To the editors:

Thanks for running Grant Pick’s article on the Gaia boxes [July 20]. I got a good chuckle out of it. Several years ago, when I managed Chicago Resale for the Chicago Christian Industrial League, some of their supporters came to me for technical assistance. That is, they wanted to know how CCIL collected items and priced them.

Before answering their questions, I wanted to know how legitimate they were, because I was skeptical of their claims. Why? I am a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, and I still see foreign aid as “poor people in rich countries giving to rich people in poor countries.” I asked the volunteers where Gaia had actual projects (or even contacts with community people) in the third/developing world. They told me to write to Gaia. I did, twice, and also E-mailed–and never got any reply.

I know that the Salvation Army has their own global network for distributing bales of clothes. I have bought used clothes in Africa. Believe me, all the clothing recyclers send their worst. It gets pretty picked over in the U.S., and vendors who buy bales don’t see what they are getting until they’re opened. It’s good to know who’s putting the bales together.

Also sometimes bales are glutted. Very often I couldn’t give surplus clothes to Wipeco, because it cost more for Wipeco to pick them up and store them than they were worth. It’s just the nature of the industry. What happened then? They were landfilled.

Yes–if you donate torn, stained, or out-of-season clothing to a charity, it will be landfilled.

So–why do charities (the Ark, CCIL, Brown Elephant, etc) still take so much clothing? About 20 percent is worth selling, and donors who give “in-kind” donations also support their agencies with cash donations. The trouble is, boards of directors and operations managers aren’t looking that closely at how much it costs them to dispose of what they can’t use. In many cases, the stores they run are just paying expenses. They are more there for agency exposure to the public than for profit.

Most stores connected with a social service agency do not sort donations carefully–and their social service programs are just as sloppily run. They maintain that their missions are social service, yet when store staff catches “clients” scamming or stealing (or reselling merchandise gotten with vouchers), the problem is ignored.

In Chicago, I feel the Brown Elephant stores do the best job of sorting, pricing, and making secondhand goods available (and supporting Howard Brown’s mission). To support community-based projects in Africa that are run by Africans, I sell what is inappropriate to send them and use the money I raise for shipping costs. I feel doing it this way shows more integrity than hoping an unknown group has a mission I understand.

If your readers want to know about small community-based projects, they can check out the Chicago Area Peace Corps Association Web site at, where they can learn which “country-of-service” groups are supporting projects in the countries volunteers worked in.

Please remember–nobody wants anything that sticks or stinks (unless it’s glue or tape); and the buttons and zippers on discarded clothing may be worth more than the cloth–if you remove them.

Robyn Michaels

N. Wayne