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Walking the Walk: Goodwill’s Aggressive
Environmental Stewardship Pays Off

To begin to comprehend Goodwill’s impact on the environment, try taking a walk in a single shoe.

Each day, thousands of partnerless shoes are given to Goodwill. They are among tens of millions of pounds of clothing and household goods — enough to fill the Tennessee Titans’ stadium — donated to Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee every year across the 48 counties it serves.

Most donated items are sold in Goodwill’s 36 stores, allowing them to find new life with new owners, rather than being discarded. But Goodwill works hard to squeeze the maximum value out of all donated items — even those that can’t be sold in stores.

Salvage materials are sold or recycled so they, too, can contribute to Goodwill’s mission of providing job training and employment opportunities for people struggling to find work. These efforts raise millions of dollars annually.

“Our most important take-away is that we’ve been good stewards of the environment and created jobs,” said Mary Stockett, Goodwill’s director of continuous improvement and post market development.

Single shoes are sold to Makku Ilyas, president of Duluth, Ga.-based Infinite Rags. His company buys partnerless shoes from Goodwill in shipments weighing 15,000-20,000 pounds every two weeks. Infinite Rags sorts the shoes and works to match them closely with other shoes. Those that can’t be paired are recycled. Ilyas then sells paired shoes in bulk to buyers in third world countries — generally Pakistan and occasionally the United Arab Emirates. Ultimately, vendors sell them from carts and shops to villagers who might otherwise go without.

“The need is great,” Ilyas said. “There is a humongous market for second-hand clothing and shoes in third-world countries, because a lot of people can’t afford to buy new stuff.”

Last year Goodwill sold 12 million pounds of salvage clothing that was shipped to underdeveloped nations, mostly in tropical areas. The biggest market is East Africa — nations such as Burundi, Kenya and Uganda.  

Low-cost, salvage products from the U.S. help people who might otherwise go without or have to buy inferior quality items, said Skip Wilson, co-owner of Atlanta, Ga.-based Wilson Marketing Group, which represents Goodwill and other nonprofits in salvage sales. The clothing also provides jobs for people in many countries, allowing them to support their families.

“The landfill would be the last stop, but instead, we are able to send it on … to Africa where somebody has a store or a business selling this clothing at prices folks can handle,” he said.

Goodwill also recycles millions of pounds of cardboard and paper pulp every year — enough to save about 50,000 trees. And it employs sustainable business practices at its 146 operating locations, such as recycling light bulbs, recovering air conditioning refrigerants and using donated tools, plumbing and electrical supplies.

Where Goodwill’s environmental footprint cannot be found is also important. China, for instance, is known as a dumping ground for e-waste, where primitive recycling contaminates the countryside and threatens residents’ health.

But unsold home and office appliances and electronics from Goodwill do not end up in such places, said Jeremy Olson, director of business development for Dynamic Recycling in Nashville. The La Crosse, Wis.-based firm annually recycles plastics, metals and leaded glass from more than 1.5 million pounds worth of non-functioning Goodwill items, such as laptops, microwaves, handheld drill batteries and Christmas lights, returning revenue for Goodwill’s mission.

Dynamic Recycling has a “no-electronic material landfill policy” and ensures that its recycling is conducted only in the U.S. or countries with similar environmental regulations.

“Goodwill is making a significant impact on our environment by diverting those electronics from landfills and supporting environmental sustainability,” Olson said.

Goodwill’s greatest environmental impact occurs right here at home, however.

Nancy Zion, Williamson County’s Solid Waste Director, knows the environmental and economic cost of what Tennesseans throw away. Her county, which has an aggressive recycling program, nonetheless carries about 30,000 tons of garbage per year — at a cost of $30 per ton — to the West Camden Sanitary Landfill in Benton County. But besides recycling aluminum, glass, tin and more, Williamson County has another landfill- and money-saving tool in its toolkit: Goodwill.

Goodwill Donations Express Centers located in the county’s busiest solid waste convenience centers receive an estimated 12 million pounds in donations per year.

“It’s astounding,” Zion said, and while she declined to speculate how much of that material might otherwise have ended up in the trash, she had a handy example.

“I just cleaned out my closet and bags of clothing are sitting in my living room ready to take to Goodwill. They’re heavy, too. All of that would be going to the landfill if not for organizations like Goodwill,” she said.

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— By Chris Fletcher
Prior to joining Goodwill as its PR & Communications Manager in 2014, Fletcher was a professional journalist for
more than 25 years working at media outlets in three states, including the Associated Press.