Savers: Finding New Homes for Quality Castoffs

Thrift store proves that recycling isn’t just for cans and bottles

Savers wants to save the world.

That might sound like a bold statement; unrealistic, even, given the odds. But Savers has the stats to back it up: every day, each store sorts through approximately two tons of donated products and puts between five and six thousand new items on store shelves. Every year, it recycles 650 million tons of products and is the largest recycler of fabric in the world. And each Savers store employs approximately 50 people, many of them full-time and with benefits.

Not bad for a “thrift store.”

Let’s clear up some misconceptions first. At the top of the list: there’s nothing good at thrift stores. Not true, says District Manager Shawn Adams; there are designer labels priced at half or less than half of retail and a website brimming with design inspiration to turn treasures into unique outfits.

Another fallacy: the shopping experience isn’t enjoyable. Wrong again. Not only does the inventory turn over every two and a half weeks—which means it’s an entirely new store twice a month—but employees take painstaking measures to make sure the store is clean, well lit, and organized. Hit the clothing racks and that’s clear: not only are clothes separated by gender and categories, but by size and color.

And perhaps the most important myth: everything in the store is just a bunch of junk that was given to the store for free. While it’s true that the products are donated, Savers actually pays for everything in its stores because it pays its local charity partner for every single donation, whether it can sell it or not. Furthermore, Savers doesn’t try to sell everything that’s donated. In fact, only about a quarter of all items donated make it to the cash register.

“Only the best of the best goes to the sales floor,” says Adams. “That’s approximately half of what we receive as donations. Approximately half of that sells.”

It works like this: Savers weighs all donated products and pays its charity partners based on total weight and without regard to quality or salability.

“Savers does so many great things, but what we’re not great at is telling our own story,” says Adams. “We have more than 350 stores globally and we work with more than 150 charity partners. There are some similarities to the traditional thrift store, but we’re much more that that. The most important thing we do is support our communities, and the first way we do that is by supporting our charity partners. In Kansas City, we specifically support two: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City and Epilepsy Foundation.” Savers has partnered with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City since 1998 and with Epilepsy Foundation since 2013.

The product that doesn’t sell is further recycled, reused, or reimagined. Clothing and shoes are sent to developing countries to help build economies. Other products are recycled. Savers partners with waste management companies whose practices align with its corporate philosophy of reusing and reimagining rather than filling landfills.

Some other products are used in new ways. Savers calls this reimagining, which requires creative thinking. Products that don’t sell and those that don’t meet quality requirements to be placed on the sales floor—sheets that are too worn, for example—can be donated to animal shelters instead. Kitchenware that doesn’t sell might be donated to a shelter.

“We’re building a better world through reuse,” says Adams. “As a society we’ve turned a corner and we understand that it’s up to all of us to make a difference. By repurposing things we become good stewards of the world.”

There are five Savers stores in Kansas City: one in Olathe, one in Overland Park, one in Shawnee, one in the Northland off of Barry Road, and one in Liberty. The store on Barry Road partners with Epilepsy Foundation; the other four with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City.

“We can’t be successful unless we really care, and that happens at every level here. Some of our employees make a difference by going through donations—someone else’s former belongings—and finding products that might make another person’s life better in some way. Some of our employees make a difference by keeping our stores organized and stocked, so that when shoppers come in they are not only impressed and can’t imagine going anywhere else, but they are able to buy clothes for their kids even on a tight budget. And people who donate their gently used goods make a difference because every time someone donates, we pay our charity partners.

Donating is a civil enterprise,” says Adams. “The work done by Epilepsy Foundation and Big Brothers Big Sisters changes lives. Our employees and those who donate goods to Savers are a part of that in an ancillary way.”

In an effort to help even more people in the community—and to help fulfill needs of organizations smaller that its charity partners—Savers has started to offer donation drives as fund raising events.

“Any non-profit organization can sponsor a donation drive,” says Adams. “A soccer team that needs to buy new uniforms, for example, can collect donated products instead of selling trash bags or cookie dough. We pay the organization based on weight: .20 per pound of clothing and .05 per pound of housewares.

Sometimes it’s tough to raise funds traditionally. This gives organizations another option; some people may not have money to spare to buy chocolate bars or wrapping paper, but almost everyone has stuff they no longer need. We know that people have choices about where to donate. We hope, first and foremost, that they don’t choose to throw things away, though the average North American throws away 70 pounds of textiles every day. Instead, we want to encourage them to donate their stuff to us.”

That stuff, when donated to Savers, makes a difference, both in Kansas City and throughout the world.

“We take resources that people don’t want—or don’t see—and turn them into stable funding sources for nonprofit organizations and employment for people with an opportunity to grow and advance. We were green before it was cool to be green, and we’re still growing.”

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