For anyone who doesn’t want their old shirts, pants or dresses to end up in a landfill, clothing donation bins sound like a win-win-win solution: the donor gets to declutter, the charity operating the bin gets to resell the clothing to fund good deeds, and a shopper on a budget gets to buy affordable clothes.

But in reality, the path your worn-out jeans take isn’t so straight, and doesn’t always benefit the people you may think.

“It’s very difficult to see what’s going on,” said Kate Bahen, the managing director of Charity Intelligence Canada, an organization that aims to help donors make informed decisions.

“It sort of goes into a murky world, and it’s difficult to follow up what happens to the clothing — how is the clothing actually helping people, how is it charitable?” Bahen said.

This clothing donation bin at Parkdale Avenue and Wellington Street W. in Ottawa was removed because it violated bylaws. Not all bin operators are transparent about where the donated clothing goes. (Dennis Van Staalduinen)

Most donations don’t sell

Charities including the Society of St. Vincent De Paul, the Salvation Army and Goodwill collect their own donated goods and sell them at their own thrift shops, but only about half of what they collect makes it onto the shelves and racks, and only half of that will actually sell.

At the Salvation Army, clothes have four weeks to sell before they’re replaced by the next wave of donations, according to Tonny Colyn, the national donations manager in Canada for the charitable organization.

Other charities may operate their own donation boxes, but they don’t always sell the clothes themselves. The Canadian Diabetes Association and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, for example, contract the sorting and selling of the clothes to for-profit enterprises such as Value Village.

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