The good news is that I lost a lot of weight and had to get rid of most of the clothes in my closet. The bad news is that there's nothing to do with them -- nothing that truly assuages the guilt in my liberal little heart, anyway, or helps any poor person facing a cold winter.
It used to be that I could bag up my old Eileen Fishers and the kids' outgrown jeans, leave them on the stoop for Vietnam Vets or bring them to my local church thrift store, and feel like all was well with the world. My house was tidier, I'd done something good for the world, and I'd gotten a tax deduction to boot.
And then I met a woman at a party who enlightened as to what happened to all those clothes I donated to charity. She worked for a clothing wholesaler, who bought clothes from Goodwill and Salvation Army and Vietnam Vets. Her company then sold the plum stuff -- the back-in-style leather motorcycle jacket, the Lagerfeld silk blouse -- to vintage dealers for a top price. They baled up the rest and sold it either to recyclers or African merchants, who would sell items like my husband's old Packers shirt in local markets to poor people for exorbitant prices.
I found confirmation of this charming party chatter in an excellent book by a Georgetown economics professor called Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. And ABC World News also did a great report on the phenomenon.
But I didn't really need Charles Gibson to tell me which way the old tee shirt blew: the evidence was right there in my local Red, White, and Blue shop. A friend told me about the Red, White, and Blue -- the retail arm of Vietnam Vets of America -- in Paterson, New Jersey, fifteen years ago, with the warning that I must never breathe a word of it to a soul. It was, back then, the best thrift store in the world, the purveyor of top-flight vintage goods donated by wealthy and well-clothed suburbanites from the upscale towns that surround Paterson. Vast as a mall store but deep in the ghetto, I would drive there with my small daughter and we'd load our arms with everything from Edwardian velvet gowns to Chanel dresses to Givenchy tuxedos.
And there was plenty of good everyday stuff to pick from too, all at affordable prices. The store was always packed, mostly with neighborhood shoppers. Not only was I a devoted patron, but I became a regular donor.
Then, everything changed. Suddenly, my beloved Red, White, and Blue -- along with most of the other big thrift stores I visited around the country -- became more like outmoded J.C. Penney stores than treasure troves where you could find everything from ripped tee shirts to vintage couture. What ends up on the racks of charity stores are the mid-level items deemed most saleable, with the high end sold off to dealers and the low end recycled or marketed overseas.
As a thrift shopper, there are still local church shops that process their own donations where you can find the occasional great piece. At first, I thought I'd just start donating to those shops, where at least the clothing or the proceeds ended up in the hands of worthy people. Yet local shops often have more donations than they know what to do with and close their doors to drop-offs. And while estate and yard sales can still offer some rich pickings, my own attempts at yard selling usually bomb.
I give a lot of my kids' outgrown clothes to the cleaning ladies, but I have the feeling they take them only to humor me. The fact is that new clothes are so cheap and disposable these days that if someone wants a $5 tee shirt or a $20 jacket, they just head to Old Navy.
So what am I going to do with the too-big clothes I've just weeded out of my closet? There seems to be a market for Eileen Fisher on eBay, so I'm trying my luck with a few pieces there. The best of my go-to-work clothes I'm giving to dressforsuccess.org, which outfits women for job interviews.
And the rest? It's out on the porch awaiting Vietnam Vets, though I can no longer food myself into believing this is helping anyone except the VVA organization. They'll leave me a receipt for my taxes, though my accountant says the IRS no longer accepts inflated valuations of donated clothing, as when Bill and Hillary deducted big bucks for their old underwear. At least my house is tidier, though one out of three is pretty bad.