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A dense pile of cosmetics

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How Charities Benefit From Extra Beauty Products

When editors pass, women who really need the products win.

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

Four years ago, Susan Woods threw a party for a product called Vanisher. In its honor, Woods — the founder of a boutique public relations agency specializing in beauty called The Woods & Co. — asked beauty editors to come and bring whatever they wanted “vanished” out of their beauty closets. She donated the collected items to the charity Women In Need, and a tradition was born. Now, every quarter, Woods gathers products from editors and coordinates donations to various charities.

“It’s very easy for [editors] to bring products that have just been given, and it’s easy for us to pass it on to women who really need it and appreciate it,” says Woods. “There is a lot of waste in the beauty business. An obscene amount comes to our offices, so much so that we’ve had charities say, ‘Please don’t send us any more.’” She donates to established, reputable charities like Women In Need and Bottomless Closet and has also donated products to people who are throwing yard sales to benefit recent hurricane victims in Houston and beyond.

There are a lot of products floating around the beauty publishing universe. In the six months we collected for the Racked Swag Project, I received almost 1,500 individual items. This is just a drop in the bucket — once you take into account all the magazines and websites there are, not to mention influencers and makeup artists who receive free products, the numbers become astronomical.

While some might sell beauty products on the secondary market (I haven’t), there’s a lot more volume than, say, trying to unload a gifted designer bag or two. So charities, which accept new and unused products, often end up being the beneficiaries of the beauty industry’s excess.

Team Friday fun packing boxes to send to hurricane victims thanks to our generous clients! #charity #friyayvibes

A post shared by Susan Woods (@ontheflywoods) on

Woods says that most of the magazines and digital media companies in New York City have dropped off boxes at one time or another. Her beauty company clients also donate products when they are repackaging or rebranding, for example, and are stuck with a supply of the old (but still perfectly good) products. Woods has received everything from drugstore staples like Maybelline and L'Oréal to luxury items.

“Bearing in mind this is after all the editors have gone through it, all the interns have gone through it, the editors have pulled product for every holiday coming up. [We get] high-end perfumes that are over $100 each. And Diptyque candles. High-end skincare. High-end shampoos. $65 hair masks from Kerastase,” says Woods. Then she laughs, “If I see one of my clients’ products come back to me in the box, I get upset.”

This month, The Woods & Co. dropped four boxes of products off to Bottomless Closet, an organization in New York City that prepares women going on job interviews and starting new jobs by giving them professional outfits and offering a variety of workshops ranging from resume writing to makeup application. Annually, about 2,600 women use the service over 3,300 client visits, since some women come multiple times. While practical items like deodorant, toothpaste, soap, and feminine hygiene products top the list of needs, Bottomless Closet is always grateful for other beauty products. This shipment included IT Cosmetics foundations in a range of shades, an almost full box of Brite matte lipsticks, and makeup from Revlon and Sonia Kashuk.

The staff packages up products as they come in to give as goodie bags to clients, or, if there’s enough volume, they’ll make bags to give out as gifts to women who “graduate” from some of the organization’s training programs. The clients love getting the products. “It’s usually squeals and oohs and aahs. They’re very excited to get that kind of stuff,” says Alison Zaccone, director of communications at Bottomless Closet. “It’s very much a treat.”

While some of it isn’t necessarily work- or interview-appropriate (Melissa Norden, the executive director of Bottomless Closet, says she once received colored clip-in hair extensions and “some kind of vaginal rejuvenation something or other!”), they’ll make it work. Many of the women will pass things onto their children if it’s cutesy or glittery. There’s also the issue of makeup shades.

“The demographics of our clientele are not reflective of the makeup we usually get,” Norden explains. “About 60 percent of the women we see are African-American and Hispanic. A very small percentage are white, but many of our donors are white, so that has its own challenge.” This concern was echoed by other charities I spoke to.

A women’s boutique stocked with donated products.
A peek inside the Bottomless Closet.

Women In Need (WIN) is another NYC-based charity that has received beauty donations from Woods. It serves 10 percent of the homeless population in the city and provides housing, services, and training. It serves about 4,500 people every night, more than half of whom are children, according to Cyndi Snyder, WIN’s manager of volunteer services. The greatest need is for products like shampoo and soap that the whole family can use, but other beauty products are made into goodie bags and used in much the same way they’re used when a publicist gives them to an editor — as an incentive to show up to something. (Often when I receive an invitation to an event, it touts the goodie bag editors will receive.)

“When we receive these generous donations of beauty products, we often put them together into a little giveaway swag so it encourages women to come to these events,” says Snyder. “They can walk away with something that’s really going to empower them as they start these jobs or the interview.” She says her team does about four events a month for about 30 to 40 women each time. If you consider that they are making 120 bags, “Thousands and thousands [of products] are definitely needed to fill these kits to make sure they’re meaningful.”

After keeping some and giving away a lot more, I still usually have multiple full boxes of unused products. For a few years now, I’ve been lugging those boxes every few months to my local Dress for Success chapter.

Dress for Success is another organization dedicated to helping women get into the workforce, serving 5,000 women per year in New York City and over 70,000 total at 150 global affiliates. Camille Aponte, the corporate contributions manager at Dress for Success, says the donations are “never enough. Particularly with the hurricane that just passed, Corpus Christi and Houston were very ravaged. I can’t tell you how appreciative they were when I sent a palette of cosmetics to them.” In addition to beauty media donations, Dress for Success works with companies like Tom’s of Maine, Honest Beauty, Tarte, Ted Gibson, and Strivectin, which all donate larger volumes of product.

Women at a Bottomless Closet meeting
Bottomless Closet clients at a function.
Photo: Stacey Axelrod

Magazines have long disposed of the leftovers in their beauty closets by having internal beauty sales and selling products for as little as $1 to employees, then donating the proceeds to charity. Emily Dougherty, the beauty director at Elle, says that the magazine has earned up to $5,000 or $6,000 after its most successful sales, but she has heard numbers as high as $10,000 at other magazines “in the olden days of big beauty sales.”

There’s enough excess to hold sales twice a year. Beauty sales at Elle last for several hours and are staffed by members of the beauty department, who will answer questions about products. The sales sometimes bring out the worst in people, though. “People just really do misbehave. We always warn any new assistants or any people new to the beauty sale that you kind of see the darkest side of humanity,” says Dougherty. “[This hasn’t happened at Hearst], but in my history I have seen people try to shoplift, and I’m like, ‘It’s a dollar and it’s for charity. Please don’t hide that eyeshadow inside of the other eyeshadow or whatever you’re doing.’ We have a no-bartering policy, and no complaining about prices because it is so low.”

While Dougherty says Elle earmarks $500 to $1,000 from every sale to send to smaller charities and will donate more money to disaster relief when there are acute needs, many magazines, Elle included, donate a good chunk of the proceeds from beauty closet sales to the charity arm of Cosmetic Executive Women (CEW), a trade organization for beauty industry professionals. The charity, called Cancer and Careers, provides services for people who want to remain in the workforce while receiving treatment. It was founded 17 years ago when five members of CEW’s board had all undergone cancer treatment.

Kate Sweeney, the executive director of the CEW Foundation, says that 23 magazines and three digital organizations have donated proceeds from beauty closet sales to Cancer and Careers since 2000. The biggest annual haul was $100,000. The organization has raised more than $143,000 from beauty sales in the last three years, raising $46,000 in 2016. Sweeney says amounts vary, especially during years in which companies may send donations to areas that have experienced natural disasters or other acute events.

Sweeney says that donations have been trending down a bit. “With the contraction of the industry, there are less magazines. And we hear that they don’t do as many shoots.” Dougherty also says that her department receives less unsolicited beauty samples than it used to years ago, when every person on the team would receive samples.

However, there is truth to Susan Woods’ assertion that there are sometimes too many product donations, though all the charities I spoke to hate turning products away. Occasionally companies will want to donate a large volume and there just isn’t the space to accept it. “Someone wanted to give us 50,000 tubes of toothpaste,” says Bottomless Closet’s Norden. “When I say no to that, it means I get no toothpaste. That’s my biggest challenge, but we’re working on storage opportunities now.” There are similar storage issue at WIN, and Snyder says that at certain times of the year the organization is busy with other initiatives, like filling backpacks for kids during back-to-school times, and they don’t have the capacity for other donations.

All of the representatives of the charities I spoke to emphasized that beauty products aren’t frivolous for the populations they serve. “It really is the cosmetic and fragrance donations that give an extra boost to our women,” says Dress for Success’ Aponte. “Certainly we provide the job interview outfit, but when we hand them out a little gift bag of skincare, toiletries, and cosmetics, their faces light up because that’s really what puts the finishing touch. And it also gives them [a sense of] individuality as they’re putting on those cosmetics.”

Norden concurs. “A lot of women have been living in the system for a good chunk of their lives or recent past and they don’t expect to be treated with respect,” she says. “They’ll make comments like, ‘This is like a spa day for me.’ It sounds very superficial, but it’s not. Getting an extra little something, whatever it is, it makes them feel special and more confident. That’s our goal at the end of the day.”

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