As the retail and apparel industry across the globe gets increasingly inundated with labels, styles and trends, we are becoming, or at least looking, more fashion-forward than ever before. This is even true in India, where clothes are being bought and discarded at a greater pace than ever before. However, at the underbelly of such a consumerist practice lie 20 million underprivileged Indians who continue to have no reliable access to clothing – a basic need for any human being.
While the practice of giving away old clothes (possibly the easiest form of making in-kind donations) has in the past brought a silver lining to this cloud of concern, what wasn’t necessarily healthy was the manner and channel through which clothes were being given away. Old and torn beyond repair, they showed no respect for the recipients. This is where NGOs dealing with recyclables come in, as they can successfully map the needs of the poor through constructive utilization and processing of used clothes and other items that come to their centres. Globally, charities such as Oxfam, Goodwill and The Salvation Army have made great impact on this front. In India, though, only a select few organisations, such as Goonj, Rays, SERUDS, and Conserve India, have really been active in this focus area.
In a recent donor engagement activity last month, GiveIndia took some of its Payroll Giving corporate partners to tour the processing centre of Goonj – one of India’s pioneer NGOs working in the area of cloth recycling. While we facilitated the tour to highlight recycling as a core philosophy, attendees witnessed the various steps and processes through which the NGO creates finished products from recyclables.
Managing over 20,000 kilos of material every month, Goonj’s processing centre boasts of a team of 80, who carry out the rigorous processes of mending, sorting, packing and transporting. Every received item is washed, repaired if needed, and meticulously matched to recipients on the basis of age, size, gender and sociocultural environment profiles, before distribution. Even the last shreds of clothes that seem beyond repair are accumulated and used to make bedsheets or sanitary napkins for women!
The recyclables may range from basics such as trousers, blouses and undergarments to household items, such as mattresses, bags, buttons, key chains and notepads. All are given a new lease of life and then loaded onto trucks to be sent to grassroots organisations located in the far-flung villages of India. Here, the products are either sold at minimal costs to beneficiaries or given to them in return for a service (like helping to build a bridge or well in the village) through a barter-driven system. This system has intentionally been put in place so that recipients may use the items with pride, having worked to earn the same! In case of surpluses, the products are taken to urban markets or sold during fundraising events and other charity-focussed initiatives, such as the Joy of Giving Week for example.
Channelling a million kilograms of material annually, Goonj has constructively utilized the prevalent features of rising income levels and consumerism to address one of the basic, yet unaddressed, needs of the underprivileged.
As we ended the tour with a little bit of shopping of recycled items for ourselves, we couldn’t help but wonder: 10 years of existence, 300+ volunteers (including housewives, professionals, school kids, college students and corporate employees), the support of exporter houses, hotels and hospitals, and a vast network of 100+ grassroots agencies across 20 states is what it takes to prepare 20,000+ kilograms of recycled waste material every month for the poor, in order to meet one of their most basic needs – clothing.
While Goonj has managed to scale its operations to make an admirable impact every month, the cause of recycling is still very nascent with just a handful of NGOs in India actively working towards the cause. But as the Indian retail industry and consumerist behaviour grow, one can only hope that there will be more entities finding novel ways to use their products and influence to address the needs of all sections of society.
Priyanka Saha is manager of marcom for the payroll giving team at GiveIndia.
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