Old Clothes Go Global
The Salvation Army perseveres, like a favorite dowdy aunt, amid sleek stadiums and swank new construction on Seattle's southern edge.
THE SALVATION ARMY perseveres, like a favorite dowdy aunt, amid sleek stadiums and swank new construction on Seattle's southern edge.
Part warehouse, part adult-rehabilitation center, part thrift store, it exudes an aura of old sweat, regrets, clothes cast away. Everything looks a little sepia, as if stuck in the past. You'd never guess this trove of chipped crystal and outgrown jeans to be a global gateway.
Yet it is — and such a bargain!
Globalization isn't just about outsourcing. It's also about rags, as used clothes are known in industry lingo. Lots of rags. Last year in this country, we spent a collective $282 billion on new duds, and to clear space for fresh fashion, the average American got rid of 68 pounds of clothing and textiles, billions of bags donated to thrift stores.
That once-beloved spring dress — now oh-so-yesterday and a squidge too tight — has a chance at new life if it's snagged for $3.99 by an immigrant, an artist, a well-heeled bargain shopper.
And if not? After 30 days, the twice-spurned chemise sells for pennies-a-pound on the secondary market and starts a journey that careens from the Port of Tacoma to a factory in India to a Ugandan bazaar.
The global rag trade may be the biggest little-known business around. About half the garments donated to places like the Salvation Army eventually wind up in overseas market stalls or as industrial fiber. That translates into 17,000 jobs in the United States, an estimated 100,000 jobs in Africa's informal economy and a multinational trade in second-hand clothing valued at more than $1 billion a year.
Between 1999 and 2003, the U.S. exported nearly 7 billion pounds of used clothing and worn textiles, an overflow that otherwise would have been dumped. This is all about style and identity, supply and demand, excess, abandonment, the human craving for bling.
In sum, it's the sequined white sweater embroidered with jewel-colored flowers and beads that Karin McAuley, a gracious Mercer Island matriarch, bought in Palm Desert. Or was it San Francisco? "Honest and true, I can't remember," she says. "On vacation. That's the only time I shop."
The sweater's designer, Michael Simon, was hot. Big ads in Vogue. When McAuley spotted his signature petaled cardigan in Neiman Marcus, she knew it'd be perfect for summer. She wore it over a white waffle pique sheath dress. Very fun. Over the years, the jewel tones stayed true, but the sweater's initial allure faded.
So McAuley and her husband, Bruce, a retired dentist, carefully packed the dry-cleaned sweater along with 77 other garments: acid-washed jeans, shirts custom-tailored in Hong Kong, a lemon-yellow Ralph Lauren Henley top, a white Burberry dress shirt with French cuffs, mohair houndstooth slacks by Emanuel Ungaro, a red boiled-wool vest, a satiny white blouse, a brand new Liz Claiborne dress with fluttery cap sleeves and $69.99 price tag still attached. (Y'know how you buy things at end-of-season sales, Karin explains, and come next spring they don't fit?)
Ten garbage bags in all.
"It's not precious stuff," Karin says. "It's just things, and if they have another life, if they can be used in some way that would help somebody, that's pretty fantastic."
She called the Salvation Army.
SALVATION ARMY TRUCK drivers affectionately refer to Route 400 as "the Money Run" because the folks from Mercer Island, Medina, Bellevue, Kirkland and the Sammamish Plateau tend to donate high-end items in good condition. That means more dollars for the army's self-supporting adult-rehabilitation center.
At 6:30, the morning after visiting the McAuleys, Route 400 upholds its reputation as driver Ed Gilman unloads the truck in splattering rain and semi-darkness. A maple entertainment center in perfect condition emerges, then a pristine king-size bedroom set with carved seashell feet, an antique leather valise from the railroad era. At last, the McAuleys' 10 garbage bags.
A few days earlier, I'd called donors who'd listed clothing among items they were having picked up. I wanted to track the garments as they traveled through the global economy, witness their reincarnation, see whose lives the castoffs touched. The McAuleys turned out to be regular donors to the Salvation Army. They invited us in, let us tag their garments with bright pink squares.
Back on the loading dock, production director Jay Nadan whisks the garments up the freight elevator into a cavernous warehouse rattling with hangers, rocking to KJR-FM's greatest hits (a break from the usual Christian "spirit" station), vibrating with the energy of people and things in transition.
Some warehouse workers are "beneficiaries," practicing work therapy as part of a six-month rehab program. Others are hired for their skill. Nadan, who once taught Shakespeare in Fiji, has a nose for retail and a way with people.
"Momma!" he whoops as a small woman with blue-tinted glasses inspects each garment. "You got good eyes!"
Once a farmer in the Philippines, Elena Raymundo now gleans piles of clothes, examining each seam, armpit and crotch, checking for stains, holes, missing buttons. The jeans are torn, a gray Pendleton pullover has a hole behind the collar, the sequined white sweater, gasp!, has a tiny stain in a spot no one would see if the sweater were buttoned. Still, 69-year-old Raymundo has her standards. "We can't keep it," she says and drops it on a conveyer belt, destined for Africa.
Of the 78 items, 29 head for a baler filled with rejects, including the retired dentist's favorite, a peach-colored Tory Richard golf shirt, purchased in Hawaii 20 years ago and worn constantly until it snagged.
Workers hang, sort and price the rest. Here comes the red wool vest. "Slash pockets, 100 percent wool, trendy with a little flash, no less than $7.99. This will definitely sell within a week," predicts Kelly O'Brien, a former hairstylist who graduated from rehab and got hired to price quality items. A white satin Marisa Christina blouse. "Silky shirts sometimes have pit stains. This doesn't. Classy. She wants to go out on the town. Probably $6.99."
By noon, 27 hours after leaving the McAuleys' Mercer Island home, the clothes hang for sale in the charmingly plain shop on Fourth Avenue South. Clerks promise to give my business card to anyone who buys an item with a bright pink tag.
Meanwhile, rejected clothes flutter like snowflakes into a humongous baler, filling it to the brim. The door spins closed like a bank vault, then thick metal plates compress the load into a thousand-pound layer cake. Near the top, a sequined flower peeks out. Goodbye, white sweater! A forklift loads the bale into a corrugated metal container.
The short-haul trucker arrives at 2:30 p.m., and we lumber south on Interstate 5 toward the Port of Tacoma, where gates will soon close on the Maersk Kingston, a container vessel under Dutch flag bound for the Indian port of Kandla, via Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
It's amazing how fast the world spins, even for humble leftovers. By the time I drive back to Seattle that evening, two pink-tag items have already sold.
DARSHAN SAHSI, the son of a small Punjabi farmer, never graduated from high school but considers himself a Doctor of Rags. At 50, the savvy, self-taught businessman is the founder and owner of Canam International, the second-largest grader of used clothing in the world.
He is the link between the McAuleys' closets on Mercer Island and the market stalls of Maputo, Mozambique. Canam has offices worldwide and a factory in Kandla, India, where 650 workers sort and grade up to 300,000 pounds of used clothing every day.
I visited Sahsi outside Vancouver, where he lives with his family and runs a small plant with 50 workers. They sort donations collected from British Columbia, Washington, Alaska, Montana, Oregon. The bare-bones warehouse doesn't bother with hangers. It's a landscape of rags: mountains made of castoffs, a rushing conveyer-belt river of clothes, monolithic stacks of neatly sorted bales.
Sahsi paws through a garbage bag full of unsorted rags. He pulls out mint-condition khaki Dockers, "This pant is too BIG!" he exclaims. "No obese people in Africa! Nobody wants over size 38."
Ralph Lauren Polo slacks, stained. "No style!" Sahsi says. Africans want five-pocket pants, hip huggers, bell bottoms. "Poor people are kind of fashionable," he says. "Modern girls! This is true all over the world."
Cotton sweater. "No money! Two washes and it goes. Stretched out." He'll sell it as shoddy, 1 cent a pound, to be shredded for fibers in Panipat, an Indian city clattering with 400 old Italian recycling mills.
Black scoop-neck top. "Black people don't like to wear black clothes. It doesn't look good."
White cotton T-shirt with purple Curves logo. "Wipers." Fifteen cents a pound, to be cut into wiping rags.
Shoes bring up to 90 cents a pound, but no high heels, no canvas, no heavy leather.
Yellow turtleneck. Flannel shirt. Too hot for Africa. "Garbage!"
Garbage, in fact, costs 4 cents a pound to be crated away and comprises 20 percent of Sahsi's take. So he must compensate by selling other items at a profit large enough to cover rent, labor and the $2,200-per-container freight fee between Seattle and India.
He empties the bag, complaining, "No A-Grade."
Rag dealers consider Seattle among the better used-clothing markets in the country because the population is relatively well-off (quality labels) and it's not cold, so they're not stuck with winter clothes too heavy for Africa.
Sahsi pays 8 to 12 cents a pound for castoffs that cost him 20 cents a pound to process. "If I can't make 1 cent per pound," he says, "it's not worth it."
A-Grade, 30 to 50 cents a pound, is reserved mostly for Africa, Chile, the Dominican Republic. It consists of high-quality mens' shirts and cotton pants, ladies' tank tops, good jeans, baby rummage. Menswear commands premium prices because there's less of it. (American women donate three times more clothes.)
B-Grade, 18 cents a pound, includes slightly worn items, ladies' shirts and cotton dresses (bright colors are best).
On and on through 219 categories of clothing that is next re-sorted by destination. This week, a buyer in Angola wants skin-tight ladies' tank tops, small only; children's dresses; baby rummage; socks.
The dregs — cracked leather jackets and old pillows — go to Pakistan, a penny a pound.
Neckties flop into the trash along with overcoats, even London Fogs suitable for a lawyer. No market anywhere in the world. Businessmen rich enough to need a tie or trench coat usually buy new.
Canam has buyers in Mali, Tanzania, Gabon, Benin, Mozambique, South Africa, Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo, Monrovia, Korea, Chile, Bolivia, Philippines, Dominican Republic, Japan. Several of these countries have banned used clothes for economic reasons, but the rags go overland anyway, bribes at the border.
Some argue that mitumba, the Swahili word for bale, has destroyed Africa's textile industry, especially in Zambia, where every textile mill has closed, and Nigeria, which has lost more than 80,000 jobs in the formal textile industry. But economists such as Pietra Rivoli, author of "Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy," blame "corruption, political risk, low education level, insecure property rights, macroeconomic instability and ineffective commercial codes — in a phrase, bad governance."
Rag dealer Sahsi is more concerned with bureaucratic fumbles close to home. Specifically, a Seattle customs officer and a category called vintage.
Vintage is an of-the-moment cultural grab-bag prized by the young and trendy in America and Japan. Western shirts with pearlized buttons from the '80s; Levis with red stitching on the inner seam; 501s; old Mickey Mouse; '70s Grateful Dead concert T-shirts; anything unique.
Specially trained pickers spot vintage, which sells for $1.50 a pound and can retail for hundreds of dollars per garment in the right venue. It's a small number of special garments, less than half a percent of what goes through.
Trick is, the vintage clothes are shipped back to the U.S. from Canada and India, because it's here where buyers from New York and Tokyo come to look. Last year, a Seattle customs officer seized a vintage container, said it was subject to new-clothing tariffs. (U.S. Customs says clothing has to be worn out, unwearable, to qualify as duty free.) Same thing happened in New York to a container of castoffs destined to be shredded for batting. Even though they weren't Canam's containers, Sahsi is incensed.
A matter of respect. What if other countries didn't allow America's used clothing across their borders?
"The U.S. is running a trade deficit. Myself, I am buying 150 containers a month, $600,000. Foreign exchange for your garbage. If I want to ship some vintage clothing back to the U.S., I should be allowed. You see, if we were not here, what would happen to all this clothing? America will never use it. . . . What? You're going to put all this in your landfill?"
THE TOWN DUMP, a slightly used sequined sweater, German cargo ships, border bribes, red-dirt roads to some of the most vibrant and raw pockets in the world . . . Amazing how all paths emanate from Seattle's sweet, shabby Salvation Army.
Fourth Avenue South isn't Wall Street, of course, but if you consider the myriad lives and far-flung places touched by the clothes that pass through the drafty warehouse, then it's certainly a hub of humanity.
Browsing on a quiet afternoon, you run into natty Chinese-restaurant waiters, high-fashion high-school students, a few down-and-outs seeking a half-hour out of the rain.
Then there's Susan Jones, a 28-year-old model and real-estate broker whose voluptuous Queen Anne closet is like a haute-couture boutique. Furs, feathers, velvet-collar suits. A red Scottish-plaid riding jacket, "very Chanel, Elizabeth Hurley, with the jeans." She rarely pays more than $7 for anything.
Hours after the pink-tag items hit the sales floor, Jones and her fashion-photographer friend, Rob Ayres, dropped by the thrift shop in search of a wig for a photo shoot, didn't find one, instead walked out with $127 worth of clothes at 25 percent off, manager's special.
"This could have been one pair of pants at Nordstrom," Jones laughs, showing us the goodies back in her apartment. "Instead I got three garbage bags!"
Among the items? Karin McAuley's white satin Marisa Christina blouse and Bruce's Burberry shirt with the French cuffs.
The model caresses the Burberry; she can't decide whether to give it away. "Large. That's sexy for girls. I'll wear it on the beach in Jamaica." She slips into the slinky white blouse, lets it flop open suggestively. "Quality," she says. "It all gets churned around. Put back into society."
The next day, 25-year-old Frewoine Dires got off the bus in front of the Salvation Army on her way home from a citizenship appointment at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The Ethiopian immigrant was pining for her daughter, Kalkidan, a darling 7-month-old who'd returned to Gondar to live with Grandma and Dad. Dires decided to go gift shopping for Kalkidan's first birthday. A Peter Rabbit diaper bag; a daffodil dress; a velvet skirt.
For herself, Dires chose Karin McAuley's lemon-yellow Ralph Lauren Henley, $4.99. Dires loves lemon. She loves her baby. She loves America. She won the Immigration and Naturalization Service's visa lottery. Her husband didn't. Their baby, born here, will come back when Dires can afford a bigger apartment. The management won't allow two people in her modest studio.
So Dires kisses the infant's picture and watches and re-watches the video of her wedding. In it, she wears a gorgeous traditional gown she rented for $12 U.S. Thrift-store shoppers tend to volunteer the price of everything.
A week later, surburban mom Michelle Bailey bundled up her baby, Jackson, left their beautifully remodeled house and hit the Salvation Army to look for gifts. Purple velveteen dresses for nieces; a DVD for her nephew. Fila sport shirt. Dr. Phil on tape. And Karin McAuley's red boiled-wool vest. Perfect. She bought new black pants and a black hat to make an outfit, wrapped it up for her brother's girlfriend.
For Bailey, thrift shopping is a treasure hunt, a way to make your dollar go a little farther.
Until she gave birth to Jackson, eight months ago, Bailey was the financial director for Eddie Bauer. Still, she purchased even her business clothes in thrift stores. "Nobody ever knew!"
"It's far more fun to help a local charity than to spend in a big department store," Bailey says. And if her brother's girlfriend doesn't like the second-hand vest, "she can just recycle it back!"
ON DEC. 28, an afternoon of torrential downpour, 30 days after the McAuleys' clothes went on the sales floor, the remaining pink-tag items are "ragged out," baled up, loaded into a container.
In mid January, after six weeks at sea, the Maersk Kingston pulls into the port of Dubai. The crate containing Karin McAuley's white sequined sweater transfers to another ship bound for Kandla.
On Jan. 21, it arrives. Six days later, in the Kandla factory, workers begin to sort. Bruce's favorite peach-colored shirt is tagged GRADE A, AFRICA, and rebaled to go to Ghana. The white sweater, sadly, gets marked for shredding, its fibers to be reincarnated as a refugee blanket, car-door insulation or Russian army cap.
By that time, Susan Jones may be flitting around the world as a cocktail waitress — "true story!" — on a Seattle billionaire's private jet; Ed Gilman, the truck driver, will have celebrated eight years sober and will be starting ministry school in Tacoma; baby Jackson Bailey will probably be practicing his first steps.
Come March, the McAuleys will migrate to Palm Desert for winter sun. Karin doesn't shop like she used to, but once in awhile, especially on vacation, she'll spot a must-have.
"There's something about a piece of clothing that's brand new and fits well," she says. "It just makes you feel like a million bucks."
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine writer. Her e-mail is email@example.com. Tom Reese is a Seattle Times staff photographer.