Story number six: Thankful for discomfort

This week, we give thanks for discomfort. The nagging sense that something’s not right…the dis-ease that comes with feeling a little on edge… perhaps it’s our collective conscience giving us a nudge in an important direction (or in this case, two).

In the wake of Monday night’s Ferguson verdict, we’re being challenged to look at ourselves and the racism we – yes, we (whether through our actions or through our silence) – continue to perpetuate.  This isn’t easy stuff, people: it’s inherited pain and inherited privilege, and it’s going to be messy as we continue to explore our shared dreams and our glaring differences. The key word is continue… because this isn’t going away, and each of us has the opportunity to be part of the problem – or part of the solution.

Also on Monday night, we shared a Star Tribune article about the MN Attorney General’s compliance report on Savers misleading the public about how much actual financial support is being provided to the non-profits picking up our curbside donations… we’ve never seen one of our posts get shared so many times without having paid for exposure, and this response tells us is that people have strong feelings about what their unwanted goods are doing in the world (even when we no longer wish to be responsible for them). It’s disappointing to find out that what we think is happening (that our charities are seeing the equivalent return on our donation as the number we write into our tax returns as charitable giving) is not, in fact, the case. It sucks to feel lied to.

But let’s check our assumptions for a moment: as unfortunate as it is that we’ve been misled about who’s profiting from our used goods, the reality is that most of us are still operating under the notion that when we give our clothing to a non-profit, the clothes are sold directly to poor people who couldn’t otherwise afford nice clothes — and that the resulting sales proceeds are used in direct service to starving children or war-maimed amputees…

If we’re honest with ourselves, we recognize that Savers and other organizations who operate in the reuse sector (Junket is one of these, as well) provide donors a critical emotional benefit: instead of feeling guilty about chucking those ratty shoes or a fuzz-balled sweater into the trash, we get to feel relief — to feel *good* about casting off (even when we’re silently aware that the likelihood of our unwanted thing living to see another user is critically slim). We would do well to acknowledge this societal contribution for what it is: widespread tacit approval, acceptance, and positive reinforcement (for better, or for worse).

Some studies estimate that disposal costs (i.e. the stuff that doesn’t make the resale or recycling grade) is a line item expense second only to rent for many thrift store operators. If we look ourselves in the mirror (before or after we shove our unwanted junk into a trash bag), we’ve been complicit in this fraud, as well — in that we have continued to believe (with encouragement from manufacturers, marketers, and retailers, of course), and we have wanted to believe — that we’re doing good through our individual contributions to our nation’s astounding volume of thrown-away stuff. This belief (that we’re doing more good than harm with the handing-off of each unwanted t-shirt) is a farce with both national and global implications.

Rather than jump any further into the fray in this post, I’ll tie up immediate loose ends with this thought: the report on Savers appears a legitimate review of less-than-transparent reporting/disclosure practices — but it does not lessen the crucial importance of that company’s current problem-solving role in a much more complicated issue (some might define said issue as ‘wicked’ given its interconnectedness with other social problems). If they’re not going to process your stuff and help keep chunks of it out of the landfills, who will?

And of course, while we (the collective ‘we,’ of course) want our donations to benefit their recipients to the greatest extent possible, Savers offers the best option – and in the easiest of ways – for charities that have no interest in running their own stores to monetize the stuff you’ve set out on the boulevard. Net/net? Your preferred non-profit is grateful for their contract with Savers, happy to have your unwanted stuff, and able to plan their annual operating budgets around the arrangements they’ve established with Savers. Indeed, they are even sometimes complicit in the sleight-of-hand communication, in that when they point to 100% of proceeds going to program support, they conveniently hide that those proceeds are coming from an arrangement with Savers that gives them a flat rate per pound – or per truckload, leaving a corporate institution to profit from the delta between what it costs to purchase and process the goods, sight unseen – and what they’re able to garner in sales revenue.

To be clear: the solution to this issue is not to stop donating (and in fact, there *is* no easy solution). To the contrary — if you’re going to continue to acquire and dispose as you have historically done, please also make a point to donate as you historically have: important work is happening ecologically, even if we don’t agree with some of the financial details…

And, if you’ve been a Savers customer, please also continue to shop at Savers, as well — not to benefit the corporation, per se, but because by providing an abundant resale market and doing sorting/processing work that we abdicate to them when we donate, they’re offering not only a critical social service by moving our castoffs through a chain of ‘lesser evil’ impacts — but also an important consumer alternative to the waste-intensive products offered by traditional retailers.  If you typically default to the mall, please seriously consider adapting your behaviors to *include* Savers and other resale destinations. And whether you shop new or used, consider investing in classic pieces that are made to last — then hang onto them. Break them in. Wear them out. Pass them down to the grand-kids (who, with luck and some culture change, will truly appreciate the quality, connected-through-energy treasures we’ve gathered)

Savers as an organization is doing good, important work — and the story is surely less black and white than a brief breaking-now media article can explain.  I encourage you (from experience) to also note that organizations operating in the reuse sector have, for decades, been considered second class (secondhand. thrift. resale. used. castoff. unwanted. you get the picture…). With this in mind, and before we get too antsy about what we haven’t been told, let’s also remember that there’s not been a whole lot of societal appreciation doled out on the scavenging caste, and for good reason: it’s not exactly a norm for secondhand goods companies to publicly share war stories of mouse poop, dirty grunders or vomit (are you ready for those stories?). And given a certain decorum around not discussing certain unsavory inner workings, it becomes possible to see where keeping quiet on the operations front would pervade organizational culture. This is, of course, not an excuse for accounting breaches and misleading the public — but still, let’s be patient as we ask for the whole story. And then, let’s prepare to listen thoughtfully — because if broad, positive social change can come from periods of dis-ease, then perhaps we could all stand to be dis-comforted a bit more often.

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