Second hand scam

Ever asked yourself where those boots you scored at your favourite thrift shop came from? The trade in used clothes is second-hand fashion’s ratty little secret, going back to that container down your street.

Image for Second hand scam
Photo by Maia Schoenfelder

Ever asked yourself where those swank cowboy boots you scored at your favourite thrift shop came from?

Chances are they were sourced from an international trading company whose collecting methods are as dubious as they are secretive. The trade in used clothes is second-hand fashion’s ratty little secret. And it goes all the way back to that container down your street.

Last summer, the second-hand clothing business briefly became a political issue in Berlin. Clara West, at that time an SPD member of the Pankow district assembly, went for a walk down Erich-Weinert- Straße, after more and more people who lived in the area came to her office with a certain question: “Did you notice how many clothes collection containers are set up in our streets?”

On a 500-metre walk Clara West counted nine containers bearing labels like “Donations for flood victims”, “Help for the disabled” or the three globes of “Humana People to People”. “All of them give you the impression that here you can do good,” says West.

But after some research, she found out that behind many of them were private for-profit companies, not the NGOs and charities she expected.

As with so many good things, the containers might be too good to be true. Instead of throwing away old clothes, you give them to a charity, which gives them to the needy or sells them on the behalf of the needy, right?

And even better: rather than buying new clothes produced through the exploitation of people in poor countries, you handpick them from second-hand or vintage stores. Buying vintage becomes more than taking on a unique look from a past era – it is actually an ethical exit route out of our throwaway consumer culture.

And as an added perk, the “needy” benefit from your purchase!

The hitch is that your retro purchase was probably at some point bought by the ton from a globally active second-hand trading firm. These firms get clothes mainly from donors who are unaware of the fact that they are feeding their threads into a huge, multi-million-euro industry.

Willy-nilly, you’re once again contributing to the cycle of profit-hungry capitalism.

A hush-hush industry

“Hardly anyone’s open about the commercial use of old clothes collected in containers on the streets,” says Andreas Voget. He’s the executive of FairWertung, a non-profit that tries to monitor the business by bringing transparency to it.

They certify trustworthy, open businesses and organisations. Currently, they list about 100 in Germany, amongst them church-affiliated charities like Diakonisches Werk, Caritas, or the Katholische Sozialverbände. “The trade of second-hand clothes is a very secretive business,” says Voget.

Most Berlin chains refused to discuss their sources. Only André Hartmann, director of the Hamburg-based Modemarkt Freestyle GmbH agreed to talk to us. The firm runs the two branches of Made in Berlin in Mitte, Colours in Kreuzberg, Garage in Schöneberg and further shops in Hamburg and Munich.

Yet Hartmann’s answer was typically short and vague: “We get our clothes from a French supplier.” He couldn’t say more. Maybe because he’s only been the director of the company for a few months or maybe because he simply doesn’t want to say more, because suppliers who deliver quality are rare, and you don’t want to share your source once you’ve found a good one.

People to people? Or people to profit?

The case of Germany’s largest second-hand chain Humana (19 branches in Germany, 13 in Berlin alone) is symptomatic of the clandestine, Byzantine second-hand business.

Humana shops might display the blue-and-green globe logo of the non-profit, Humana People to People Deutschland e.V., but they are not a charity. In fact, they are selling – for profit – clothes collected from containers with the charity’s logo.

The Humana second-hand business is actually run by a for-profit company (Humana Second-Hand-Kleidung GmbH) owned by Helle Christensen from Austria and Carina Bolin from Italy. According to an investigation by the German organization Charity Watch, both GmbH firms report healthy five-to-six-digit annual profits, and there is little evidence that much of that money ends up with Humana People to People Deutschland e.V., the organisation that actually claims to send aid and volunteers to poor African countries.

Humana has also been exposed in the media for the poor working conditions in their shops and for millions of euros they collected from donations that disappeared in tax havens instead of going to those in need.

Humana didn’t respond to Exberliner’s request for an interview. And Voget from FairWertung doesn’t even want to be quoted saying anything about them.

Don’t trust a logo

Humana’s containers are a dubious case of their own. But what about those containers that are set up by the hundreds in the streets of Berlin?

There are an estimated staggering 10,000 of them in the city and few people realise that many are run by commercial companies. Worse, they effectively compete with those containers that really do benefit charities.

What makes it even more deceptive, is that a lot of these commercially used containers are equipped with the official logo of a charity organisation. “It is very common that they sell their logo to these firms,” says Voget. The company gets a tax break, and the charity gets a little money – though they might not believe that they are complicit in a scam.

“It is not strictly speaking illegal,” Voget explains, “but it confuses people who want to donate clothes.” And if the clothes don’t go to charity, even though the label suggests a good cause, says Voget, “It’s fraud, pure and simple.”

That’s what Clara West says as well. When she submitted an enquiry about the containers to the Pankow council, she was told that the district was powerless. Only two of the nine containers she listed in her enquiry were actually set up on public land without a special license.

They disappeared a couple of weeks later only to pop up elsewhere, West recalls. But when they are placed on private property such as supermarket car parks, nothing can be done.

More transparency needed

Containers are not the problem. We need them, Voget says. “Germans throw so many clothes away, they can’t all go to charity. There aren’t enough charity warehouses to cope with the amount.”

FairWertung estimates about 750,000 tons every year – and rising. Only 40 percent of these clothes are actually good enough to be worn again. Only the best go to shops in Germany. The rest is sold in Africa, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East. Demand in poor countries is high, so actually more containers are needed. As is more transparency.

What you can do is think twice before bringing old clothes anywhere. FairWertung recommends looking for a local charity organisation in your neighbourhood first. For example, they give good marks to Komm & Sieh shops in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg run by the Berliner Stadtmission, a charity for the homeless.

Other trustworthy collectors include Oxfam and the Spangenberg-Sozial-Werk, which gives clothing to poor children abroad. When in doubt, Voget says, call the number on a container. If no one answers, or the company states that everything goes to charity, there is considerable reason to doubt their sincerity.

“Second-hand is all in all still a good thing,” Voget and West agree. In general there’s nothing bad about buying at stores like Made in Berlin, as long as you’re aware that they are businesses – and they’re in it for profit, like any other.

Komm & Sieh, Berliner Stadtmission

Spangenberg-Sozial-Werk e.V.

Oxfam Germany