Clothing could be second disaster

U.S. collections of used clothing, food, actually hurt - not help - survivors


"Clothing is the worst gift. . . What people need is money to go out and purchase their own clothes."

—Rev. Tom Hazelwood, United Methodist Committee on Relief

Donation efforts in aftermath of disasters often come from the goodness of the heart, but they often create an unintended second disaster say disaster responders.

Immediately following major disasters, thousands of postings for clothing drives for survivors pop up on the Web, but according the Center for International Disaster Information, clothing donations are not the best way to help.

Richard Muffley, a spokesperson for the Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI), said clothing drives are a no-no for several reasons. The costs to store, ship and disperse clothing are massive, and in the cases of international disasters like Haiti and Japan there are often customs delays, said Muffley.

 “We find that shipping clothing is not nearly as efficient or even convenient as making a cash donation because clothing is almost universally available,” said Muffley.

 The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) does not organize clothing drives for that very reason.

 “Clothing is the worst gift that anybody could do,” said UMCOR’s Tom Hazelwood. “You get a whole bunch of stuff and they (clothing) all end up in the landfill somewhere because no one can sort them. Clothes are the second disaster of every major disaster.”

 Hazelwood explained that cost and labor intensity are the main reasons why clothing drives don’t work in disaster relief situations.

 The CIDI suggests donating to reputable agencies that use cash to purchase clothing locally and disperse it. The money it takes to store and send donated clothing to a disaster scene can be stretched much further if it is used to purchase clothing locally.

 The toll donated clothing takes on a disaster area’s local economy is another big problem.

 “We find that typically in disaster locations, there are still people who are marketing, who are selling, who have commodities and are wishing to sell it into the disaster need,” said Muffley.

 Local businesses are robbed of consumers when free clothes become available through non-local donations.

 “We would much rather see cash flow into the local economy, flow through the clothing dealer, let him do his purchases and make it an element of the rebuilding process,” said Muffley.

 For a country as poor as Haiti – 80 percent of its residents live below the poverty line – keeping the local economy afloat is a severe problem and keeping the purchase of commodities such as clothing local is essential.

 “Where possible, we try to purchase our supplies we distribute as locally as possible, so that we are stimulating the local economy,” Kristen Deroo VanderBerg, communications and marketing director for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee.  Typically CRWRC focuses on providing food, water and shelter and plan for long-term rebuilding if they are responding to a disaster.

Muffley said food donations come with the same problems as clothing. He explained that food is particularly expensive to ship and faces the same problems as donated clothing – shipping and storage costs, customs issues, the effect on local businesses – as well as additional taxes.

 Though survivors do need essentials, UMCOR, CRWRC and CIDI, among others, agree that items like food and clothing are best provided by using cash donations to purchase them locally.

 “What people need is money to go out and purchase their own clothes. There are organizations where people can shop and get brand new clothes and not a bunch of used clothes,” said Hazelwood.

 Cash is by far the preferred donation, said Muffley. The CIDI provides suggestions for other appropriate donations on its Website,

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