DECATUR - For the past year, Stephanie Irby has been depositing loads of upscale used clothing and shoes into six-foot-tall red metal containers sitting in a parking lot in Mount Zion.
She recently discovered her donations will not be used to help needy people in Central Illinois. They are being shipped out of state to be processed and sold overseas.
"I feel completely ripped off," Irby, the mother of two children, said. "I thought it was going to local children in need. A lot of the clothes are good quality. My kids are growing constantly."
In the past few years, dozens of red, blue and yellow containers have been placed in the parking lots of businesses and schools throughout Central Illinois, with 20 planted in Decatur alone, according to the company's Web site.
While some of the boxes acknowledge that they belong to "a commercial company," most of them do not explain where or how the donations are being used.
The boxes belong to U'SAgain (pronounced use again), a nationwide commercial enterprise based in West Chicago, which operates in 14 states. That company is owned by a Belize-based firm, Fairbank, Cooper, & Lyle Ltd. Both are part of a massive international conglomerate with roots in Denmark, called Tvind, or Teachers Group.
Because of the misleading nature of the U'SAgain boxes, which consumers often associate with charities, several U.S. jurisdictions have passed laws mandating that the company must clearly state the purpose of its boxes, or outright banning the receptacles.
In response to reports of deceptive practices by U'SAgain, the Missouri legislature passed a 2007 law which mandated honest labeling.
The law requires commercial enterprises to post this statement, or a similar statement, on all boxes, in 2-inch high lettering: "Donations are not for charitable organizations and will be resold for profit."
This message is printed on the side of some boxes in Decatur. Because of their location, they are easily missed by donors, who deposit items in the only chute on each box, located at the front.
In Decatur, charities believe they are missing out on items which could be put to good use locally, because donors are instead using the U'SAgain receptacles.
Bud Felton, owner of Master's Touch Thrift Store, said it upsets him that the group planted one of its boxes a block away from his store. Master's Touch sells items at bargain prices, while providing funds for the Water Street Mission.
"People think they're our boxes," Felton said, adding donations have decreased since the box was installed. "People have told me, ‘I thought those were your boxes.' They think they're doing some-thing for charity, but they're not."
A U'SAgain box located at a service station in South Shores says: "This box is for your used clothes, shoes and linens. Let your used clothes get a second life and be reused." Another sign on that box says: "We cooperate with schools, nonprofits, city recycling projects and local businesses to bring this recycling program to your community."
A spokeswoman for U'SAgain, Margaret Sullivan, said the company partners with local companies in some cases, paying fees in exchange for placing its boxes in parking lots. But she did not know if anyone in Decatur received any payments.
Several local business owners said they have never been offered any money.
Sam Faraj, owner of Eastwood Downtown Finer Foods, said he did not know the owner of the yellow box on his property was a for-profit company.
"They didn't say they pay people to place boxes," Faraj said. "They never offered anything. I think they're a charity."
He said the company representative who asked to install the box told him clothing was donated to people overseas.
When told that company does not donate clothing, Faraj said it bothered him to hear that the company actually sold the clothing overseas.
Sullivan said the company sells the items it collects to wholesale used clothing buyers, who distribute them to merchants in Africa, East Europe and Latin America. Some items are sold to large U.S. thrift store chains, such as Savers, a Washington-state based company. If the clothing is deemed not wearable, it is remade into housing insulation or plastics for car dashboards.
When U'SAgain asked Ashok Tailor, manager of the Lakeview Motel, to plant two red boxes in the motel lot, there was no mention of resale or car dashboards.
"They don't pay the motel," Tailor said, adding he did not know the boxes belonged to a for-profit firm. "I'm thinking they are going to send it to poor people. I think they are supposed to do some-thing for poor people, to help them. They make the money? Then I have to tell them to give me some money for me too."
Lea White, operation manager for U'SAgain in Seattle from 2001 to 2003, said she and other employees would never tell site owners about the for-profit nature of the company.
"Yes, your community is being deceived," said White, who has been speaking out publicly about her former employer.
Irby said there is no way she would have put her family's clothes into boxes that clearly stated that her donations would be resold.
"My $150 jacket, I'm not putting it in that box," Irby said. "I think the message should be prominently displayed on each box, to inform donors where their donations are actually going, in order to enable us to make an informed decision."