by Sophia McDonald Bennett

Thrift stores are no longer limited to college students, bargain hunters, and people who don’t have any other option. An industry veteran takes a look at why things are changing. 

Growing up as the daughter of a “simple junkman” wasn’t always easy. 

My father, Terry McDonald, took over as Executive Director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County when I was six years old. On the one hand, going to my dad’s office was always fun. There was a mountain of clothing to climb on and plenty of books to peruse. If we needed something unusual – a special prop for a Halloween costume or a part for a kitchen appliance – someone would keep an eye out for it at the donation center. 

On the other hand, in those days no 13-year-old wanted to admit that her family’s furnishings came from a second-hand shop. I remember reading a book that described two girls giggling at another girl’s “ratty clothes that came from St. Vincent de Paul” and underlining it with furious strokes of a pen. Awash with adolescent angst, there was a time when I was ashamed of what my dad did for a living. I wished he could be a lawyer or a salesman like my other friends’ parents. 

Fast forward twenty years. The world has changed dramatically, and so have I. I’ve come to really appreciate my dad’s business – so much so, in fact, that I now work at St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP), helping to promote the cause that once caused me to cringe. 

My commitment to the agency has to do with a desire to advance the values I was raised with: helping other people, protecting the environment, and supporting local businesses. But it doesn’t hurt that reuse stores seem to have a certain cache these days. Maybe it’s the Great Recession, the desire to buy from local businesses, or growing unease about climate change. Maybe it’s that people have realized thrift stores have more than “ratty” clothing and dorm-worthy couches. Whatever the case, people’s perceptions seem to be changing. 

To learn why that is, I talked with the proprietors of four local thrift stores and drew upon my own experience as a SVDP employee. As a framework, I shaped my questions around a concept that thrift stores have been using for years – the triple bottom line, which includes a focus on the planet and people as well as on profit. 

The Players

I started my interviews with Terry McDonald at SVDP. The agency is a chapter of the international Society of St. Vincent de Paul and seeks to help low-income families and individuals access the tools they need to become self-sufficient. SVDP serves all of Lane County and parts of Linn County, with thrift store locations in Eugene, Springfield, Florence, and Albany. 

NextStep Recycling, which was founded in 1999, focuses on reusing electric and electronic equipment. “If it plugs in or runs on batteries we take it,” quips Lorraine Kerwood, the organization’s founder and Executive Director. Items that can’t be reused are broken down for recycling. NextStep also provides job and skills training for disadvantaged people. They have stores in Eugene and Springfield. 

Habitat for Humanity of the Mid-Willamette Valley serves Marion and Polk counties. They provide homeownership opportunities for local families and run a ReStore thrift business in Salem. Eddie Nelson is the Director of the store, which sells a mix of used building materials, appliances, furniture, and miscellaneous items like books. The Mid-Willamette Valley affiliate is celebrating its 20th anniversary. 

BRING Recycling deals primarily with second-hand building and fabrication materials. They also run several programs to educate people about reuse and recycling. The organization, based in Eugene, first opened in 1971. Julie Daniel has been the Director since 1995. 

Helping the Planet 

“Reduce, reuse and recycle” is the basic idea behind thrift stores. Their central mission is to reuse items. To cut down on garbage costs, many organizations recycle the stuff they can’t sell. And by providing quality second-hand goods, thrift stores help people reduce the number of new products they purchase. 

“When you reuse one computer you save the equivalent energy of taking a car off the road for half a year,” Kerwood says. “Electronics require a lot of mining of heavy metals, which is an incredibly polluting activity. So if we can use what’s already above ground and not have to dig up so many natural resources we’re making a terrific impact on the planet.” In 2010 NextStep recycled about two million pounds of electronic waste and reused even more.

 “St. Vincent de Paul is an equal opportunity scavenger,” McDonald says. “We’re in the business of adding value to society’s cast-offs, both products and people. As such, we’re always looking for new opportunities within the waste stream.” SVDP stores include your typical thrift store wares – clothing, books, furniture, and household goods – as well as some unusual items. Since 2003 McDonald has been importing second-hand furniture from Europe. The program started when he was vacationing in England and met up with a local nonprofit that was landfilling truckloads of beautiful solid wood furniture every month. 

“I was amazed and appalled at what was being thrown away,” McDonald says. “Here was a resource of untapped product that was perfectly viable, but no one was taking advantage of it.” 

McDonald made the organization a deal: the British charity would save up all the furniture they couldn’t sell. He would pay for a shipping container to bring it to Oregon, where he would sell the furniture in his stores. Once everything from the load was gone, he would split the proceeds with his partner back in Britain. Although this arrangement was derailed recently because of high shipping prices, McDonald is looking for opportunities to bring it back.

On the recycling side, SVDP established the world’s first commercially viable mattress recycling business and continues to operate the largest mattress recycling program in the United States. They create fire starters from the old, half-burned candles that people donate, and they recently became Lane County’s only Styrofoam recycler. All in all, the agency reused or recycled over 19 million pounds of material in 2010. 

Daniel firmly believes that BRING’s activities are decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling requires transporting materials to factories and utilizing lots of energy to refabricate them. On the other hand, “reusing an item preserves the energy that’s already in it,” she says. Activities related to energy production represent the number one source of American greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, so decreasing usage is vitally important. 

Investing in People

At NextStep, people have always been just as important as the environment. Kerwood has made it her mission to provide job training and employment opportunities to people who don’t always succeed in the labor market due to a disability, lack of education, or other barrier. Besides teaching people about electronics, the program provides a range of skills designed to help folks thrive at work. 

“We take a waste-based product and turn it into a teaching tool,” Kerwood says. “When an item reaches the end of its usable life for one person, it still has the ability to impact another person’s life in a positive way. If people can put a tiny bit of energy into not putting used goods in the trash, they can make a tremendous difference. After all, the healthier each individual is, the healthier our community will be.” 

Habitat’s ReStore works with several local agencies that refer young people looking for job skills. They also get older folks who have been displaced from previous careers and need to be re-trained. “We’re a perfect place for it, with all the different building materials and fixtures and furniture we have,” Nelson says. People can work with several different products and in a variety of settings (retail, warehouse, etc.) to pick up new skills. 

All these organizations help people in need by providing charitable services. NextStep provides computers to children in foster care, under-funded schools and nonprofits. Habitat is building its 75th home this year. BRING donates supplies to churches, schools and nonprofits. SVDP provides a range of services including food boxes, rent and utility assistance, day shelters for homeless families and adults, and affordable housing. 

Maximizing Profit

The concept of nonprofits earning a profit is a stretch for some people, but that’s starting to change too. To stay in business, all organizations have to earn a profit. The difference is what they do with the money at the end of the day. “We treat our mission as our owner and our community as our shareholders,” McDonald says. “As such, dividends from the corporation must go back to serve the needs of the community.” 

Thrift stores have a positive impact on the economy. The organizations profiled have combined budgets of over $20 million and employ around 470 people. Over 50 percent of SVDP’s annual budget comes from earned income or contracts. At BRING the percentage is even higher. Multiple studies have shown that when you buy from a local business, two to three times more of your money stays in the community, where it creates jobs and supports your neighbors and friends. 

BRING provides a great case study for how thrift stores are transforming not only their reputations, but their bottom lines. BRING’s reuse store started life in a wetland. Even if you forget the impact on the eco-system for a moment, it was not an ideal location. Material wasn’t well organized. There were no walkways, so maneuvering around the site was difficult. People didn’t always feel very safe there. 

Ready to do things differently, BRING started raising money for a new reuse center. They envisioned a place where shopping would be fun, easy and inspiring. In 2007 they moved into the Planet Improvement Center, a self-described “amusement park for reuse.” The three acre site includes a covered retail space, open-air storage area for large items, lumber yard, art gallery/community room, and the Garden of Earthly Delights, which is used as an outdoor educational space. 

The change was evident almost immediately. “We still serve people who are low income or need that something special,” Daniel says. “But now we also see people who are elderly and couldn’t navigate the site before. We see lots of families with kids. We never use to see kids.” Since BRING opened the Planet Improvement Center the annual number of transactions has risen 43% and their gross sales have gone up 79%.  

Some Things Don’t Change 

A quick survey of SVDP customers revealed that most people still shop at thrift stores because of the savings. A couple of women noted that they like getting high-quality items for less at second-hand stores. Dave Magill, a Springfield resident, shares his story of how he became a convert: “I bought a suit for $800 one time. A few days later I took my niece to Value Village and found the same suit for $35. It looked almost new.”

For others, shopping at thrift stores is just plain fun. “There are people who travel around from ReStore to ReStore as a hobby,” Nelson says. “They’ve been all up and down the west coast.” 

Whatever the reason, it’s heartening to know that thrift stores are becoming mainstream. It gives more people a chance to learn about the many benefits (environmental, economic, and humanitarian) that go along with buying goods that are “gently loved” rather than new. I suspect that, as the economy improves, some people will hear the siren call of the big box stores and go back to buying many of their goods new. My hope, however, is that more of them will permanently convert to the thrift store way of life. Just like I did. 

Sophia McDonald Bennett works part-time at St. Vincent de Paul and part-time as a freelance writer. She lives in Eugene.

See NCD categories:

Building Materials

Electronics Recycling 

Recycled Products

Thrift Stores

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