Beating the cowboy clothing criminals

Genuine textile recycling operators must keep up the pressure on the increasing number of bogus collectors if they are to prosper in these difficult times, warns Paul Ozanne

One of the major challenges the Salvation Army Trading Com-pany (SATC) faces with its door-to-door collection service is from bogus collectors. The problem should not be underestimated - this is fraud on a grand scale. According to the Association of Charity Shops, bogus collections cost charities in this country between £2.5-3M a year.

There is no doubt that the present buoyant market for used clothing has exacerbated this situation. Second hand clothing commands a high price on the black market as sterling weakens and demand from countries still eager to obtain clothing from the UK increases. Left unchallenged, there are great incentives for bogus collectors to continue developing their operation.

The SATC is also concerned by the increase in organised theft from clothing banks and the associated costs of repairing damage to them. Recently we have also seen a significant number of clothing banks placed on sites without permission - many claim to make donations to charity, but often these funds are non-existent or represent a fraction of the profits made by operators.

Public misconception
Householders must find this situation very confusing and frustrating as there is a common misconception that all door-to-door collections are charitable. Moreover, many are deliberately misled by the claims on some collection bags they receive through their doors which suggest that monies raised from the donations will go to good causes, when in fact it is simply designed to profit those involved.

The House to House Collections Act stipulates "that no collection in any locality for a charitable purpose may be made unless the promoter is licensed by the Licensing Authority for the area comprising that locality". However, there is enormous difficulty in enforcing this legislation as it only applies to genuine charitable collections and not to commercial companies or those collectors purporting to be charitable. The police and advertising authorities don't have the powers available to bring prosecutions against bogus firms.

The Charity Commission has just announced it is commissioning research into the costs and benefits of proposed changes to the House to House Collection Act. We hope that change will come and the loopholes will be closed. We would like to see consultation take place before any recommendations are made. Awareness of the problem needs to be increased so that the general public can make an informed decision about their donations. Defra and WRAP have a high profile media campaign in the pipeline, which has our input and support.

Quality still there
On a more positive note, despite the economic downturn we have seen little change in the quality of clothing collected. However we recognise that the recession will have a noticeable effect on the public's discretionary spending power, resulting in fewer or cheaper clothes being purchased.

While the SATC has yet to see the impact on its clothing collections, we anticipate it will happen and also influence the second-hand clothing trade, which will result in a price correction similar to that experienced by other recycling commodities.

For nearly 20 years, we been pleased to work with local authorities around the UK to ensure many thousands of tonnes of clothing and shoes are diverted from landfill. There have been boom and bust cycles in the textile recycling market during which we believe we have carried out our collections efficiently, even in difficult times.

There was a period early in 2001 when we were forced to rent eight additional warehouses to store clothes as there was little demand for second-hand clothing at that time. The enlarged European market significantly changed these market dynamics creating a buoyant market eager for British second-hand clothing. This has led to intense competition and many new operators entering the industry.

However, previous experience shows that these new operators tend to disappear when textile markets crash, leaving uncollected clothing at collection sites.

Keeping the faith
For this reason, and to keep faith with our loyal donors, we have never offered local authorities payment for the clothes collected. Many councils regard the service we provide as best value because of our reliability, stability, efficiency and the contributions we make to the local community.

As well as the environmental benefits of recycling clothes, profits from our clothing collection scheme are gift aided to The Salvation Army, one of the largest non-governmental providers of social welfare in the UK. This work includes a network of 57 homeless shelters, programmes that support children, young people and families, residential centres for older people, a family tracing service, and help for those suffering from addictions.

Paul Ozanne is national recycling co-ordinator for the Salvation Army Trading Company

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