Milpas on the Move by Sharon Byrne. This one’s dedicated to El-Smurfo.
Last week, I popped in to see the manager at the Chapala Market on Milpas with Pablo, our new Community Service Liaison from the Police Department. The manager complained the green box on his property was causing a lot of problems. It ate up the sidewalk in the parking lot, and people were scattering clothes all over.
The manager said some guy turned up with a big metal clothing donations box and said the city permitted him to put it there. He made it sound like a city mandate. Who was the humble Chapala Market manager to argue with the great-and-powerful city? But now it was causing him a lot of grief. Could the city please remove it?
Pablo and I looked at each other. The Chapala Market parking lot is private property. It’s true that our city does extend tremendous reach over what we can do with our private property. You can’t trim certain trees on your property without checking in with Parks and Recreation and the urban arborist. You can’t add a bathroom to your home without getting all your neighbors to sign off. Just one miscreant dissenter can kill off your hoped-for lavatory, I hear.
But the city doesn’t mandate the placement of big green metal clothing collection boxes on your property.
We checked out the box in the parking lot…
I’d never heard of ‘Gaia Movement.” I wrote down the phone number on the box, and told the Chapala Market manager I’d check into getting it removed.
Back at my desk, I looked up Gaia Movement. Their website was feel-good stuff: collect gently used clothing and sell it to thrift stores. The funds go to support local and international environment projects.
A check with the Better Business Bureau revealed GAIA failed the non-profit test because “according to the organization’s audited financial statements for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2007, it spent 1% of its total expenses ($1,140,881) on program service activities.” According to the American Philanthropic Society, a charity watchdog group, Gaia-Movement has an “F” rating.
It took the boxes a while to get out here. They started in the northeast, and spread to Chicago, according to several articles. The clothes and shoes dropped into the boxes are not given away, like most givers would expect. They are sold, depriving local charities of donations of clothing that could help their community. Sometimes the company doesn’t bother with the ‘city permit’ ruse – big metal boxes just mysteriously show up outside unsuspecting businesses.
Gaia Movement recently built a $10m retreat in Mexico. There’s a lot of profit in used clothing, apparently.
Gaia Movement was founded by Tvind, a cultish group in Denmark. The boxes have changed labels a few times: PlanetAid, Campus California, etc, but the scam is worldwide. Tvind’s high-ranking members are under criminal investigation in Europe for embezzlement, tax evasion, and money laundering schemes.
And now their boxes are in Santa Barbara, the home of Earth Day, land of supreme enviro-consciousness.
I called the number on the box, and of course went straight to voice mail, no legitimate non-profit manager handy. I left a message with the box location, and stated they have 24 hours to remove it, or go hunt for it in its new home in the landfill.
(Note to real environmentalists: No, I wasn’t really going to put it in the landfill. That thing is near capacity, I know. But THEY don’t know that. I figured those big metal boxes cost a pretty penny, and they’d rather not lose their investment. If they refused to remove it, I’d have given the clothes to a local charity, and recycled the box for scrap metal. But it didn’t get to that point – read on…)
I got an immediate call back from a guy in Bakersfield. He had no idea how it got there, how they pick sites for placement, or why they lie to businesses by telling them the city permits them to put a box there.
He’s just a driver, and his boss told him to call. Where’s the box, again?
They removed it the next day. This is the second time this has happened on Milpas. Joe from Santa Barbara Kitchens took care of the last mysterious box, using pretty much the same tactic.
I emailed the mayor and city attorney about it. If companies are using the city’s clout to intimidate businesses in a scam, I figured the city ought to know about it.
Net: just because it’s labeled ‘green’ doesn’t automatically mean it’s golden.