Charities suffer as criminal gangs target lucrative clothing recycling sector

| 1st February 2011
Charities, including Oxfam and Traid, which rely on donations of unwanted clothes are facing an escalating theft problem - which could undermine public confidence in recycling and increase clothing waste, reports Louise Hunt

The prevalence of cheap disposable fashion means people are buying more clothes than ever before. At the same time, every tonne of textiles diverted from landfill through reuse saves approximately 20 tonnes of C02, so the environmental benefits of reusing and recycling clothes are clear. But charities that rely on donations of unwanted clothes are facing an escalating theft problem that is threatening to undermine public confidence in recycling, which could ultimately hurt the environment.

Clothing collection crime is costing charities a conservative estimate of £15 million a year and amounts to a loss of around 10 per cent of all clothing donated, according to trade body the Textile Recycling Association.

There has always been opportunistic stealing of donations, but as the price of textiles has surged over the last two years, commanding upwards of £1,500 per tonne in some cases, stealing from clothing banks and doorstep donations has become increasingly lucrative.

Oxfam says it has noticed the problem escalating particularly over the last six months to the extent that between 25 and 40 per cent of its 800 textiles banks are being raided weekly. 'This is costing the charity £0.5 million in lost revenue that would otherwise go to our humanitarian and international development programmes. And that’s before the bill for repairing and refurbishing the banks,' says Matt George, head of logistics, Oxfam Trading Division.

Textiles recycling charity Traid, which has diverting textiles from landfill as one of its charitable aims and uses the profits from its donations to fund international development projects, has also noticed a steep rise in thefts from its 1,000 banks nationwide.

'This has caused the charity deep concern, and we have responded by theft proofing all banks at considerable financial cost in order to protect donations made by the public,' says its chief executive Maria Chenoweth-Casey.

Audacious criminals

But the break-ins are becoming increasingly audacious. Traid recently discovered one of its banks had had its chute sliced open in the car park of a 24-hour supermarket, and it is known that children are being used to climb into the banks and retrieve donations, so redesigning the chutes is one response to a particularly sordid practice.

Charities are also turning detective. Oxfam is using devices placed in its banks to measure their fill and when they are being emptied, which reveals that the thefts are mainly taking place at night at banks near motorway networks and ring-roads.

Traid is using tracking devices in items of clothing in regularly targeted banks.

'You can follow the movement of the clothes through Google Earth and find their last destination,' says Chenoweth-Casey. One case led them to a commercial textiles dealer – stealing within the sector is not unheard of – another to a warehouse in Havering, London where the clothes were being paid for in cash.

While small-time theft remains a problem, the charities and commercial collectors operating on their behalf are agreed that the main perpetrators are organised crime gangs who are stealing the goods to sell internationally, in particular to Eastern Europe. Says George: 'We know there is a big market for textiles in Eastern Europe because we have a big legitimate market in the Ukraine and Poland. They see the UK as a good source of quality textiles.'

Charities say most of the arrests have been of Lithuanian nationals.


Organised crime

He adds: 'Interest from the City of London police is becoming more intense as they think these gangs are part of a network of organised crime that includes activities such as people trafficking, benefit and credit card fraud. Clothing theft is one manifestation of organised crime.'

The organised nature of these ventures has also led to a proliferation of bogus outfits targeting doorstep donations. 'These are thieves who purport to be a charity, often using emotive leaflets and fake charity numbers to hoodwink people,' says Michael Lomotey, business manager of Clothes Aid – the largest commercial collector of clothing donations on behalf of charities. They may be even more brazen and pretend to be well-known charities using fraudulent branding, or are using the guise of collecting as an excuse to steal genuine charity bags. 'We know there is an organised network behind these crimes because we are mapping the bogus companies and we see the same director connected to different companies,' he adds.

'Door-to-door collections are probably most affected, says Paul Ozanne, national recycling coordinator of the Salvation Army’s trading company SATCol. He estimates a total of 2,000 tonnes of donations are stolen a year from the charity’s 4,800 banks and 14 million household collections. 'It’s not wise to advertise when you are collecting because they will come before you do.'

There have been many arrests. Last year Clothes Aid reported 300 incidents and had 200 arrests, but of these there were only three successful prosecutions. 'The most they got fined was £1,000. Other thieves know that and are not even bothering to be bogus anymore, they just go out stealing,' says Lomotey. And, 'not being British nationals the thieves just leave the country before they are punished,' adds Matt George

Lack of police action?

Charities have been critical of the police for not taking the problem seriously. 'Where we have secured prosecutions, most recently in 2010, the penalties have been so minor that they serve to actually encourage thieves, rather than deter them,' concurs Chenoweth-Casey.

However, charities are hopeful that a turning-point has now been reached after their lobbying for action secured the first meeting with civil society minister Nick Hurd, and the head of the City of London Police’s economic crime directorate Steve Head, which took place in January.

One of the meeting’s key outcomes will be the development of a national police strategy to tackle the gangs behind bogus charity clothing collections and raise awareness of the issues across the enforcement agencies.

Commenting on the strategy, Hurd says: 'This is a big problem that’s been ignored for too long. Criminals who steal charity collection bags take millions of pounds away from good causes. Now they will face the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, headed by the City of London Police, as part of a new drive to clamp down on this cynical crime.'

National response

Michael Lomotey, who attended the meeting, says: 'A national strategy will make a difference. It’s an industry-wide initiative and it seems we are finally getting some movement. The police will be developing an operational strategy and we have a good idea of where the gangs are operating so we will be sharing our intelligence. The thieves need to be worried.'

But charities that rely heavily on clothing donations know they need to balance awareness raising of the problem with not deterring people from making donations.

The British Heart Foundation reports that the increasing trend in theft has already resulted in a 25 per cent drop in household collections, which equates to the loss of £3m this financial year and it is anticipating this will rise to £6m next year.

'There is a real risk that the public will be concerned about where the stock ends up and stop giving,' says Mike Lucas, BHF retail director.

Charity fatigue

His fear is backed by a survey on public opinion of doorstep collection, carried out last year by online research company fast.MAP, which provides data to the Institute of Fundraising. The survey of 976 adults found only 3 per cent of households would donate if they knew the items were not benefiting a charity. Currently only 13 per cent of those surveyed never give anything.

Mixed up with the growing awareness of the theft problem is the perception among the public that there are too many charities asking for clothing donations, which is leading to charity fatigue.

To counter this, some charities are calling for more transparency over where the profits from donations go, particularly when commercial operators are employed by charities to collect donations from banks and homes.

Matt George of Oxfam, which has its own textiles processing and collection operation, says: 'I get personally sick of constantly receiving plastic bags through my door stating that they will give £50-£100 per tonne to charity when the true value is £600 - £700 per tonne and the collection company is personally profiteering.' He adds that smaller charities that use collection companies may not be aware of the material’s value and should be commanding a higher percentage.

Chenoweth-Casey of Traid agrees that it is unfair for collectors to hide behind a charity’s branding when the charity itself may only be receiving 5 per cent of the profits. She says: 'This is misleading to the public who expect the charity advertised on the bank to fully benefit from their donations. While these partnerships are legitimate, they are not transparent.' Traid also has its own processing facility and claims 100 per cent of its profits from donations go to its charitable aims.

Clothes Aid is one of the commercial companies that states on its promotional materials that between £50 and £100 of profits from donations go to its partner charity. Michael Lomotey says he backs the call for more transparency but argues that different methods of clothes collection incur different costs which are not simple to breakdown. 'It is crucial to understand that wherever commercial enterprises are involved there are costs. Around 7 per cent of the profit from donations goes to Clothes Aid, the rest goes to the charity after costs are recovered for collecting and processing. For charities using a collector it is a risk-free investment. We raised £1.2 million for charities in the last year,' he says.

The Institute of Fundraising is developing a code of conduct for house-to-house collection that it says will introduce agreed standards on the information available to the public on how collections benefit charities.

In the mean time, the advice is not to stop donating clothes, but to check the credentials of the charity, check if there is a bag drop in the area and the legitimacy of collectors, or where possible, take clothing into charity shops. 'It is a two-way approach. Charities are keen that donors continue to trust them,' says Institute of Fundraising spokeswoman Diana Mackie.

Textiles recycling statistics from Defra’s 2010 Sustainable Clothing Roadmap programme:

In 2007:
•    2 million tonnes of textile waste (inc clothing, carpets and footwear) is generated annually (of which approx 1 million is clothing);
•    24 per cent (523k tonnes) is collected for reuse and recycling in the UK and overseas.
•    47 per cent (1 million tonnes) enters the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) stream to landfill
•    The remainder is unaccounted for (14 per cent), reused as secondary textiles (9 per cent), trade waste (2 per cent) or directly given away (4 per cent).
•    The best end of life options for clothing were identified as reuse and recycling.
•    On average, 1 tonne of reused clothing sold as second hand saves 5.9 tonnes of CO2.

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