Red donation boxes around town used for profit, not charity

March 11, 2007 -- DAVID MANN - Jerry Kron thought for sure that the donations bin sitting in front of his Jeffersonville business was there to help people. He had no idea it was connected to a for-profit business.

The red metal bins — shaped like 8-foot-tall mailboxes on steroids — have popped up across Southern Indiana in recent months. They have numerous signs posted on them, telling people to drop off their unwanted clothes and shoes and advertising the benefits of recycling their old clothes rather than throwing them away and so forth.

But Kron, owner of Auto Center of Jeffersonville, who had received the box only a week or so ago, said he did not know it was a commercial business rather than a charity outfit he was helping.

Then again, he said, he couldn’t remember specifically if the sales manager who had approached him about putting the box near his curb had said anything to imply that it was or was not a money-making venture. Either way, he said, he’s not getting a cut of the profit.

The company who put the box outside of his Market Street business — Illinois-based U’SAgain (pronounced use again) — has been putting such boxes in cities across the United States since 1999.

It takes the clothes from the donation boxes and sells them for various uses. The recycled textile is used for everything from insulation to auto shop rags, said Marlene Ceja, the company’s director of community relations. That old shirt you put in the bin may even make it to a foreign market where it finds new life as — you guessed it — an old shirt.

Last year, the company collected 18 million pounds of clothing from its operations in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Minneapolis and Seattle. U’SAgain has only been in the Southern Indiana and Louisville area since last year. So far, it’s set up six boxes in New Albany, seven in Jeffersonville and 48 in Louisville, Ceja said.

“I don’t understand how there’s confusion,” about what the company is, she said.

Ceja said the company does not want to deceive anyone about who they are and what they do. The box outside of Kron’s Auto Center has a sign on it that notes it is a commercial company. U’SAgain says it is not against the charitable organizations that collect clothes, but rather a friendly competitor.

Over at Bridgepointe Goodwill — one of Southern Indiana’s largest charitable organizations — the feeling isn’t exactly mutual.

“We really hate to see donations go to for-profit business,” said Caren Marshall, Bridgepointe’s CEO.

It’s such a wonderful process for less fortunate people who receive help through organizations such as Bridgepointe, she said. Bridgepointe runs a lot of social programs — such as special education, day care and job training and placement assistance, Marshall pointed out — about 80 percent of which are funded by donations.

“When donations go to a for-profit, it just seems like it’s not the right thing to happen,” she said.

Ceja said her company does do some charity work. Last year, she said, more than $60,000 was donated to schools and churches. A small portion of what the company collects is also given away.

There has been no drop in the amount of donations received at Goodwill, Marshall said. Rather, there has been an increase because of extra help the organization has been getting from the community after fire devastated Goodwill’s Clarksville warehouse last month.

There are concerns about how the boxes will affect donations in the future, she said. Goodwill has not used donation boxes since the 1980s, officials said.

U’SAgain, of course, has its way of explaining business. There is an entire section of the company’s Web site devoted to explaining why someone should consider using commercial clothes collection, rather than donating to a charity.

Basically, the site says the charitable collection system is not up to the task from an environmental aspect. The company bills itself as a recycling company, which keeps old clothes from filling up landfills. Last year, 107,888 cubic yards of landfill space were saved, according to the company.

“There is plenty of room for everybody, both for nonprofit and for-profit endeavors,” the site says.

Kron, on the other hand, is not sure if there’s enough room on his curb. If he would have known it was a for-profit company, he said, he would not have accepted the donation box. He says he’ll have it removed knowing that.

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