Monday, January 12, 2009

The GAIA-Movement?

It seems like clothing donation boxes are everywhere in this city; they're scattered through almost every neighborhood in grocery store parking lots or next to gas stations or banks. I was all set to tout the virtues of the non-profit group behind the large spring-green donation bins, the GAIA-Movement, until I started doing a little research. This 501 (c) (3) charity, named after the mythological Greek term for "Living Earth", was started in 1970 by a group of Danish teachers, now known as Tvind. The organization was started under the premise of James Lovelock's Gaia Theory, which states that the Earth is a living planet, and that:

"All life forms work together in symbiosis to make this planet habitable, regulating the atmosphere the oceans and the climate. Humans also contribute to the life of the atmosphere, oceans, and earth. We believe that humans affect the environment both positively and negatively. We believe current human activities are disrupting the composition of the environment with possible disastrous consequences. We think that action is needed."

According to the Web site, the Gaia Movement collects donations (they primarily solicit clothing, but accept all sorts of odds and ends), which are sold to resale shops (usually in third-world countries) and the money raised goes to fund a myriad of environmental projects, such as recycling and landscape beautification at home and water and energy conservation projects abroad.

The Gaia Movement came to Chicago in 1999, and now has more than 500 green donation boxes scattered throughout the region. They had an overwhelming response from generous, eco-conscious Chicagoans; the group raised more than $2,000,000 the first three years alone! What attracted me to this organization was their environmental purpose and charitable promises, which are listed right on the side of the box, and the fact that they even accept clothes that are no longer wearable, because they can recycle the fibers!

I sent an email to the Program Manager of the Chicago branch last fall, asking on behalf of the shelter where I volunteer if they would accept the threadbare linens for recycling, but received no response. I imagine they will, though, because according to their Web site, textiles are one of the easiest materials to recycle, yet only 15% of all discarded clothing in the United States manages to stay out of the landfill! I also like the convenience of their many drop-off locations; there's a donation box sitting in the Burger King parking lot at the end of my street-- it's so easy!

The thing that gives me pause, though, is this Tribune article from 2004. As it turns out, high-ranking members of Tvind, the founders of the Gaia Movement, are under criminal investigation in Europe for embezzlement, tax evasion, and money laundering schemes. The article goes on to say, that:

"(al)though Tvind leaders face criminal trial and front-page headlines in Europe, the group flourishes in the U.S. ... Tvind’s Chicago-area operations demonstrate how the international collective sustains itself by generous clothing donations, idealistic volunteers and the determination of middle managers who live in Spartan conditions for the sake of a revolutionary creed."
"At the center are Gaia’s green bins. They stand 6 1/2 feet tall and weigh 500 pounds when empty. In an America where the average person recycles or donates to charity less than a quarter of the 68 pounds of textiles he or she tosses out every year, the Gaia bins offer what people seem to want: painless altruism, cleaner closets and utter convenience."

The article goes on to say that the Gaia movement has ties to for-profit organizations such as U'SAgain and Planet-Aid, and despite the claims that more than $2,000,000 a year goes toward environmental projects, a reported 96% of that money instead funded the business of resale clothing and paying their Atlanta-based contractors. I tried to follow the money trail posted in the sidebar to this article, but quickly got a headache. I'm not an accountant or an investigator, so I don't know what to believe.

I can tell you what I think, though-- I think that it's best to donate reusable clothes directly to resale or thrift shops instead of to a third-party organization. Legitimate resale-clothing outfits, such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army, have decreased the number of drop boxes located throughout the community because these boxes are costly to maintain, and it's too easy for improperly packaged donations to get wet or dirty when dropped into these metal collection bins, which then makes them unusable.

I still think these boxes are great for unusable clothes (and linens!) because these textiles are reportedly recycled, which is something most other organizations like this are unable to do. I worry less about what they do with the profits that come from selling recycled textile fibers, because the good that comes from recycling somewhat negates the allegedly shady monetary actions, at least for me. I guess the moral here is, while it's good to support environmental causes, it might be even better to first do some homework on the organization you're looking to support first, because sometimes these things aren't always what they seem.

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