Exports of Books and Used Clothing / Textiles

Good Ideas come from somewhere.   Usually from obvious experiences applied through analogy or cross-seeding between disciplines.

A couple of decades or so ago I was researching recycling exports generally and had not landed up to my antennaes in "e-waste" (I still dislike that term because of the way its misused).  I actually ran a thrift shop in Middlebury Vermont before opening Good Point Recycling... but there was no "cloth-waste" stigma around how we exported used clothing for the African market.

I had done research at Masschusetts DEP and found that Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries, St. Vincent de Paul's and other charities were simply baling most of the clothes and sending them to third party sorting houses.  They would sell what they had local demand for, but most of the donations went in the baler.

The baled clothes were broken apart, usually in an immigrant-owned warehouse in Detroit, Canada, or Texas.   Women there further sorted the bags into super nice "vintage" stuff they could resell in boutique used clothing stores (cowboy boots were HOT) in NY or Hollywood... less than 5% of the goods but a healthy chunk of the income.  Then they sorted cottons and summer clothing for export to Africa - a trade I was familiar with from my years there in Peace Corps.

The winter stuff did not go into Africa bales, it was sorted as "industrial wiping rags" or shredded into filler for automobile seats or other upholstery (with fire retardant poured into the shredder), or the inside of baseballs - you know, the grey anonymous fluff stuff.

What they threw away mostly was single shoes (not much of a market for one-legged people) and this horrible western invention called "high heels" which the developing world thinks cause "hammertoes", is associated with prostitution, the sizes too small for African women's feet, and generally are b****t.

So the math was:

10-20%      Local thrift stores, vintage clothing boutique   = 80% income
40-50%      Export of wearable clothes, needing buttons or wacko t-shirt lettering, used paired shoes
10-30%      Upholstery, shop rags
10-20%      Trash, residue, high heels

Now sometimes I'd be contacted with an offer to ship directly overseas.  I found Haiti had a pretty decent sorting market, and Africa, but that used clothing had largely been banned in South America by the 1990s (they claimed it was to prevent "AIDS", but it was really a protectionist move created by the domestic textile industry that had moved there from the SE USA).

There is nothing toxic I know of in these used clothes, and no cases of "AIDS" virus transmitted by washed clothing, but if you ship directly, some of the stuff will be discarded overseas.  That's not a violation of Basel Convention if there's nothing toxic.  I was particularly open to selling used shoes overseas, if the women's shoes were removed - but I could only do that afford-ably if I used volunteers and "court diversion" labor (the stepsister of prison labor).

My questions:

1) What about books?  some get read, most get recycled.  Covers and bindings wind up as residue which gets burned or put in an unlined dump.   Should we shred or burn the books domestically?

2) What would be the opinion in the environmental community of shipping used shoes to Africa as compared to Nike's "reuse a shoe" program, where the nicest, highest demand sports shoes are shredded up and made into athletic tracks?

I find the second "shred a shoe" program to be an obnoxious, hostile to the poor, messed up invention subsidized by planned obsolescence in hindsight and nothing more.   I was so furious about the program in the 1990s that it no doubt colored my view of used electronics exports.   I tried to get onto the NRC (National Recycling Coalition) Board of Directors primarily to complain about the NRC's participation in the "reuse" a shoe program.  The year I ran, a mysterious accident occurred and an entire state delegation's votes were disqualified.  I am not suggesting a conspiracy, but I was told that my positions on Nike's grant to NRC were particularly unwelcome.

I have been branded ever since as a potential troublemaker to OEMs.   But really, I want them to see that the developing world is a way to "punt" the used product outside of their market.  They only lose sales if the used product is sold to someone in the "boutique" sphere, that people in Africa who buy used Nike's are not otherwise going to buy new Nikes.   And if you are going to put in a shoe shredder, why not locate it in Haiti, where the baseball-innerds, clothing shredders are?  There has to be a fair trade recycling method where diverting the "womens-shoes-along-for-the-ride" doesn't come at a cost of affordable shoes to people.

Burning all books or shredding all books is not a solution to the portion of unwanted, out of date textbooks, library books without covers, etc.  Let's set people up overseas to take our books and save the ones we are shredding up for tissue paper.  We can fair trade with them, offering them a discount on the good books if they will properly recycle the ones they cannot move, and give them the Amazon-bar-code-scanners so they can set aside the ones which still move on the used book market.

I'm writing this for the academics out there who may be attracted to the used electronics export business, the Basel Convention debate, and environmental policy.  Students of environmental policy don't have enough good hard academic stuff to read from.   I strongly suggest that the universities take on the controversy.  By studying the movement of used and second-hand articles which have no "toxics" associated with them, and studying how false "AIDS" labels have been attached to used and second hand clothing, we can start to tease out what is real and what is BS in the debate about "ewaste".

So that's a little background on Robin's history in the used goods exports to Africa business.  When I ran the thrift shop, I did everything I could to remove the single shoes.  We paired the high heels and tried to keep them separated just in case someone did want them... we got paid more for men's and childrens, but then no one wanted the high heels.

What makes me mad is when someone refuses to discuss the correct policy, circulates dogmas, and then finally after years they say they don't discuss it because I've written something when I was mad.  This is no chicken-or-egg debate, I am mad because people are using their soapbox to injure poor people.  The worker in the photo at left is not going to "leapfrog" into a new pair of Adidas.   If you ban the export of used shoes, or you applaud the shredding of perfectly decent shoes, you are robbing the USA of export commerce which is important to us, and hurting the buyers who cannot afford new.   If you call me names and say my position is self-serving, you piss me off because I invested in the market because I want to work with the export market, not because I want to make money.  Touche Pas a Mon Pote, dudes.

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