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What's Really in the Box?

Gaia's clothing drop boxes are sprouting everywhere, but the group's lofty claims may need a bit of explaining.



For a year now, the light green clothes-recycling boxes have been popping up on the edges of parking lots in Chicago and the suburbs. A statement on the front of the metal boxes announces that money made from the donated clothes will be used by the sponsoring organization, Gaia-Movement Living Earth Green World Action USA, to help save the planet. "With the proceeds we--on the behalf of you--instigate the ideas and some of the many practices of the protection of the living earth," it says. Then it lists 18 projects that Gaia USA is "instigating."

"Chicago has been waiting for these boxes," says Eva Nielsen, Gaia USA's general manager. "More and more people are becoming aware of taking care of the environment. There's a lot of interest in this subject."

Two Gaia USA boxes sit on a vacant lot on California south of Milwaukee, next to the office of Jim Easter, who runs a small pest-control business. "I see people at the box day and night," he says. "They pull up in their cars, and out come bunches of old clothes. I don't think people know much about this group, the Gaia-Movement--whether they are making nature trails or windmills. But they're sure collecting a lot of clothes." He adds, "People aren't dropping crap in the box but nice stuff."

Gaia-Movement Living Earth Green World Action USA was launched in Chicago in early 1999 by a Danish-born activist named Helle Lund, who says the movement's vision follows the ideas of James Lovelock, an English chemist who believes the earth's surface functions as a biological organism. She incorporated Gaia USA in Delaware and set up a five-member board that included her, and by November the organization had federal nonprofit status. Then Nielsen, who's also a native of Denmark and had known Lund for some time, came to Chicago, and they opened three clothing-resale stores, two of which are still operating--one at 2918 N. Clark, the second at 1318 N. Milwaukee. The third, at Lawrence and Western, didn't do well and was closed after eight months.

At first Lund and Nielsen got the clothes by distributing flyers near the stores, promising that if area residents put old clothes in plastic bags on their porches and stoops the group would pick them up. "It was me and another staff member doing the collecting, and it was very time-consuming," says Nielsen. "It was OK, but small-scale." So she and Lund switched to collection boxes.

Clothing-donation bins have a mixed history in the Chicago area. Both the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries once put out boxes for used clothes--in the late 80s the Salvation Army still had hundreds. But there were problems. "We'd get unbelievable, disgusting stuff," says David Riches, head of the army's adult-rehabilitation centers, which recycled the clothes. "Besides dresses and pants, people would give us items that the garbage collector wouldn't pick up--cans of paint, pesticides, and bottles of turpentine. In Michigan in the late 60s my own father found a live baby in a collection box, and on another occasion we found a dead body."

But Lund and Nielsen were inspired by Boston's Planet Aid, which gathers 300,000 pounds of used clothes every week from 1,200 bins around New England. The women bought their first boxes--which cost $500 apiece and are seven feet high and three by four feet wide--from a Canadian manufacturer, though now they're made locally.

City law requires that such boxes be put on private property, and for a long time Nielsen had the task of persuading retailers to take them. Her first deal was with the manager of Einstein Brothers Bagels at Clark and Newport, which has had a heavily used box since last July. Owner by owner, Nielsen added locations. "The lady impressed me," says Easter. "She seemed sincere, with her European accent, and it wasn't like the box would cost me anything. It's designed well. What could it hurt?" Armando Zermeno, manager of Mufflers 4 Less at Damen and Roscoe, says he and the previous store manager were charmed by Nielsen. "She stopped by, and we talked about the box," he says. "She said it was to help poor people and the world. We try to do things for the neighborhood. It was no problem." Domy Rathappillil, manager of a 7-Eleven at Foster and Ravenswood, saw no reason not to take one box, then two, saying, "It's just a service for people who want to donate clothes."

Gaia USA now employs 15 full- and part-time workers, a third of them drivers. Nielsen's job of finding retailers was recently turned over to Alex Weber, a former researcher for the Donors Forum of Chicago and an advocate of recycling. Young and soft-spoken, he appears to be as good at the job as Nielsen was. He says he's managed to increase his chances of getting retailers to take boxes by concentrating on nonchain supermarkets, independently owned convenience st ores, auto shops, and dry cleaners; he guesses he's successful with one out of ten owners. It helps that he arrives armed with letters of endorsement from aldermen Burton Natarus and Helen Shiller, the Lake View East Chamber of Commerce, and DevCorp North, a Rogers Park chamber of commerce. "I am most certainly supportive of the fine work of the GAIA Movement with respect to their efforts regarding environmental issues and the preservation of National Forest Preserves worldwide," wrote Natarus in a letter dated April 19.

Weber assures retailers that boxes will be emptied at least once a week but as often as necessary, and he gives out a 24-hour number they can call with complaints. "Now, some people are insulted when I talk to them--like the word 'environment' doesn't jibe with them," he says. "They are earth haters or something like that. Maybe this threatens their status as human beings. There are other people who don't respond to me at all or who say the owner isn't in when they are clearly the owner. But most people see this as a good idea. A common response is, 'Oh, I've got lots of clothes to give away myself.'"

Gaia USA has 265 boxes in an area bounded by Calumet City on the south, Cicero on the west, and Highland Park on the north, with the heaviest concentration in Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Rogers Park, and Evanston. "It takes about a week for donors to recognize the boxes," says Nielsen, "and then they fill up." Both Easter and Zermano applaud Gaia USA for picking up the clothes so efficiently that there's never any overflow. Nielsen says that so far the amount of garbage is negligible.

The boxes collect an average of 70,000 pounds of clothes a week, a small portion of which goes to the two retail stores. Most of the donations are deposited in a large trailer at 87th and Green, then bagged for delivery to wholesalers, including the Chicago-based American Textile Clothing, which sells the clothes to developing countries, and Wipeco, which turns some of them into wiping rags and exports the rest.

Gaia USA certainly seems like a worthy enterprise, though one might wonder about the implications of Lund's and Nielsen's connection to the Teachers Group, which some journalists and government investigators in Europe have called a cult. Michael Durham, a reporter for the Independent in London, says the group was founded in 1971 by a young schoolteacher, Mogens Amdi Petersen, in the village of Tvind in Denmark. (The Teachers Group is often called simply Tvind.) According to an article in Boston Magazine last October, Petersen went underground 20 years ago, though he apparently still directs the Teachers Group. An article in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten says he's been charged by Danish authorities with possible tax fraud and misappropriating funds that were supposed to be donated to scientific and humanitarian projects, though the Teachers Group itself has never been officially charged with any wrongdoing.

"The Teachers Group started as a kind of hippie organization of social change," says Durham, who maintains a Web site critical of the group. "It has a philosophy about helping the third world and reorganizing society." Members of the group have established a network of clothing-resale ventures and schools in Britain. They've also set up affiliates elsewhere in Europe and in Africa and the United States; the Institute for International Cooperation and Development, a school in Williamstown, Massachusetts, was established a decade ago to train people volunteering to work on third world projects, and Planet Aid, the Boston clothing-resale nonprofit, was started in 1997.

A Scandanavian man who lives in the Chicago suburbs and wants to remain anonymous worked for the Teachers Group in 42 countries, most prominently as an IICD group leader. He says the Teachers Group has 2,000 to 5,000 hard-core members, who recruit workers and volunteers, many of them well-meaning idealists. He explains that followers subscribe to three principles: "A common economy, common time, and common decisions," tenets that are agreed to verbally but not in writing. "We looked at ourselves as examples, as revolutionaries," he says. "The Teachers Group is designed to function more or less according to the principles of organizing from Mao's 'Little Red Book.' There's a pyramid structure where small, self-sustaining groups do the regular work, and they each make decisions on their own. But they are controlled by people from a secret central committee." He says his salary went into a general pot, and when he wanted to buy something he had to ask for the money. He was forced out of the organization in 1998, after he refused to accept that he and the volunteer he'd married could be forced to go on separate Teachers Group missions. "It has become a monster, where people vie for control and don't trust each other."

Both he and Durham are skeptical about the organization's finances. "It has this gloss of good works, and it raises a lot of money," Durham says, "but it doesn't spend much of it." He says that only a small percentage of Teachers Group proceeds find their way to worthy projects, principally in Africa. The man from the suburbs says the group has invested in things such as a banana plantation in Belize, a forestry business in Brazil, and a clothes factory in Morocco, and he believes some of the profits from them and from the clothes-recycling ventures go to support humanitarian and environmental projects. But he claims much of the money goes to expanding the Teachers Group. "The point is to grow bigger as fast as they can, for reasons of power and control," he says. "If the public knew that we were part of a worldwide consortium where more and more business transactions are coming under Teachers Group control, people would simply be afraid. Clothes collection and other similar activities meet less resistance because the public only sees small, upstart nonprofit groups."

Durham describes Lund as a follower of the Teachers Group. Lund, interviewed by phone in early June in Zambia, where she was "visiting associates," didn't respond to subsequent E-mail inquiries about her connection to the Teachers Group. But both Nielsen and Durham say Lund once served as a director and secretary of a group of nonprofit resale shops called Humana UK. According to Durham, Humana UK was an offshoot of the Teachers Group. It was investigated by the Guardian newspaper, which alleged that it hadn't spent the money it generated on the charitable projects it said it supported; newspaper accounts say it was forced into receivership in 1996 by the British Charity Commission, though Lund was never charged with any crime. Durham says some of the people who led Humana UK then started a Planet Aid group in Britain, which Lund acknowledges once employed her. The man from the suburbs says this is a typical pattern for Teachers Group ventures: "If one of the names gets tainted, there are three more to choose from."

Lund says that she and other people who knew the clothes-recycling business wanted to start their own nonprofit, and they decided Chicago was the perfect location. "Here's a city in the middle of the country, with both winter clothes and summer clothes," she explains. She also says that Gaia USA is affiliated with Gaia Switzerland, which is based in Geneva and which Durham calls the first Teachers Group subsidiary with a strictly environmental focus. Nielsen has an address for the group, but there's no phone number listed with international directory assistance. "It is a trust," Nielsen says. "They have members and a board. I don't think they have raised a lot of money. They give to environmental projects." She says that while the Swiss and U.S. ventures are independent, they do share two board members.

Nielsen, who'd been helping sell used clothes wholesale in the former Soviet Union and Honduras for a non-Teachers Group venture before she came to Chicago, acknowledges that she's a member of the Teachers Group. Asked to describe the organization, she says, "It's a group of people that is doing different activities in development aid and in schools." Pressed for details, she says, "I don't think that matters here. It doesn't have anything to do with Gaia. It's a private thing."

Nielsen is, however, open about Gaia USA's finances. She says that the 2001 budget is $354,000 and that the profit for 2000 was $47,500, of which $9,500 went to repay a loan from Gaia Switzerland that was for start-up costs. The rest of the money, she says, went toward new boxes and hiring Alex Weber.

Yet the Gaia USA boxes around Chicago list 18 projects that the clothes donations are supposed to support: "Establishing and running nature reserves; securing, renting, buying, owning, accepting as gifts and preserving virgin land as nature reserve; developing new areas as nature reserves; reusing clothes; preserving the natural habitat for plants and animals; supporting sustainable forestry; educating young and old in nature concern; protecting the barrier reef; protecting the mangroves; producing CO2 neutral electricity; producing solar energy; installing and running turbines; professionally purifying water; researching into, developing and producing nature-based sewage systems; building wildlife sanctuaries and saving animals; becoming a part of the Gaia-Movement; practicing deep ecology; acting as partners in the solidary [sic] humanism." In its application for federal nonprofit status, Gaia USA was asked to be more specific about what it planned to support, and it listed protecting 30,000 acres of rain forest in Belize, continually replanting a specific tract of Brazilian forest and burning the trees to generate electricity, resettling 200 small farmers in Zimbabwe on 1,000 acres of land they would farm for commercial purposes, and researching the treatment of human waste in the third world for use as fertilizer. Nielsen concedes that in two and a half years Gaia USA has put money into only one of all these projects--reusing clothes. "We need some time to start things up," she says. "You cannot from the first day have a surplus, even if you are doing good. I have been explaining this to a lot of people in Chicago."

The clothes-recycling boxes also state: "Donate--we get $2 worth for every $1 spent." Asked what that means, Nielsen says, "It's more like a symbol. It's not concrete. It's like we are devoting a lot of money to the environment."

Other projects listed in the federal application include publishing a quarterly newsletter, organizing educational camps and trips for schoolchildren, and sending Gaia USA representatives to make speeches at "institutions, schools, clubs, etc." Nielsen says Gaia USA has put out a newsletter and has arranged to give talks on ecology at schools and Park District sites. Weber also says that the group intends to begin contributing clothes to the Lincoln Park Shelter and the Lakeview Pantry.

Last December, Durham wrote an article for the Independent on the Gaia-Movement Trust Living Earth Green World Action in England, which also raises money recycling clothes. After three years, he wrote, "it has not yet given a penny to charity--nor is there any evidence that any of the projects advertised by [the group] exist, except on paper." He quoted the group's codirector, Torben Soe, who was once associated with Humana UK, as saying, "The money will go to a good cause. Everybody knows it takes time to start up a company. We're just not there yet. We're not in a position to be able to give anything away."

Asked if it's fair to suggest to people dropping off clothes that the profits are going to the projects listed on the boxes, Nielsen says, "What is on the box are goals--goals of our organization." She estimates that Gaia USA will have $100,000 to give away next year. Asked if she knows what projects will get that money, she says, "We don't have anything concrete." Then she adds, "I know about a project in Zambia where they use solar energy. It's to take farmers from communal to commercial farming."

"This could be a very good organization," says Floyd Perkins, chief of the Illinois attorney general's Charitable Trust Bureau, which oversees nonprofits in the state. But, he says, "it's hard to understand that they could still be in start-up after two years. Three months--that's understandable." He also notes that while Gaia USA submitted a yearly report to his office in 2000, as the law requires, it hasn't filed registration papers, which all nonprofits taking in more than $15,000 annually are supposed to do. "Perhaps they are confused," he says. "There are several hundred charities that file reports with us each year which aren't registered. It's not uncommon. We ask these charities to correct the problem."

"We sent in our statements last year and this year, and we got a letter saying we were not registered," says Nielsen. "We are very careful on our tax standing." She says their auditor is now working on the registration papers.

Issa Barrett, senior loan officer of the Chicago Community Loan Fund, which makes low-interest loans to local nonprofits, believes that Gaia USA will fulfill its promises. In December the fund gave the organization $25,000 to buy more boxes. "At this stage of the game they have to accumulate capital," he says. "They have a plan as to what they eventually want to do, and that is enough for us. We believe strongly that they will do it."

Gaia USA has applied for another CCLF loan, which it hopes to use to buy a kitchen-cabinet plant that's next to its south-side retailer. "So far we've been selling clothes as they are," says Nielsen. "When we have a building we can press them into bales, and it will be cheaper to transport them to dealers." She says she and Lund hope to someday expand Gaia USA, setting up branches in Madison and Milwaukee. And she firmly believes that Chicagoans will continue to dump clothes into Gaia USA boxes. "People don't want to throw their clothes in the garbage," she says, "and they are interested in the environment."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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