A large white tent, a simple folding table, two wire containers, fitted with large white plastic bags, a sign, mounds of plastic bags, a scattered pile of flyers and papers, a tall man in a black Carhartt jacket talking softly into headphones.
Unlike most of the other tents at the Union Square Green market, this tent has nothing for sale. Its simple structure is devised only to receive, these one-way transactions overseen by a single person, with human interaction kept to a bare minimum. The company who occupies this 10’ x 10’ square, Wearable Collections, is present on Mondays and Saturdays at the Green Market, and seeks to relive the denizens of New York City of clothing refuse and a limited selection of textile items. They prefer clothing that is usable shape, ie: not tattered beyond recognition, and yes they will take towels, but no they will not take duvet covers (bed bugs, duh).
The rules, methods, and interactions of this exchange, both implicit and explicit, I sampled, while observing the ins and outs (mostly ins) of how textile waste collection happens at the Union Street Green Market on a Monday afternoon. My initial inquiry took the shape of what participants chose to drop off and why, as well as the viewpoints, perspectives on behavior and myriad experiences of Wearable Collections employee, who I will call J. As a research site, I was concerned with the emotional labor and coding of stories, and the transference of care that occurred as these textile objects changed hands. Thinking on textiles of ubiquity for a forthcoming paper, my research has lead me to examine the ways in which objects such as an old t-shirt make their way into the fluff of utilitarian items such as moving blanket, the object of my most recent study. As a meditation on care, the affective power of textiles, and the anonymity of items such as a moving blanket in late Capitalism, I was chiefly interested in this outpost, the Wearable Collections site, as a key actor in the shifts of goods through hands and systems that encode them for emotional & physical labor and utility. My musings with the staff, brief snippets of conversations with participants, and the physicality of this experience elucidated more lines of questioning, more obfuscation of purpose, and ultimately, reveled the deeply seeded anxiety people feel about of flow of goods.
This anxiety first took the form about what happens after the clothes are donated to Wearable Collections, and whether or not they knew it is a for profit company. Two people remarked that they would have brought their clothes to a nearby charity shop, if not for the items not being in more favorable condition, or the convenience of the Green Market. Within this relationship of the transference of clothes, the anxiety of their afterlife does not seem to apply to particular items, ie: the old t-shirt, the shoes a child outgrew etc., but rather to how the clothes will function in the world after they are deposited into the white garbage bags. “I just hope its going to a good cause,” remarked a woman who has been living in the Union Square area for 40 years. With the increased exposure to the secondary lives of textile objects, through books such as The Travels of the T-shirt by Pietra Rivioli, and the Planet Money t-shirt podcast series, a seemingly wider public has been exposed to the stories of our discarded objects, bringing these questions of how our items get used, what markets they will be a part of, and who will use them to our collective imaginations. Wearable Collections situates itself within a decidedly altruistic context, capitalizing on identity as an eco-friendly service, as well as operating under the auspices of a charitable organization. When questioned about what percentage of clothes will be given to “those in need” J told 2 participants (of the 10 I observed) that roughly 20% are donated. The other items are sold, for 20 cents up to a dollar per pound to third party businesses, where they enter the exceedingly complex and dynamic used clothing markets of Africa and Asia. This seems to be the tipping point for participants, who may harbor misgivings about this monetized changing of hands. J detailed an exchange he had with an irate woman some 2 months ago, who admonished him in particular, and Wearable Collections at large, for “ruining the style of Africa” by flooding their markets with cheap American clothes. He was quick to remind her that the model they currently operate under, selling to third parties, absolves them from control over what happens in the clothing’s afterlife, and in my reading, the guilt about their many end uses.
Other anxieties that were present were centered around the status of the things that people dropped off, “is this okay?”, “good enough condition, yeah?” In discussing what is acceptable, and not acceptable for Wearable Collections, J reiterated the motto of the company “clothing is not garbage” remarking that the state of the items needs to be in a good enough condition for the item to be resold. Ranking the oddest items he had ever received, he recounted an instance of someone who brought used tampons and attempted to recycle them. Thinking about the gamut of items, J said, “textile is a double edged sword” meaning that, many things fall under this umbrella term, and perhaps we live with our own definitions of what is and what is not a textile item, and in turn, what of these items one could reasonably recycle. While Wearable Collections has a particular end goal in mind, turning these donations into a profit, there are particular grey areas that the donator is left to determine for them selves, the minutia of which the employees are tasked with disputing. The trick is making certain distinctions clear, and it seems to be this person to person interaction that is the company’s preferred methodology to do so, where the workers let the donators know the changing landscape of items they will accept, ways they will accept them, and who they will accept them from.
Strangely enough, I saw the anxiety around these changing landscapes with my first interview of the day, Alice, an acquaintance of mine. She mentioned that she had been coming to this location to ‘recycle’ her clothes for about 7 years. As a resident of Manhattan, she finds it convenient to her residence, and as a textile researcher and artist, does not want to contribute to the massive landfill textile input. We talked about a shirt of hers she was donating, a simple plum Marimekko shirt from the 90s. Why? It had changed shape, she had changed shape, and well, it no longer made sense for her she said. Alice was also keen to talk about what had changed conditions at the Wearable Collections station, “2 years ago, you took almost anything”. She bantered with the employee, complaining that the person who works on Saturdays (not J) was too stringent, she was noticeably irritated at the disparity of the list of items J was showing her (on the companies literature).
This interchange exemplified the interesting quandary of labor in these arrangements, where notions of power, who is working for whom, and how and when these items will produce capital is obscured. Many of the participants I observed seemed to treat J as an employee of theirs, and most of the interactions contained a simple questioning of protocol; “where do I put these?”, “do I put them in this bin?”, “is that it?” Thinking on these conditions, I wonder how Wearable Collections conceives of these participants, as they are indeed producers, generating the raw material the business is built on. Are these anonymous donators considered employees? Are they Independent Contractors? Are they simply actors and agents utilizing a convenient service? Where does the fulcrum of power truly lie, and how much concession is needed on the side of Wearable Collections to keep the steady flow of material into their coffers? On the other side of the spectrum, Wearable Collections must have a profitability index, where they must receive a certain quantity, and indeed quality to make this elaborate operation worthwhile. Most of the participants I interacted with were repeat donators, some for upwards of 5 years, and seemed to be thankful for the service that Wearable Collections provides.
If the anxiety of afterlife, acceptability and labor are present for the donators, J seemed to be relatively free of these worries, mostly concerned about whether the impetus of my inquiry would be critical of the company. His care, ability to empathize and belief in the model, were ever present in my conversation with J, who had incredible moments of humanity to share. If Wearable Collections is looking to both turn a profit and appear charitable, conditions seemingly in conflict by the estimation of some donators, J had also witnessed and actively participated in the benevolent aspects of this clothing exchange site. He mentioned that on several occasions, houseless people would ask for clothes, or he would offer them, with a particular instance he recalled of giving jackets to folks in need during the winter months. Detailing the exchange, he mentioned that he makes a judgment call, “does this person really look like they need this?”
For deals in what is ostensibly refuse, the interactions I observed are notably different from accounts I’ve found of the dirty and rough work of ‘rag and bone men’, on both the sides of recipient and donator. Every item I saw donated, even by those who were seemingly rushing, came neatly folded and in clean condition and was gingerly placed in the bins. J himself carefully bagged up and moved the items, assuredly and conscientious arranging the piles of filled bags to the back of the space. Perhaps this speaks to the affluent area surrounding Union Square, but I was certainly struck by the care I observed in these moments of transference. My own research into the manipulations some of these textiles will undergo, as they are shredded and overseen by massive machines, are processes I have conceived of as violent in nature. The contrast between my assumptions about these transferences, brings me to question my own deeply seeded beliefs about how ‘care’ for our textile items is translated through these shifts of materiality. The trajectory of these items, from our closet, to the Wearable Collections bin, to the rag industry, to the filling of a moving blanket, is presided over by seemingly infinite many hands, machines and perhaps, infinite forms and types of caring, or so I’d like to think. Maybe this shift happens simultaneously, as the object changes shape, its not that our caring for these items stops, but rather the shape of our care changes.