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Behind the scenes of Goodwill, the first name in secondhand stores

Sandi Doughton, The Seattle Times on

Published in Fashion Daily News

SEATTLE — It's a Tuesday afternoon, and a steady stream of vehicles is pulling up to the donation station at the Goodwill in Renton, Washington. Employees in fluorescent vests dash back and forth, offloading the day's haul: garbage bags bulging with clothes, a fishing net big enough for a 20-pound Chinook salmon, two plastic crates crammed with half-used bottles of hand lotion and shampoo, a small rototiller, a bathmat and DVD player in a paper sack, a black lacquered chest of drawers.

The pace of donations has been good this summer, averaging about 1,600 a week, says store manager Lisa Wojtech, who is watching her crew stack goods in blue bins, then shuttle them inside for sorting. It's not overwhelming like last year, when millions of people stuck at home by the pandemic decided to weed out their possessions, and Goodwills across the country were swamped.

When stores and donation centers were shuttered in early 2020, many people just dumped their castoffs outside and drove away. "It was horrendous," says Wojtech, who had to call in staff to clean up the mess. The real stampede in donations began the moment sites reopened. At Seattle's flagship complex near the intersection of interstates 5 and 90 — the world's largest Goodwill store by area — cars backed up almost to the stadiums in Sodo.

For a charitable organization that leverages society's discards to provide free job training and education for some of Western Washington's most disadvantaged residents, it wasn't a bad problem to have. By packing warehouses to the rafters and renting storage space, Evergreen Goodwill of Northwest Washington — a regional affiliate with 24 stores from Bellingham to Ballard — was able to absorb the deluge.

If anything, the pent-up demand to drop off donations underscored how much we depend on Goodwill to help with the mind-boggling amount of stuff we dispose of every year. If Goodwill didn't exist, communities would need to invent it, says Adam Minter, journalist and author of the 2019 book "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale."

"It provides an essential service. And the proof of that is how it's become the Kleenex of 'secondhand.' You don't say: 'I'm going to take things to the thrift store.' You say: 'I'm going to take this stuff to Goodwill.' "


THE VENERABLE NONPROFIT'S retail stores are enjoying a surge in popularity driven partly by the economic toll of the pandemic and partly by a new consciousness among younger people, says Evergreen CEO Daryl Campbell.

"They're very discerning about where they spend their money — and social values, environmental values, sustainability are increasingly important."

Goodwill Industries International's 156 North American affiliates and 3,300 stores collectively divert about 4.6 billion pounds of reusable goods from landfills every year. That's more than any organization — but still only about 6% of the textiles, furniture and other durable goods Americans toss out annually. The average for Evergreen Goodwill (the name recently was changed from Seattle Goodwill) is about 120 million pounds a year sold or recycled.

Most people experience Goodwill only as a place to shop or drop off those boxes of goodies from Grandma's basement. Behind the scenes, though, is a sophisticated operation designed to extract the maximum value from every donation. That includes using e-commerce for collectibles and other prime merchandise and tapping into global markets to sell goods that local shoppers spurn.


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