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What drives household textile diversion?

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Written by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D., Faculty of Environmental StudiesYork University

In December of 2018, York University undertook extensive household survey testing/questionnaires pertaining to attitudes towards textile waste, clothing donation bins and factors affecting bin utilization.

This study was seen as the conceptual follow up to the Fall 2016 study conducted by the university, which was originally designed to identify the primary determinants to textile donations and explore possible impediments/barriers to participation. 

Salient findings from the 2016 study include: 

1) Unlike other waste streams, convenience is not the most significant predictor of household participation

2) Unlike other material streams (such as waste WEEE, or PP&P) households have a “value attachment” associated with their used clothing. As such, households indicated a very strong preference for ensuring that their donations were going to a cause they personally identified with (charitable, social, environmental etc.)

3) The presence of charity masqueraders results in significant confusion for households. This confusion was sufficient enough to deter household participating in diversion activity *Note: While there is no formal definition for what constitutes a charity masquerader, these are often operators who deceptively brand themselves in a way to suggest that they are a charity, without being transparent regarding the destination of the material or what is being done with the proceeds from the donation. Numerous communities across Canada have expressed concerns surrounding the presence of 3rd party bins, as they often do not adhere to regular service schedules or bylaw licensing requirements.

With these findings in mind, York University, in collaboration with Diabetes Canada and a coalition of charitable actors, partnered with municipalities across Canada to launch the first municipal textile donation program. 

The underlying premise of this program is that municipalities would designate preferred textile collectors within the community (often through municipal branding on bins, or some other form of official recognition), which clearly communicated to residents that “approved collectors” were adhering to best practices in funding transparency, accessibility and service standards. The intent of this municipal vetting process was to reduce consumer uncertainty regarding both the collector of the material, and the destination of the donation. 

Phase 2 of this study wanted to gauge how (if at all) household attitudes towards textile donation have changed, particularly in light of the formal municipal programs being offered in communities across Canada. 

Study design

Three broad geographic regions were selected on the basis of relative population distribution, proximity to existing (both branded and unbranded bins) and overall population densities to reflect medium – large urban markets. 

These groups were selected on the basis that they provide an adequate geographic representation of the province, and provide the greatest opportunity to interview the broadest cross section of both sociodemographic and socioeconomic groups. 

These groups included:

  1. Large Urban (Toronto, Brampton, Mississauga, York Region)
  2. Urban Regional (Ajax)
  3. Medium Urban (Barrie)

Survey questions were organized into four main areas: (1) Awareness/Attitudes (2) Accessibility; (3) Motivation for use and (4) demographic information related to age, ethnicity, education and income. 

Questionnaires were pre-tested and refined prior to conducting the official survey. The pre-test allowed for wording refinements and changes to the ordering of the questions. The finalized survey was conducted over a four week period beginning in the second week of December 2018 and running through January 2019. Teams of two enumerators and one site supervisor were sent to each municipality for a period of four days each, spending 6 h at each survey site.

Questionnaire “booths” were set up in spaces with high foot traffic (namely malls, arenas and public commons areas). Enumerators were asked to approach members of the public, explain who they were and the purpose of the study, and requested approximately 10–15 min of the participant’s time to complete the survey. A five dollar Tim Horton’s Café and Bake shop gift card was used to incent participation. 

A mix of convenience and quota sampling was employed to ensure that survey participants reflect the relative proportions of Ontario’s population. Survey responses were recorded by hand and later electronically archived and analyzed using Provalis Word Stat, Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word.

A total of 901 responses were successfully recorded (out of 2422 approached) for a response rate of 37.2%.

Generally speaking, Likert scales using ordinal ranking were used to classify survey responses.

It is important to note that the data gathered from our surveys is based on self-reported behavior, and not observed behavior. Self-reported measures of environmental awareness and participation tend to be overstated. This phenomenon is known as the value action gap. 

A summary of select survey results are shown below.

Levels of Participation and Motivators for Participation

Figures 1 through 4 below summarize household responses regarding self-reported levels of textile donation and stated motivators for participation

Fig 1.

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 Consistent with the findings from the 2016 survey, surveyed households report participating in textile donation to some degree (at least once every three months) , with the most popular reuse method being “hand me downs” to relatives and friends. The primary motivator for making a donation was rooted in altruistic motives “helping less fortunate”, or providing assistance to members of a broader kinship network. 

Of note, donations made to a clothing drop off bin or a physical retail site accounted for approximately half of all used textiles reported by our respondents. 

Credibility and Awareness

The majority of survey respondents indicated that having “municipally approved branding” (on clothing donation bins, in the store etc.) would directly incent participation, by reducing uncertainty regarding the operator and destination of donated material (as shown in figures 5 and 6). 

More than 65% of all respondents agreed (or strongly agreed) that municipally branded bins would encourage them to donate more, while 60% of all respondents felt that municipal branding reduced uncertainty. As noted in the 2016 study, uncertainty regarding what happens to a donation is sufficient to discourage diversion behavior, as households want to feel that their donations are being used in a socially, environmentally and economically responsible way.  

Fig 5. 

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Fig 6. 

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 Of note in figure 7, households still have extreme difficulty distinguishing between charitable and non-charitable bins, exacerbating the confusion and frustration on the part of the consumer regarding who are legitimate collectors, and who are charitable masqueraders. This ultimately impedes household participation in textile diversion initiatives, as shown in Figure 8. 

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Responsibilities of Municipalities and Retailers in educating the public about textile diversion

Perhaps the most salient finding from the follow up study is that households feel that both the retailer (steward selling the clothes) and municipalities bare a shared responsibility in educating households about what to do with textiles at end of life (as shown in figures 9-10)

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Lack of Access/Opportunity

Despite efforts on the part of both municipalities and clothing collectors, majority of survey respondents indicated that they did have readily available access to clothing donation bins (or other drop off points) in their neighborhoods. 

This suggests that clothing collectors continue to work with municipalities in placing collection points in high density, well trafficked areas to maximize access for the public. 

Fig 11. 

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The full results of this study are expected by late Spring – the purpose of this pre-publication is to better understand what drives household diversion behavior, and what opportunities exist to develop economically, socially and environmentally desirable collection infrastructure for used textiles.


About the Author

Calvin LAKHAN, Ph.D, is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada. He holds a Ph.D from the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University joint Geography program, and degrees in economics (BA) and environmental economics (MEs) from York University. His research interests and expertise center around evaluating the efficacy of municipal recycling initiatives and identifying determinants of consumer recycling behavior. Calvin has worked as both a policy planner for the MOECC and as a consultant on projects for Stewardship Ontario, Multi Material Stewardship Manitoba, and Ontario Electronic Stewardship. Calvin currently sits on the editorial board for Advances in Recycling and Waste Management, and as a reviewer for Waste Management, Resources Conservation and Recycling and Journal of Environmental Management .