When you fill those pink bags in your letterbox with clothes, where do they end up? This August investigation by Steve Bishop was read by close to 24,000 readers.
Thousands of Australians and New Zealanders are donating “good used clothing” to a secondhand clothing empire earning millions of dollars, rather than to charities.
At the heart of the empire, which extends to New Zealand, Fiji and other Pacific islands, is 67-year-old Irish-born businessman George Doonan in Brisbane and another branch of the Doonan family in Auckland.
They operate a scheme which distributes pink bags to letterboxes asking for people’s help in filling the bags with “good quality clothing” and other goods, to be sold “at a cheap price” to low-income families or shipped to PNG tribespeople.
According to Zoom Info and Alibaba, two of the second-hand clothing companies which list George Doonan as a director have revenues totalling millions of dollars a year.
One of those companies, Pacific Island Recyclers Pty Ltd, said on its Facebook page in July 2017 it was selling more than 100 shipping containers a year to Fiji, where its main customer is Value City.
Fijian national Vera Chute owns a chain of 16 Value City secondhand clothing “superstores” — a business started with a single store by her parents with the help of Doonan 30 years ago.
Five years ago, Chute estimated her monthly imports of stock weighed 60 tonnes.
Pink bags distributed recently to letterboxes in Australia were labelled in large capital letters: 'WE NEED YOUR HELP…'.
And the message continued
…By filling this bag with GOOD USED CLOTHING, TOYS, BOOKS, MAGAZINES, SHOES, HOUSEHOLD GOODS
This collection is organised by the Clothing Recycling Centre, a commercially operated recycler which specialises in the sorting, grading, repairing and cleaning of all types of recyclable goods, which are available at a cheap price to low income families, or, shipped to Papua New Guinea where there is a great need for cheap clothing, especially to the tribespeople in the Highlands.
Finally, in big type:
'YOUR HELP IS APPRECIATED.'
Trucks then collect the filled bags from kerbsides.
On the Australian Business Register, the Clothing Recycling Centre is listed under ABN 84 055 646 770 and Chute Industries Australia Pty Ltd as the holding company, which is also the holding company for Pacific Islands Clothing Recycle Centre.
The Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) gives the address for documents for Chute Industries Australia as, PO Box 343 New Farm, Queensland 4005.
In the White Pages, Chute Industries is listed as 3358 2808, a house at 194 Heal Street, New Farm, QLD, 4005, which is also the listed address for G Doonan 3254 1833. The principal place of business is given as 2/37 Unwin Street St, Moorooka, QLD 4105.
Chute Industries has an advertisement on the Alibaba website with George Doonan listed as the sales contact. It says in Dutch, 'totale jaarlijkse omzet' (total annual sales) are between US$2.5 and $5 million (AU$3.4 and $6.95 million). Goods are sold in 11.5-ton container loads.
The second company under the Chute Industries holding company is Pacific Islands Clothing Recycle Centre of Melbourne, which, according to Zoom Info, has revenue of “$3 million”.
With George Doonan as a director, it appears on the internet as Pacific Island Recyclers Pty Ltd.
Its website says:
George … has a wealth of experience in this industry having owned and operated a number of substantial enterprises in Australia since 1974 and has been involved in collection, warehousing and exporting of goods to a number of countries around the world.
George is a Director of both Pacific Island Recyclers Pty Ltd and the related entity Supreme Textiles Pty Ltd and his contributions to the Board of Management discussions reflect these extensive experiences for over 40 years.
Pacific Island Recyclers boasts:
We have a focus on quality in all aspects of our operations from the methods of collections through to the accurate shipping of finished product to our international clients.
Our clothing is sourced from high-income areas around Australia, including Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide in suburbs which provide stock of excellent quality.
The collected garments are sold by weight, in various mixes. These mixes include both 1st and 2nd grade clothing for men, women and children as well as a variety of linen, Manchester, accessories and lingerie.
We export high quality recycled clothing from Australia to Asia, Africa, the Pacific, The Middle East and Europe.
Bales, packs and boxes are loaded for export into shipping containers. These containers may be either 20 or 40 ft GP (general purpose), or 20 or 40 ft High Cube.
One of the three directors is Vera Chute, who runs the Fijian chain of Value City “superstores”.
The website states:
Vera has been extensively involved with this industry for over 25 years and her expertise is evident in her capabilities in developing new export markets, establishing successful retail operations in Fiji and a number of Pacific Islands and wholesaling products to other established retail networks.
The website contains a testimonial from Christine M ‘Uta’atu, managing director of Value City (Tonga) Pty Ltd, who says:
'Our customers tell us their friends are jealous of the brands of clothes they are able to buy.'
Value City has four warehouses in Fiji, 200 employees and franchises in Samoa, Tonga and Kiribati with goods bought from suppliers in Brisbane and Melbourne as well as New Zealand.
The quality of clothes from street collections is so good that Value City holds “corporate nights” to give specially-invited clients exclusive access to the best new stock when it arrives.
Older stock is sold for as little as AU$5 a bag. And Ms Chute says her business has donated clothes and other goods to islands hit by disasters.
Mr Doonan also operates a scheme which offers schools $400 for a tonne of clothing collected by students. It has the same contact number (1300 736 373) as that given on the pink bags.
He is also a director of PNG Recycled Clothing Centre which collects and exports "good quality secondhand clothing”, bric-a-brac toys, shoes, books and magazines from Queensland, Victoria and NSW in containers.
Mr Doonan says half of this goes to buyers from warehouses and dealers in PNG, Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands and Samoa and the other half:
'...is given to churches of all denominations, charities and other organisations free of charge.'
The company is also registered in Papua New Guinea with local man Kris Kopyoto as a fellow director.
Together, they are directors of Yamilon Investment Ltd, along with Thomas Henry Doonan, from the New Zealand branch of the Doonan family.
Mr Kopyoto is also a director of Auckland Rags (PNG) Ltd, in which Grant James Doonan of New Zealand is a director.
Thomas Henry Doonan and Grant James Doonan are directors of The Textile Recycling Centre in Auckland, New Zealand, incorporated in 1969. It was originally known as Supreme Textiles Ltd (the same name as the Melbourne company).
Grant James Doonan is also a director of a New Zealand company called The Clothing Recycling Centre.
And, according to Companies NZ:
'he is, or was, associated with six or more companies including: THE TEXTILE RECYCLING CENTRE LIMITED, THE RAG COMPANY LIMITED, AVALON TEXTILE WASTE COMPANY LIMITED, SAVEMART LIMITED, INLET RENTALS LIMITED.'
Also according to Companies NZ:
'Thomas Henry DOONAN…is, or was, associated with five or more companies including: RECYCLED CLOTHING LIMITED, THE TEXTILE RECYCLING CENTRE LIMITED, SAVEMART LIMITED, THE RAG COMPANY LIMITED, DOONANS CLEANING RAG SERVICE LIMITED.'
The New Zealand Herald reported in 2003:
The country's biggest operator is Tom Doonan of Textile Recycling, with 22 stores and a rags business.
He collects through the pink plastic Child Cancer Foundation bags and drop-off bins and also imports good sellers like second-hand Levis.
He also exports: used New Zealand clothes end up in Papua New Guinea and woolly jumpers become blankets in India.
"We take just about anything that can be recycled but we've still got quantities coming through the door," he said.
People were aware of the fact that clothes put into the Child Cancer Foundation bags did not just go to charity shops but were collected on their behalf for a percentage of the profits. That way, the charities made more money than trying to do it themselves, said Mr Doonan.
He is also a director, with Grant James Doonan, of Savemart Ltd, which has 29 recycled clothing stores in New Zealand where, until a 2017 exposé, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shopped.
With these worldwide markets, it’s no wonder that the final words on the pink bag, in capital letters, are:
'YOUR HELP IS APPRECIATED. THANK YOU.'
Mr Doonan did not respond to an invitation for comment.
Steve Bishop is a journalist and author. You can read more from Steve at stevebishop.net.
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