Does it still make sense to donate second-hand clothing for rural areas?

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This is an abridged and adapted translation of a commentary published on the Charity School (公益慈善学园) WeChat account on the 10th of March. Charity School is a platform for publishing news and research findings on the philanthropic sector. This commentary is on the issue of second-hand donations to rural areas in China.


“Where has your donated second-hand clothing gone?” has recently become a highly searched question online, arousing extensive discussion. It has been noted that donated used clothing, which ought to be sent to disaster areas, rural areas and poverty-stricken countries in Africa, has been sold to recycling plants that recycle the fabrics and metals, allowing recycling companies to profiteer. Such fraud not only takes advantage of people’s kindness but is also illegal, so we can understand how it irritates those who are passionate about philanthropy. 

However, there are some misunderstandings regarding charitable second-hand clothing donations. Do poor rural areas need those used clothes? Is it the only way for old clothing to be put to charitable use? Is it effective and efficient?

We have to accept the fact that nowadays donating second-hand clothing to rural areas may be based on wishful thinking. First of all, food and clothing are not the most urgent need anymore in China’s rural areas. As the standard of living has improved with economic growth, even in rural areas people can afford new clothes for themselves instead of relying on donations. Besides, some of the recycled clothing may be unsuitable for distribution because of its size or colour, and it ends up being burned as trash, causing environmental pollution. Also, donating second-hand clothing to rural areas is very inefficient and leads to severe resource depletion, as the whole process involves recycling, sorting, washing, disinfecting, transporting and distribution, draining workforce, material, and financial resources.

So how can we deal with our used clothing in a convenient and environmentally-friendly fashion? Some online platforms such as Ola (噢啦) and Feimayi (飞蚂蚁) might be helpful. You can recycle your used stuff and get credits, which can be exchanged for cash. Then the cash can be donated to the charitable programs you choose. Besides, it is also a reasonable option to sell them directly to the recycling companies. However, the recycling of second-hand clothing remains a great challenge and we are expecting more and more institutions and start-up companies to come up with better solutions.

For people who care about philanthropy, it is essential to know that professional skills and knowledge are necessary for this sector, and donating second-hand clothing directly to the rural areas is not the only way to contribute. Wishful thinking itself will not solve any social problem; what we must do is support legal and professional charitable organizations to conduct philanthropy work.

For charitable organizations, it is crucial to identify real needs and design effective and efficient projects that are innovative, legitimate and transparent. They must make the best use of their resources to solve social problems, maximizing social value and benefiting more people. Only in this way can we make it “good philanthropy.”