enterprise we use our profits exclusively for the environment and development,” Breidenstein says.

Charities overwhelmed

One of the big problems encountered by those in the container business is that charities are being inundated with an ever-growing mass of clothes which they simply cannot make use of. “What we are noticing is that the quality of the textiles in the containers is getting worse and worse,” says Ahlmann, who puts the blame on fast fashion. “People spend so little money, and the quality of the textiles reflects that. You wash a T-shirt 10 times and it is out of shape, and then it simply gets thrown into the container. But you can’t do anything with it.”

The onset of Covid-19 has only worsened the problem as households sorted through their closets during lockdown. And with quality down and supply far outstripping demand, charity collectors are selling an ever-growing share of donated clothes to the likes of Soex and Texaid. But even these textile giants are struggling to make use of the garments: current market prices for used clothes vary between zero and 18 cents per kilo, making the collection of old clothing scarcely worth the effort.

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So should we just ditch our efforts at ‘recycling for a cause’ (and the container scheme) altogether? Ahlmann doesn’t think so, and says that, despite the problems, with better transparency the collection bins can play an important role. “You just have to inform people,” he says, arguing that the reselling of surpluses by charities is justified because they always ensure that hard-up people are looked after. “We meet the demand: no needy person leaves a Kleiderkammer or a Sozialkaufhaus without enough to wear.”

The cash the charities make through this activity is invested into their projects. “From our point of view there is nothing reprehensible about this,” he says.

There is room for change, however, and the public can help. Crucially, by asking charities what clothes they really need before bringing donations, people can avoid adding to the huge mountain of surpluses. Ahlmann says that, of the items sent to charity collections, typically 60 to 70 percent are women’s clothes. “But if you are running a homeless shelter, your customers are 80 to 90 percent male.”

Seasonality is also key: people tend to dispose of summer clothes in winter and winter clothes in summer, yet that is just the opposite of what homeless services and clothing banks require. For clothing that cannot be reworn, throwing it in a commercial container arguably does the charities a favour, since you can save them the time and money involved in sorting through low-grade stock. Finally, by buying fewer, higher-quality clothes, people can reduce the burden on charities and increase the likelihood that donated clothes get put to good use.

At Alexanderplatz, one of Humana’s flagship stores takes up the whole ground floor of the GDR-era Haus des Reisens tower. There are no containers here – Humana has few in Berlin – but employees are happy to relieve people of their old clothes directly in the shop. Visible across the street is the city’s biggest cheap clothing temple: a 5000-square-metre Primark branch selling thrifty Berliners the latest trends at prices that defy even second-hand’s tags.

As shoppers wander past, carrying paper bags brimming with unsustainably fast fashion, one can’t help but think it might be better feeding the wrong container than the makers of wasteful exploitative fashion. Despite of all its arcane opacity, better support the circular economy of the second-hand industry and buy your €2.50 tees and €6 pyjamas at Humana.