Hyde Park residents speculated about the appearance of two new donation boxes at the edges of Nichols Park earlier this week, labeling them an eyesore and noting that they are operated by a for-profit company.
The bulky, forest-green boxes are owned by GreenCity Project, a company that resells and recycles donated clothes and textiles. GreenCity pays the Chicago Parks District (CPD) $2,400 annually for each box in a public park, according to Michele Lemons, director of communications at the CPD. There are 50 GreenCity boxes in parks across the city, meaning that the district makes about $120,000 each year in revenue on them. That money then goes into the district’s general fund.
David White, secretary of the Nichols Park Advisory Council and a park steward, said the council had not been notified that the boxes would be placed in the park. “We were as surprised as anyone when they showed up, and we weren’t consulted about their location, which we’re icky about,” he said.
One box is located at the corner of 55th Street and Kimbark Avenue. The other was initially placed by the entrance to the park on 53rd Street, according to White, but was moved after the advisory council reached out to the Parks District and GreenCity Project. It’s now next to the alleyway at the eastern edge of the park on 53rd.
Residents have complained about the boxes online, calling them ugly. George Rumsey, chair of the Special Service Area around 53rd Street, posted a picture on Facebook Wednesday morning of clothes on the ground near the box, a problem White also highlighted.
“What happens is people just throw clothes proximal to the box. It’s another source of trash for us in Nichols Park,” he said, noting that all clean-up of the park during the winter is done by volunteers.
On its Facebook page, GreenCity touted a new partnership with the Chicago Parks District (CPD) last September. (GreenCity Project referred the Herald to the CPD, and did not respond to follow-up questions.)
In an online presentation posted in 2012, the company explains its model of “trying to make it easier for people to discard their unwanted clothes and shoes.” After sorting through donations, GreenCity sells the clothes — they are shipped to “third-world countries,” where locals can buy them cheaply.
Some of the proceeds from the sale go back to the organization that operates the box. That organization, notes GreenCity in its presentation, will either donate the money to a charity or keep it, which will “empower the local economy.” Other revenue goes to GreenCity itself, a fact White took issue with.
“We do everything in the park as a volunteer effort, and to connect people to their park,” he said. “These collection boxes aren’t really a recycling effort, it’s a commercial operation …. They’re kind of exploiting our parks for their bottom line.”
Data from Panjiva, which tracks international shipping data, shows that the company itself will send its donations to Guatemala, a popular destination for used American clothing. Over the last 25 years, an increasing number of Guatemalan merchants have set up “pacas,” second-hand stores selling used clothing exported by American suppliers. (In English, “paca” means bale — a reference to the thousand-pound pallets of clothes transported south.) According to data from the World Bank, the United States exported $425 million in textiles and clothing there in 2017, more than any other trading partner of the Central American country.
Pacas are a source of cheap clothing for poor people in Guatemala — according to a 2016 study of the stores, an imported blouse or sweater often sells for about a dollar there, compared to $5 to $20 for a sweater manufactured locally. But, by the same token, it can hurt indigenous weavers and other members of the domestic textile industry, since they can’t compete with the lower prices. (Indonesia banned the import of second-hand clothing for that reason in 2002, though largely unsuccessfully.)
In general, donating clothes can be tricky in Chicago. The Chicago Reader explored the Project Gaia boxes that had popped up in significant numbers across the city in 2001, suggesting that “one might wonder about the implications of (its founders’) connection to the Teachers Group, which some journalists and government investigators in Europe have called a cult.”
But larger nonprofits that also accept clothing donations have been scrutinized for unethical behavior of their own. Goodwill, for instance, often exploits a legal loophole that allows it to pay its disabled workers a wage as low as four cents an hour. State Rep. Theresa Mah (D-2nd) introduced a bill last year that would phase the subminimum wage out in Illinois by 2024, but it stalled. On Feb. 18 of this year, it was assigned to the labor and commerce committee.
The Salvation Army, meanwhile, has a history of anti-LGBTQ discrimination. In 2012, a spokesperson for the nonprofit said that the group views same-sex relationships as “against the will of God.” The group also tried to make a deal with the George W. Bush administration to exempt organizations that receive federal funding from local laws prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
Back in Hyde Park, White says he wishes there could be more communication between the CPD and neighborhood residents, especially the advisory council.
“I’m not saying we should have a veto power but we are the PAC. We do interact with the community and we are the most sensitive to what’s going on and how the neighborhood uses the park,” White said. “We need more transparency. I would just like to know what’s going on.”