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Rags to Riches - the Inside Story

Date: 27-Jul-10

Donating your clothes to charity might seem like a pretty simple concept. But there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes.  Planet Ark visited The Smith Family’s clothing recovery operation in Villawood, NSW and discovered a whole lot - not just about clothes but about odd shoes, mattresses and recycled carpet underlay!

Labels Are Everything   

In the second-hand clothing industry, commercial operators compete with charities to get your used clothes. If you are keen to donate your clothing to a not-for-profit or community-focussed organisation, look out for the labels that help to identify clothing ‘banks' (a preferable term to ‘bin') as charity-operated. Many charities, especially the larger groups, have their own signage on the sides of their clothing banks, often with their contact details.

Sort It!

In NSW and the ACT, The Smith Family collect donations of clothes and accessories from their network of clothing banks as well as pick up from donors' homes upon request.  Everything is taken to their recycling facility at Villawood in Sydney's west where it is sorted, recycled and/or remanufactured.

When the clothes arrive at the recycling facility, they are unloaded from the truck onto a huge conveyer belt. A dedicated and highly skilled team of paid workers begin the sorting process - first assessing the wear and tear on each item, then allocating clothes and accessories into one of 128 categories. Each sorter gets through up to one tonne a day of clothing and accessories - that's under four seconds to classify each item! From here, the donated items follow one of four paths: -

  • Resale - Clothes that are in good condition will be resold in one of The Smith Family's 23 retail stores in NSW, raising money to support their national education support programs.  Less than 10% of the clothes donated to The Smith Family fall into this category.
  • Sold overseas - Clothes that are in good condition, but less suitable for the Australian retail market, will be sold to exporters, who will resell the clothes cheaply in developing countries
  • Reuse as rags - Clothes that aren't suitable for resale but have an area of 30 cm square that can be cut out, will be sold to rag manufacturers, who sell squares of fabric for use as wiper rags.
  • Recycled into fibre products - Any fabric items that can be rag torn by a machine, are used in The Smith Family's non-woven textile manufacturing.  Through a process of shredding, carding, needle-punching and thermal bonding, recycled fibres are combined with a small proportion of new fibres to make a range of products such as carpet underlay, insulation, cleaning cloths and wipes, filters and ground covers.
  • Only items that do not fit into any of the above four categories are sent to waste.

Save That Shoe!  

It might come as a surprise to learn that there's even a market for single shoes.  Sadly, land-mine amputees are all too common in some countries. There are also small businesses in developing countries that collect single shoes en masse, in the hope of matching them up with a corresponding mate. When a single shoe is donated to The Smith Family, chances are it will end up with a new owner.   

Appliance Compliance

Some people donate their unwanted electrical appliances to charities with the best of intentions, but unfortunately most charities are unable to make use of them.  It costs $25 per item for an electrical appliance to be safety-tested, a cost that just isn't workable.  Electrical waste makes up a growing component of the 1 million kilograms of material that The Smith Family were forced to send to landfill last year – up to 25% of their donations by weight.  Mattresses, often dumped next to clothing banks, are another common item that goes straight to landfill.  So if you've got an electrical appliance or mattress that you don't need anymore, visit to find your local recycling options.

More Information

Click here to find out more about The Smith Family's recycling operations, or contact Brian Jones on 9754-6311 or 

National Association of Charitable Recycling Organisations (NACRO) is the peak body representing charitable recycling organisations throughout Australia. NACRO advocates educating the community to donate goods responsibly to provide maximum profits for social welfare with minimum cost to the environment and the collection agency. To find out more visit

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