STUFF Chapter 1: Used Clothes and Other Low-Hanging Fruit December 11, 2015

It started with a call from the Canadian Diabetes Association.

Their truck would be in the neighbourhood, and they wanted to know if I had any used clothing or small household items to donate. I’m pretty sure that’s how they put it. I’ve heard their spiel often enough to get it more or less right. I’d also been waiting for their call, needing a nudge to start my new project of getting rid of stuff.

Boots 1A popular project these days. We’re drowning in stuff—at least those of us who don’t have too little. Too many cheap clothes, too much superannuated technology, too many casually-acquired souvenirs. Many of them are hopeful things that seem to be running up against a phase of hard-headedness. A friend of mine recently threw out the archives from her career as a writer, saying that when she dies, she wants to leave nothing behind but a small dried turd in one corner of the basement.

In our case, we’re storing boxes we’ve never opened since they were dropped off after my husband’s grandmother moved out of her house during the 1980s.

We have boxes from the time my husband’s mother moved from her house into an apartment, and more boxes from the time she moved from her apartment into an assisted living facility. These include boxes crammed with papers and photograph albums sent her, the family genealogist, by cousins who didn’t want to throw away pictures taken during the 19th century, even though no one had any idea who the people were.

Then there are the boxes I shipped home from Vancouver after my mother died seven years ago. I glanced at things quickly as I packed them up, deciding to sort through it all later, so I know that a couple contain old report cards and diplomas and letters she saved, including a proposal of marriage from a bush-pilot boyfriend. Others contain stuff she never quite sorted from the time her own mother died in 1976. And since my grandmother was the youngest in large family composed mainly of unmarried sisters, she kept inheriting more and more stuff as each of the sisters died, some of it now two hundred years old.

There’s our stuff as well, too much of it. Taken together, it’s a weight and a responsibility, and the time has probably come to deal with it.

By which I mean, of course, to write about it, but also to sort, catalogue, repair, sell, recycle, give away and even throw stuff out.

So the Canadian Diabetes call marks the official start of a new project, even while raising questions. What did I read a few years ago about donated clothing being shipped to West Africa, where it competes with the work of local seamstresses and tailors, and drives them out of business? Or does it all go to Value Village now? If so, what do they do with the clothes they don’t want? Landfill? I figure I’d better find out before the bags of donated clothing go out, marked with the letter D.

The point being to walk lightly on the earth, even while weighed down with stuff.

 

2.

It turns out that donating stuff is a complex business. It’s easy to take a phone call from the Diabetes Association and agree to put out bags of clothing for pick-up before 8 a.m. But if you start to wonder what happens next, things get really interesting.

The Diabetes Association is one of the charities that sells donations to used-clothing retailer Value Village, which buys 100 per cent of the items donated, paying by weight.

But when you start surfing around online, it looks as if some of the donated clothes end up as landfill,

Coats and scarves for Syrian refugees

Coats and scarves for Syrian refugees

although it’s hard to blame anyone for that. Now that we have to pay for garbage pick-up, some people probably use charity donations to get rid of clothes and other small broken items they would otherwise throw out.

Reading on, it looks as if some of the clothing that’s in decent condition goes into Value Village stores to be sold, which is probably what people expect.

When you start going deeper, however, you turn up the first controversy. Some bargain-hunter websites complain that Value Village has recently raised its prices dramatically. A used sweater that went for $1.99 a year or two ago is now being sold for $5.99.

They call this a problem because Value Village is a for-profit company owned by Savers, Inc., which is headquartered in Bellevue, Washington. Berkshire Partners has owned a 50 per cent stake in Savers since 2000, while Leonard Green & Partners and TPG Capital bought the other 50 per cent in 2012.

This means donated clothing is being sold at what some critics call inflated prices to pad the profits of for-profit companies. And when Value Village sets a price, other used-clothing enterprises follow.

People who want to find out more about this issue—not to mention a way around the rising price of used clothing–can visit http://canadianbudgetbinder.com/2015/09/19/theres-a-cheaper-way-to-save-when-buying-used-stuff/

But that isn’t the end of the controversy. Dig even deeper, and you can find critics saying that only 10 to 50 per cent of the clothing donated to charity drives ends up in secondhand clothing stores. The rest of it, up to 90 per cent, is sold to clothing merchants, who retail the clothes internationally.

That’s what I remember having heard: a large proportion of used clothing from Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. ends up in sub-Saharan Africa. According to a 2011 article in NOW magazine, 60 per cent of clothes purchased in Ghana were secondhand imports. (https://nowtoronto.com/lifestyle/ecoholic/where-do-my-clothing-donations-really-end-up/) This has been torpedoed the Ghanaian textile industry, which hasn’t been able to compete with cheap imports.

NOW notes it’s also led to some interesting law. Ghana and Rwanda have banned imports of used underwear, “which leads me to ask,” says writer Adria Vasil, “who the hell has been giving away their old panties?”

That was four years ago, but apparently things haven’t changed.

Earlier this year, Dr. Andrew Brooks, a lecturer in development geography at Kings College, London, published a book called Clothing Poverty. The BBC has done a documentary based on Dr. Brooks’s work, with an overview available at http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30227025

“According to the latest available UN figures,” says the BBC, “the UK is the second largest used clothing exporter after the US. It exported more than £380m ($600m), or 351,000 tonnes, worth of our discarded fashion overseas in 2013. Top destinations were Poland, Ghana, Pakistan and Ukraine.”

Now here’s the thing. The clothing merchants pay Value Village for clothes they plan to export. Value Village pays the Canadian Diabetes Association. And the Diabetes Association says on its website that 100 per cent of the money earned from donated items goes into research to find a cure for diabetes.

They could (but don’t) make a point of saying to critics of overseas sales that people in these countries suffer from diabetes too, and would benefit from a cure. So do a disproportionate number of First Nations people living on isolated reserves, who have been unjustly and tragically neglected. While much more needs to be done to improve life on the reserves, finding a cure for diabetes would undoubtedly help.

So maybe if we want to support finding a cure for diabetes, we should swallow our doubts and pass on our used clothing to the association’s clothing drives. I mean, it’s easy. They pick up stuff from your doorstep.

But I also wonder about the alternatives.

 

3.

The Canadian Diabetes Association arrived at our door as scheduled to pick up our bags of donations.

But there weren’t as many bags as I’d originally packed, since I’d decided to separate out clothing that might be useful to other local groups, including ones that help people to re-settle or otherwise re-invent themselves.

While I support the association in its drive to find a cure for diabetes, the fact that a huge weight of donated clothing ends up being sold in Africa, Poland and Ukraine leaves me a bit uneasy, especially given the way it de-stabilizes clothing industries abroad.

There’s also the obvious fact people need clothes here, starting with Syrian refugees now landing in cities across Canada. Poor them: arriving here in winter.

Laura-Jean Bernhardson and Julie Mahfouz at The Clothing Drive

Laura-Jean Bernhardson and Julie Mahfouz at The Clothing Drive

But this turns out to have been obvious to a great many people. In Toronto, the refugee centres I’ve checked into are now filled to capacity with donated clothing. This won’t last forever, of course. The clothing banks will empty and need to be re-filled. And it’s going to be important to remember that, as the initial surge of publicity fades and the refugees from Syria become old news. Ask people who have come here from Ethiopia.

When making my calls and shooting off e-mails, trying valiantly to donate my stuff, I ended up looking into one particular Toronto clothing bank, where my friend Anne Wright-Howard is volunteering as director of communications and outreach. The Clothing Drive was started when local entrepreneur Laura-Jean Berhardson posted a request on Facebook for donations of clothing to help a Syrian family she is involved in resettling.

As a news story says, the post was shared 25,000 times and clothing flooded in: an astonishing 17,000 pieces of it. http://www.insidetoronto.com/news-story/6165027-the-clothing-drive-for-syrian-refugees-celebrates-new-location-on-victoria-park-avenue/

Soon The Clothing Drive was offered free warehouse space for three months on Victoria Park Ave. to sort and distribute the donated clothes to refugees. It turns out that this has allowed them to move onto stage two of the process: asking for volunteers to help sort and distribute the clothes as families need them. And so I sent in my form.

You start out trying to get rid of stuff and find yourself volunteering to sort used clothes at a warehouse in Scarborough.

Meanwhile, I ended up with a couple of bags of good used clothing still sitting in the basement, and started nosing around for other potential places to donate.

One possibility is Dress for Success, which helps women heading back into the workforce. With branches around the world, it’s an international empowerment agency for women who have been living in poverty. The organizations want gently-used business-type clothes that can help women land jobs and keep them. In Toronto, their website is https://toronto.dressforsuccess.org/about-us/ while people in other cities can find drop-off locations at https://www.dressforsuccess.org/affiliate-list/

The equivalent organization for men is Dress Your Best, http://www.dressyourbest.ca/clothingdonations.php

Yet instead of dropping off the clothes, I’m going to play hockey tonight in a small fundraising tournament organized by another friend who’s involved in sponsoring a family of Syrian refugees. Four teams of women signed up, each chucking in a donation to help the family re-settle, since unlike those of us playing, they need stuff.

 

4.

January 6, 2016. Today will be my first shift at The Clothing Drive, working in the store as a personal shopper to help Syrian refugees pick out free clothes.

I’m completely mad, of course. I started out trying to get rid of stuff and ended up volunteering for a project to help others acquire it.

They need it desperately. Since The Clothing Drive opened its storefront in Scarborough a couple of weeks ago, a few families have already arrived needing almost every piece of apparel for everyone in the family. I’m sure it’s overwhelming, gratifying and a little niggling to have to be given things they used to own, and according to longer-term volunteers, they’re hesitant to take too much in case others need it more.

IMG_1685I met the volunteers at a training session early Saturday afternoon attended by perhaps 18 people of all backgrounds and ages. A few were Arabic-speaking and worth their weight in gold. Many had heard of the project on Facebook. One woman said that her daughter noticed a posting and said, Mum, you could do that.

Originally I’d thought I was volunteering to sort clothes, and there will probably be some of that. But in this very ad-hoc organization, they’ve already learned each member of a family visiting the store needs to have a volunteer standing by to help.

Part of my job will be to say, Take as much as you want. Eight shirts, eight sweaters, multiple pairs of jeans for you and your kids. Donated clothing is over-filling the basement; piled up a warehouse around the corner. Please do us the favour of taking loads, since we have to clear out more than 17,000 items of clothing before the gift of the store and warehouse ends in three months.

Wandering through the neatly-arranged store before and after the session, I found racks and racks of clothing for men, women and children of all ages. It’s in good condition. Anything that isn’t, we were told, is donated to another clothing charity, where I bet it’s sold overseas. Not all of it is particularly stylish, although all of it is serviceable and warm.

Yet what’s astonishing is the sheer quantity. This is what random people decided quite rapidly to give away. This is how much stuff is unwanted. How much stuff that people were probably delighted to get out of the house, not just because it helps others but because we’re drowning in it.

A little Marxist redistribution of wealth, says the former political science student. From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. A small seismic shift: cotton and wool and polyester slipping from arrived Canadians to arrivals. How fascinating to see it in action. And realize how much the giver is getting out of it, as well as the recipient.

Meanwhile, great fun was had by all at our hockey game last Wednesday evening, the small tournament held by to raise money for a Syrian family. Four teams, two games. No refs, no penalties, and a couple of thousand dollars raised for people who would probably be utterly bewildered at the thought of a hockey tournament. I asked my friend, Miranda, if she needs anything for the family.

Everything! she said. I thought happily of the bags of clothes and household items I could give her. To be thoroughly honest, unload.

Instead, of course, I referred her to The Clothing Drive, where the family can choose from a far wider selection of items. Emphasis on the “choose.”

 

5.

Two shifts at The Clothing Drive for Syrian refugees and I’m suddenly a quality control officer.

Last week, I spent Wednesday and Friday afternoons sorting through bins of kids’ hats and mittens, through shelves of boots and bags of socks, through shoe boxes and donated snowsuits, thinking all the while about stuff: what we want, what we need, what we buy, what we give away or discard, and why why why we act the way we do.

It’s been my job to put good clothes on racks for refugee families to choose from, to bag up the slightly suspect ones to pass along to other charities and to put trashy stuff out as garbage. All told, it’s a small but useful job: making a series of decisions that helps set the tone of an organization.

IMG_1681The Clothing Drive aims to give newly-arrived Syrian families a complete kit of good-quality clothes. For a couple of weeks, sponsors have been able to book shopping appointments at the store in Scarborough, and on Sunday the Drive opened a one-day pop-up shop in a hotel near the airport. More than 500 newly-arrived refugees arrived to take whatever clothes they needed—an astonishing feat of organization, as volunteers set up the shop in two short days and dismantled it just as quickly. Some of the families arrived straight off the airplane, as you can read HERE. Imagine what that felt like.

My first shift consisted of refilling bins with kids’ mittens, gloves, hats, socks and scarves after families had depleted them while shopping. During the second, I packed up hundreds of pairs of boots and shoes to be sent to the pop-up shop the next morning.

It was hands-on work: putting rubber bands around pairs of shoes to keep them together, rejecting a kid’s scarf for being stained or a pair of gloves as moth-eaten, and during one twenty-minute stint, throwing about half the pairs of donated socks because What Were People Thinking.

Often I came across new pairs of socks or mittens with Joe Fresh or $2.99 dollar store price tags. It looked as if people shopping  at Loblaws or Dollarama threw a few extra purchases into their baskets intending to donate them, an entirely charitably impulse.

But most were used clothes that had been laundered and sometimes ironed. These were also given out of genuine goodwill, but perhaps for other reasons, too. The donated clothing ran the gamut, some of it top quality, some of it serviceable but cheap. A few people dropped off fur coats, full length vintage Mad Men-style mink. One week you’re in a refugee camp in Jordan, the next you’re in Canada being offered a fur coat (at which animal rights activists might throw red dye).

I have no clue what that feels like, but stroking the fur coats made me remember when I was a kid in Vancouver and my rich aunt used to drop off garment bags filled with old designer clothes so I could play dress-up. One day she and my vague handsome uncle, the commodore at the local yacht club, showed up with a larger delivery than usual. My father was on strike, had been for a while, and we were broke. Among the clothing they dropped off was my uncle’s old tuxedo.

Wouldn’t that look sharp on the picket line, my father said.

I was eight or nine and didn’t have the words to explain what I felt: embarrassment, anger, amusement at my eccentric auntie, and with it, the feeling of being put down, ground down under her chic leather pumps. My shoulders went tight, my elbows straight, my fists clenched and my stomach sank down to my ankles.

Who do they think we are? I wondered.

My mother: Who do they think they are?

Canadian questions. The American publisher of Alice Munro’s book of stories, Who Do You Think You Are? changed its title to The Beggar Maid, worried that American readers wouldn’t get it. Now I wondered if the feeling might be understood elsewhere outside the imperium by, say, refugees just off the plane from a camp somewhere being offered a fur coat.

In fact, we put the Mad Men coats aside, waiting for a policy on fur from higher up. Sorting a more prosaic set of toques, I found myself wondering why my uncle had given away his tuxedo, whether he might have put on weight.

That was unlikely. My aunt was the one with money. My uncle was arm candy, 15 years younger, a former barber with sleepy eyes and wavy hair who looked like the actor Michael Caine. I remember him as being fit and slender all his life, as he probably had to be.

More likely the tuxedo had gone out of style. That was the case with a good percentage of the donations at the store. The racks were filled with last year’s jeans or urban logger-style plaid shirts, still in good condition but a little passé. Other more fashionable clothes might indeed have come in because the donor gained weight, or maybe lost it. And of course the kids’ clothes, many of them delightful, had probably been outgrown.

A few donations smelled of Story. One small thin man showed up with several armloads of very large shoe boxes. Inside I found a full complement of men’s shoes, all an over-size 14 or 15: slippers, dress shoes, sneakers, rubber boots, winter boots, loafers. Someone must have died.

Some Syrian refugee with size 14 feet is going to get very lucky.

Yet as I sorted the clothes, sorted out motives, I had to admit that one reason I give things away is that I’ve simply grown tired of them. That old sweater? I’ve worn it to death. Give it to charity. Many of the clothes were of sufficiently high quality that I suspected people had just grown tired of them, too. There can’t be that many people gaining or losing weight; that many survivors donating the clothes of recently-dead relatives.

I’ve just spent the past few years researching and writing a historical novel that will be out next spring, so I know how unusual this is. Until very recently, middle-class or working people wore clothes until they were thoroughly worn out. Even then, they might cut up an old shirt  into dusters or dishcloths, or sell a pair of moth-eaten trousers to the rag-and-bone man.

People (by which I mainly mean mainly women) knew how to mend anything that could be repaired: how to turn collars and cuffs so the ragged edges disappeared into a seam, how to tear a skirt apart or add new sleeves to make a dress more fashionable, how to re-fashion a hat. People owned one or two quality pieces for formal occasions, including church, and usually wore one or two simpler outfits day after day during the week, at work and at home.

And while this is historical, it isn’t ancient history. A friend who grew up in Rosedale told me that when she was a child in the 1960s, she used to see wealthy gentlemen gardening in their slightly-worn tweed suits.

How unthrifty we’ve become! So many of us can’t sew or mend anymore. The other day, when I tore a hole in the sleeve of my new sweater, one friend said, Take it back and say you didn’t notice the hole when you bought it. They’ll give you a refund. Another asked, Do you know how to darn? No one ever used to ask that, since everyone knew how to darn, even Jane Austen’s ladies.

Now we discard barely-used clothes and casually buy new ones. Thank heavens for refugees, who are saving us from bulging closets, from overloaded landfills, from a national epidemic of unwanted stuff. I say that ironically, but it’s true.

Resolution: to get rid of the current overflow and stop buying anything new. Darn, mend, reuse, re-purpose. Help send the economy into a tailspin as consumer spending dries up.

No one ever said this isn’t complicated.

 

6.

Getting rid of unwanted clothing is unemotional, even when it isn’t always easy. It’s what a friend calls picking low-hanging fruit. Then things get a little more complicated.

My husband and son are musical (I have the musical talent of a toenail) and each owns a collection of instruments, not all of which are being used. In fact, my son’s junior high trombone has been sitting in a closet since he moved out seven years ago, and when I checked, he thought for a while and decided that he had no more use for it.

daniels spectrum copyThat’s where the Regent Park School of Music came in.

I had heard about the school when it was featured on a the CBC Radio show, learning that it provides music lessons at almost no cost to low-income students. The person being interviewed said they needed musical instruments, and I immediately thought of the ones gathering dust in the closet, especially the trombone.

Okay, I heard the story two years ago, but last week I finally contacted them, and yesterday I made my way to their headquarters on Dundas Street East yesterday at dusk, my head bent against a cold wind, trombone in hand.

The school is located on the second floor of a renovated bustling artscape, part of the urbanely-renewed Regent Park low-income housing project. Dusk being five o’clock these days, I’d arrived a couple of hours after school let out, and children were streaming in and out of the building, their parents looking as if they were going to enjoy a brief sit-down while their kids took lessons. Or at least that’s how I always felt while taking my son to his many after-school music lessons. A brief respite before dinner.

The Daniels Spectrum art hub is a bright new building, opened in 2012, that is home to several arts organizations, including the ArtHeart Community Art Centre, the COBA Collective of Black Artists, Native Earth Performing Arts and the Regent Park Film Festival, as well as the Regent Park School of Music.

Paintings vibrate from the walls, children bounce on seating, carom off the angled walls. A elevator named for a donor took me to the second floor headquarters of the School of Music, where I put the trombone on a counter.

In fact, it took a while to reach this point. Here’s a new resolution: to put as much thought and time into acquiring new stuff as it takes to give it away.

I’d shot off an email to the school the previous week, asking if they were still taking donations. The answer came back quickly: they were, but would have to check with the head of the brass section to see if they needed a trombone.

As it turned out, they would. But when the next email arrived a couple of days later, I learned that the school asked donors to get their instruments evaluated at Long & McQuade, the Toronto music store staple. Long and McQuade’s experts would decide if the instrument was in playing shape, and would do a valuation that allowed the Regent Park school to issue a tax receipt for the charitable donation.

I hadn’t been expecting a tax receipt, but hey. The following Saturday, I drove across town to Long & McQuade, where we’d bought the trombone in the first place. As always, it was filled with black-dressed musicians, mainly young, and smelled of talent, dust and hope.

The trombone proved to be in great shape. A nice guy in their upstairs section said it would do some kid proud, and printed off a copy of my original receipt from 1998. The price for a new instrument has roughly doubled since then, he said, so the original receipt showed fair market value for a used trombone in playing shape almost 18 years later.

Note to potential donors. Get a proper valuation document. This casual print-out caused confusion when I arrived at the school, although it should be sorted out in time.

Meanwhile, Alexis Fakouri of the RPSM gave me a tour of the Dundas Street facilities, a series of practice rooms of different sizes now filled with kids in either single or group classes. Alexis told me the schools had 1,700 kids in hubs around the city, including Parkdale and the Jane-Finch area. Each child paid $1 per lesson, or a total of about $40 a year, which obviously does nothing much to offset costs, but which she said expressed commitment from the kids to their lessons.

In one room, a choir practiced, the kids inspired by the TV show, Glee. In other, four children played together at four quality keyboards. Kids often start with group lessons, Alexis said, but on the recommendation of their teachers, they can proceed to individual lessons when they’re ready.

The faculty is made up of musician and music teachers, paid, but at a reduced level. “We get a great level of commitment form the teachers, as well,” she said. “Some of them keep coming for years.”

The school is funded largely by private donations, including instruments, and musicians drop in to encourage the kids, with Sarah McLaughlin having stopped by not long before.

In fact, the Sarah McLaughlin School of Music offers a similar program in Vancouver, with the add-on of music classes for low-income people 55 and older. Vancouver friends can find out about making donations HERE, while in Edmonton, the Heart of the City Piano Program works with at-risk youth. Please feel free to post info about other programs in my Comments section.

Meanwhile, I’m off to Las Vegas tomorrow with my travelling team to play in a women’s hockey tournament. Yes, Las Vegas and hockey. Our teams seems to be called the Beaver Dames, the only Canadian team entered in a tourney with more than 40 teams from across the States.

But that’s another story.