Clothing the world

Chico company gives old clothes new life

Julie Treanor, president of DBS Thrift Connection, rests her arm on a bale of used clothing destined for another part of the world.

Julie Treanor, president of DBS Thrift Connection, rests her arm on a bale of used clothing destined for another part of the world.

Photo by melanie mactavish

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure—it’s a well-intentioned mantra that often crosses folks’ minds as they donate (rather than toss out) last season’s shoes or that shirt that doesn’t quite fit. Since the mid-20th century, thrift institutions have been a popular charitable way of selling and recycling used home goods and textiles. But just because you donated your once-favorite band T-shirt to Goodwill doesn’t mean you’ll see someone else sporting it around town. In fact, there’s a good chance it won’t even make it onto the local thrift shelf to be sold; according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textile Association, the volume of donations to thrifts is so great that there’s room for only roughly 20 percent on store shelves.

Stepping in to handle those excess goods and keep inventory manageable are organizations like Chico’s DBS Thrift Connection. As a broker for thrift institutions, DBS is responsible for determining prices for used goods, buying those excess donations from thrift shops and institutions, and then selling them to graders and exporters, who market the items internationally. That band shirt might end up on the back of someone living as far away as Malaysia, says Julie Treanor, DBS president.

“There’s a whole pipeline involved in funneling these goods somewhere,” she said of the global market. “We’re literally dealing with countries all over the world, so we need to know our market. People in Central and South American countries tend to want high-end brand-name goods, whereas African countries want light-weight, breathable clothing.”

But, as Treanor explains, determining the pricing isn’t always so easy. “You have a price index on coffee and other commodities, but there isn’t one for clothing. And we’re not buying per item, we’re buying per pound of clothing. There are a lot of factors involved, but you have to let the market dictate price.”

When Treanor talks about this niche market, she says it’s not a business she ever thought she’d get into. Studying journalism at Chico State before pursuing occupational therapy at San Jose State, she took over the family business in 2006 when her father, Dennis B. Schubert—the company’s namesake—became ill.

“My dad left me this business and his golf clubs. I figured, ‘I’m going to take up golf, and do the best I can with this business.’” Today, she and husband Zack Treanor co-own DBS, employing nine workers at their Humboldt Avenue office, many of them graduates of Chico State’s business school.

For Treanor, minimizing the impact on landfills is one of the main job perks. “There are billions of pounds of clothing being exported out of the country every year, and knowing that it’s not all ending up in the garbage is a really comforting thought,” she said. For Chico-area clothing and goods, that exporting process begins at the warehouse facility portion of the George Walker Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center, where Chico thrift stores’ excess inventory ends up. For their part, DBS is responsible for exporting between 14-20 truckloads of post-consumer goods a week, which are first distributed to domestic hubs in Los Angeles, Oakland and Houston. With each truck holding 40,000 pounds, that’s between 560,000 to 800,000 pounds being exported each week—all of which is destined for a new home or new use rather than the landfill.

In efforts to decrease the environmental toll textiles take on landfills, other parts of the clothing chain have been experimenting with sustainable alternatives in recent years. Manufactures are increasingly turning to organic cotton and hemp, with major chains like H&M and Patagonia boasting their green apparel offerings.

According to a report by the Textile Exchange, the organic cotton world market was worth over $5 billion in 2011. But once it ends up in the garbage, it’s trash like anything else, and the harsh reality remains; in the U.S. alone, 12.4 million tons of clothes go to the landfill every year, according to Treanor. For that, it’s the supply chain, not just the retail market, that influences the sustainability of textile goods.

For the discarded clothing that does get donated, 50 percent is reused as secondhand wear and the bulk of the rest is turned into industrial cloth or transformed into fiber for insulation products, leaving only about 5 percent that’s nonrecyclable. While those might be good stats, it’s not viable unless consumers give those clothes a chance at a second life.

“People aren’t always aware of what’s happening to all that excess clothing,” said Treanor, who stresses the importance of raising awareness of the secondary consumer goods recycling industry. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘How can we become better consumers of clothing?’”

The practice of donating and reusing clothing is as important as ever, Treanor stressed. “We find that, on average, people tend to purge their closets every five years. The better the domestic economy is, the more likely people are able to buy new clothes and donate their used goods. But our domestic economy has been in the toilet for a long time.”

For DBS, spreading the wealth on a global level is a huge part of the answer, and one that affects the planet just as it does its inhabitants.

“When our clothes get exported, they’re put into 100 pound bales. When you look at the history of the bale, it’s literally what people in Africa could carry on their backs to their village. So you can imagine some of these clothes going to the most remote places.” And whether that bale ends up in a village in Africa, or a high-end used clothing market in Mexico, either alternative is better than the trash, she says.