Giving Communities Clothing and Pre-Owned Goods a Second Life

National Headquarters  |  February 25, 2022
Tzu Chi volunteers lead Tzu Chi Youth Association (Tzu Shao) volunteers and their parents in sorting secondhand clothes. Photo/Shu Li Lo

Written by Shu Li Lo
Translated by H. B. Qin
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

There are many chances to buy clothes and shoes at will for well-off people. Some are purchased on a whim when shopping for fun, others bought under the lure of advertising. Some items may only be worn once, twice, or even not at all, becoming decorations in the wardrobe until discarded during year end decluttering.

But in many African, Central, and South American countries that are in an economic downturn, there is not only a lack of abundant supplies, but the consumption of clothing and accessories at will is simply unaffordable. As a case in point, during a shoe donation event in Haiti, Tzu Chi volunteers met a 70-year-old woman who carefully wrapped the shoes she was given in a cloth bag because they were the first new pair of shoes she had ever owned in her life.

We Must Value Resources

Cherishing resources and prolonging the lifespan of goods aligns with Tzu Chi’s ethic of “self-discipline, frugality, diligence, and perseverance” and today’s macro-thinking advocacy of environmental protection. Master Cheng Yen has repeatedly taught her disciples, “Everyone should be grateful, protect the earth and cherish the life of things, only take what you need and don’t waste the earth’s materials.”

Parents bring their children along to volunteer in organizing secondhand clothes. Photo/Shu Li Lo
The volunteers prepare snacks for the team so everyone can work together happily. Photo/Shu Li Lo

For more than 30 years, Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters has attained notable gains through its Recycling Secondhand Clothes program. Firstly, recycling clothes and shoes in excellent condition signifies cherishing living resources; secondly, people in need of such goods can prolong their lifespan after receiving them at winter or disaster relief distributions. 

And, while organizing the pre-owned clothes, the volunteers can also pass the environmental protection message to the next generation, guiding their children, Tzu Chi Youth Association (Tzu Shao), and Tzu Chi Collegiate Association (Tzu Ching) members. And, the message is absorbed readily, as one young clothes-sorting day participant expressed:

Because people buy what they want instead of what they need, it creates a big problem for the environment and the planet.

Chih Hao Lin Tzu Chi Youth Association Member

A Special Day in October

Although it was already Autumn on October 2, it was still as hot as Summer in Southern California. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people chose to stay home for the weekend or take advantage of the nice weather to go outdoors. However, some volunteers decided to invite more than a dozen parents and children to the Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters campus instead, aiming to organize piles of donated secondhand clothing with their help.

Donated clothes are kept in bags until volunteers sort them for distribution. Photo/Shu Li Lo
Many of the secondhand clothes that Tzu Chi receives are new or have only been worn once, twice, or not at all. Photo/Shu Li Lo

With many people, the task at hand was easy to do. Everyone worked together to organize the already laundered clothes. After removing clothing that did not pass the quality criteria, the clothes were sorted by gender and season, then neatly stored in cartons of different categories.  Everyone was busy folding the clothes, discussing how best to sort them while appreciating the exquisite items donated. 

Those who didn’t know each other from before found new connections while, as parents, they exchanged stories about their children and touched on aspects of daily life. Tzu Chi youth also chatted and laughed, talking about their lives and studies. And just like that, an ordinary weekend became an engaging, meaningful, and joyful get-together.

Preparing Secondhand Clothes With Care

Volunteer Chi Huan Hsia is the convener of Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters’ secondhand clothing recycling program. He was previously the principal of Tzu Chi Academy in San Dimas, California. So, everyone nicknamed him “principal.” Whenever volunteers organize the secondhand clothes, he’ll do the preparational work. In a designated outdoor area in the shade, he’ll line up tables and chairs, place large cardboard boxes for categorized clothes, then bring the bags of pre-owned clothes stored indoors to the sorting area.

Volunteer Chi Huan Hsia is the convener of Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters' secondhand clothing recycling program. Photo/Shu Li Lo

“The secondhand clothes are all from donations of members and volunteers, and the program is not open to the public. In addition, according to Tzu Chi’s strict quality requirements, all the clothes must be washed, cleaned, and folded,” Chi Huan explained. So, when Tzu Chi receives donated clothes, volunteers take out each piece of clothing and hang it up, then follow the quality control, folding, and storage procedure.

The secondhand clothes are organized into boxes then distributed to places where people in need can get them. Photo/Shu Li Lo

The sorted pre-owned clothes are provided to people in need through Tzu Chi’s various distribution activities and made available to partner charities for bulk donation. For example, school districts may distribute them to underprivileged families, local governments may send them to temporary refugee camps, or Tzu Chi may send them overseas to places where people need them, like Myanmar, South America, or Africa.

Tzu Chi will match the donation in accordance with the area’s needs, for example, more summer clothes for Africa and more winter clothes for Wisconsin.

Chi Huan Hsia Tzu Chi Volunteer

Distributing With Respect

Like all others, Chi Huan Hsia began this sorting day in October by explaining who might receive these pre-owned clothes later. “For example, if a family needs supplies after a wildfire, the volunteers will provide the clothes and shoes that they need. We also work with the Working Wardrobes Foundation in Orange County, whose main purpose is to provide low-income people with clothes for job interviews and children’s clothes, so we will give them the suits we collect for men and women. We will also provide clothes for Afghan refugees.”

He then typically outlines the principles of organizing and packing the clothing, and in the process, will explain the Tzu Chi philosophy of distribution with “respect.” 

Each of the shopping paper bags containing the donated clothes is a treasure and should be well folded and put away. This way, when distributing the clothes, people can choose the ones that fit them from the neat and clean clothes on the racks and put them into the shopping bags, so that they can feel like they are shopping for clothes in a store and feel respected.

Chi Huan Hsia Tzu Chi Volunteer
Tzu Chi Youth group volunteers demonstrate that they give secondhand clothes to people in shopping bags. Photo/Shu Li Lo

Kyle Chang, a Tzu Chi Youth Association member, came with his mother and sister to organize the clothes. He believes that recycling is an important concept that can help keep the earth clean, and there is no need to waste more resources to produce more clothes. Reusing a piece of clothing is a way to improve the earth’s environment and make it better for humans and animals alike because it reduces wasted resources without harming the places we live.

By the end of the day, many of the young volunteers had only deepened their commitment to advancing environmental protection and making wiser lifestyle choices.

Because people keep buying stuff they don't need, it leads to mass production of clothes and all kinds of materials by manufacturers, which then causes pollution and climate change. We must try to reduce waste and only buy what we need and not what we want, because otherwise, it creates a waste of materials; even clothes never worn are thrown away. By doing our part to reduce waste, factories will not have to produce more clothes, and fewer clothes will be thrown away.

Chih Hao Lin Tzu Chi Youth Association Member

It was a fulfilling and meaningful day for everyone who came to offer their time and care. Perhaps you would be interested in volunteering with Tzu Chi USA as well! The first step is to register so we can best match your offer to volunteer with specific and current needs in your area. It could be the start of a beautiful volunteer journey and we welcome you and the love and care you will add to our global family.

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