A shirt's journey
The seamy side of donated clothing
Last updated June 15, 2007
By Sabrina Saccoccio, CBC News
A few weeks ago, Sebastian Velez spotted smoke from burning clothes rising from the mountain in Pedernales, a small border town in the Dominican Republic.
Donated clothing People scavenge through used clothing dumped at Pedernales, a small border town in the Dominican Republic. (Sebastián Vélez/Permission of author)
It was two summers ago when he first stumbled upon this blazing patchwork of Tommy Hilfiger jeans, cotton T-shirts and winter coats. The reds, greens and plaids spilled out of a flatbed truck's cargo container at a dump in the port town.
Pedernales is the end of the road in the Dominican Republic between Santo Domingo and Haiti a sleepy town set up to protect the capital from "invasions of Haitians."
The only thing going in Pedernales, besides one cement factory and an aluminum mining operation, is a facility whose sole purpose is to sort and burn used clothing from North America.
Velez, a Harvard University entomology professor, happened upon the fires when he was studying bark beetles in the area's untouched forests.
He also visits Pedernales to stop in on a local school he and other colleagues are raising money to help build.
During one of his trips, he stayed with a man who had lost his son during one of the clothing deliveries.
"There are packs that hold jeans and very valuable stuff
so people start jumping on the truck as it is moving," recounted Velez from his Harvard office. "One guy got entangled with the tire of the truck, and it ran over him and killed him. They have had many accidents like broken legs when the packs fall on people."
In the past an armed man and driver in a truck would take unwanted clothing from the Pedernales facility and dump it. After the fatal accident, they began routinely setting the clothes on fire.
"The clothes are burned because of the accident mostly, and they don't want people to take the clothes," said Velez.
People scavenging at the dump site snap up the garments to sell in shops or to merchants. In what Velez calls a symbiotic relationship, the driver and armed man allow the scavengers 10 minutes of sifting in exchange for unloading sacks of clothes that don't fall out when the truck dumps them.
Once time is up, the driver and gunman, who work for the clothes sorting facility, set the piles ablaze.
A sorted affair
Most of the clothes arriving at the dump have been sorted by workers and deemed unworthy of sale.
There aren't any signs on the exterior of the clothes sorting shop, like most factories in the Caribbean, but Velez knows people working there make about $180 US a month. Drivers take in around $100 US, the Dominican Republic's minimum salary.
Velez said sometimes there's a great find among the clothing heaps, which explains media images of poor Caribbeans dressed in designer shirts and hats.
But usually just the oldest, rejected garments make it this far. "Most of it is coming from the U.S. because the boxes are from department stores saying Kmart or Wal-Mart. But they don't necessarily come from there. I think they're mostly coming from charities, because they're used clothes," said Velez. "They look exactly like what you would find in the Salvation Army and Goodwill."
This is not a problem for the local scavengers or people from surrounding regions who come to grab clothes to sell in retail stores and merchants picking up sacks from the sorters. As Velez explained, "I talked to a couple who bought their house selling the clothes they collected there, but a house in Pedernales costs only $3,000 US."
Donated clothing Gunman prepares to light clothing on fire. (Sebastián Vélez/Permission of author)
Far away in Canada, the burning of unwanted clothes in Pedernales is hardly considered when donating old or slightly used clothing. Giving away used clothing is perceived as an act of charity or environmentally friendly.
Clothes dropped off at Goodwill are sorted by employees and quickly hung on racks, where they're sold to fund opportunities for employees facing obstacles, such as new Canadians or the handicapped, explained marketing vice-president Mitzie Hunter.
Goodwill accepts only certain clean and gently used items. Besides clothing and furniture, they take in items such power tools, musical instruments and drywall panels.
But nothing is repaired or dry-cleaned because of the cost the company is a charity that doesn't have a lot of money to spare.
Hunter said many used goods are sold, and there are never "too many donations, because the revenue from the donations fund the core mission of Goodwill."
Sometimes the employees put new garments out on the floor by the hour. Goodwill even receives surplus goods from large corporate retailers, like Umbra and Phantom Hosiery.
The store doesn't accept soiled, broken or hazardous donations. When these items arrive, they're shipped to another facility, along with unsold clothing.
"We send them to our outlet store, and it's an opportunity for people to purchase the items in greater volumes. If it's finally not sold at that stage, we do sell them in bulk to various buyers," Hunter said.
People buying bags in bulk tend to be book resellers, second-hand storeowners and purveyors of scrap metal.
Throwback to throwaway
Upscale vintage shops now sell clothing bought in bulk from outlets like Goodwill, especially when it comes from smaller towns where they haven't been picked over by "retro cool" city people.
In the past decade, retro clothing has become more popular than ever. Places like Goodwill and the Salvation Army cash in as shoppers experiment with styles from previous decades.
Places like Toronto's 69 Vintage or Mississauga's Think Twice buy massive buck-a-bag sacks of old clothing.
Think Twice resells items like a Simon Chang dress for $120 or an Anne Klein trench coat for around $150.
Trend, in Calgary, similarly marks up hand-me-down name brands.
Preloved, a Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver vintage store, is even more creative, fashioning dresses, bags and jackets from donated garments and fabrics.
They've salvaged thousands of unwanted old ties, university T-shirts and even bedsheets from the 1980s &8212; and possibly saved them from the fires of Pedernales.
source: [url=http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/consumers/donated-clothing.html]A Shirt's Journey - CBC News[/url]