Charities, such as Oxfam, which rely on donations of unwanted clothes, are facing growing thefts of doorstep clothes collection bags and from clothing banks.
The 480,000 tonnes of clothes British people donate to charity every year is worth £280m. But when charity volunteers try to empty metal clothing banks in supermarket car parks, they often find they have been emptied already.
Thieves are also taking toys, clothes and books people leave outside their house in donation sacks, and are making fake doorstep appeals.
These donation thefts are costing charities an estimated £15 million a year − that’s a loss of about 10 per cent of all clothes donated, according to trade body the Textile Recycling Association.
Clothes donated to charities have long been stolen, but as the price of textiles has surged over the last two years, and they’re now fetching upwards of £1,500 per tonne – one clothes bank can hold as much as £150 to £200 worth of clothes, so stealing from clothes banks and doorstep donations is making thieves more money than ever.
Oxfam says it has noticed the problem getting worse over the last six months to the extent that between 25 and 40 per cent of its 800 textiles banks are raided every week.
"There has been a huge growth in the commercial rag trade. What was once a market that didn't have much resale value now suddenly has a very serious commercial value," said Oxfam's David McCullough. “We are seeing a huge amount of legitimate and illegitimate companies collecting house to house, setting up clothing banks, collecting on behalf of charities," he told the Independent. “We are also seeing a very substantial increase in thefts by what appear to be well-organised criminal gangs."
"They are emptying textile banks in supermarket car parks in the middle of the night, so when volunteers go to empty these banks they are empty already,” he explained. “The less sophisticated, fish the clothes out of the banks from the hatches. Some of them send kids into the hatches to throw the stuff back out. Others take bolt cutters and take the padlocks off and lift the banks onto lorries, unload them somewhere else and take off the sides with thermal torches.
"Evidence suggests it's being taken into the commercial market abroad, principally in Eastern Europe. Some of the people who have been stopped and cautioned are predominantly Eastern European."