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Adventures in the Rag Trade

Do Clothes Dropped Into Planet Aid Boxes Support International Aid or an International For-Profit Scheme?

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Aiding and Abetting: Critics of Planet aid say that the organization uses donations to fuel a questionable charity effort.

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 10/20/2004

On a recent Sunday morning in West Baltimore, a big white truck pulls up to a Citgo gas station on Edmondson Avenue. The driver unlocks a bright-yellow box in the corner of the parking lot and unloads plastic bags, boxes, and containers full of shoes, clothes, blankets, and small household items. The box is brimming with castoffs donated by people who see the boxes as a convenient way to get rid of used and unwanted items, and all for a good cause—the box and others like it bear the logo of Planet Aid, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization that says its mission is to improve the lives of people in developing nations.

Over the past several months, new Planet Aid boxes have been turning up practically overnight at gas stations, supermarkets, and in parking lots across Baltimore. Ester Neltrup, the vice president of Planet Aid’s Baltimore-Washington operation, says there are about 50 collection boxes in the city and residents can expect more to turn up in the coming months. “According to the population figures, it would make sense to have several hundred,” Neltrup says, indicating that so far people in the city have responded well to them: She estimates that about 20,000 pounds of used clothing are collected from the Baltimore boxes each week. The clothes are then brought to the organization’s Capitol Heights warehouse, where they are sorted and packaged. Some will go to Planet Aid’s boutique-y thrift shops in Cambridge, Mass., and Boston. Other clothing items will be sold to distributors who will put them up for sale around the world; still others will be sent to developing nations where Planet Aid says they are sold to help raise money for development and environmental projects.

It’s a lucrative business for Planet Aid. According to the nonprofit’s most recent filings with the IRS, the organization brought in more than $5 million through its used-clothing recycling activities in fiscal year 2002, slightly more than $5 million in 2001, and more than $3.5 million in 2000. The organization says it uses the money it generates to support development and child-aid programs in India, Africa, and Central America.

“We are making the reuse of clothing easy and accessible to people in areas where we operate,” says Neltrup, who has been with Planet Aid since 1999. “Less than 15 percent of textile is recycled in the United States on an annual basis. . . . Our concept takes an item that is basically worthless to the person who no longer wants it and turns it into something of value in places with shortage of clothing.”

But things—even seemingly well-intentioned—are not always what they seem, and the organization is not without its critics. Though Planet Aid is recognized by the IRS as a charitable organization, former volunteers for programs affiliated with Planet Aid say the organization is part of a complicated network of organizations that serve as a front for a shell game that shuffles money between charities and for-profit entities. They say that the projects being supported by Planet Aid are poorly run, focused on fund raising more than on real charitable activities, and that they have direct ties to a Danish organization called Tvind that has been accused of being a secular cult.

Planet Aid is affiliated with a group called the International Humana People to People Movement, an organization that has its beginnings in Denmark in 1977, when Development Aid People to People was formed to gather and consign clothes for refugees and people in Third World nations. The organization was formed by followers of a man named Mogens Amdi Pederson (who is currently on trial in Denmark for fraud, embezzlement, and misusing public funds for his own gain) who called themselves the Teachers Group, or Tvind, and committed their lives and salaries to the organization. Over the years Development Aid grew and created the International Humana group, which has its headquarters at Murgwi Estate, Shamva, Zimbabwe. Photos of the headquarters on the organization’s Web site show that the facilities are not modest: A monolithic white structure pokes up from a green valley set amid a series of smaller buildings and courtyards that Humana says are easily accessible from the United States, Europe, South Africa, and Japan.

Humana, which is not a charity registered with the IRS, runs several schools in the United States (which are registered charities) that go by the name of Institute for International Cooperation and Development. Humana and its affiliates, such as Planet Aid, encourage those who want to volunteer in developing nations overseas to enroll in one of these schools for training. Students pay tuition of several thousand dollars to attend the school, are required to sell postcards and canvass to raise funds while at the school, and pay 50 percent of the cost of travel associated with the program.

Zahara Heckscher, a Washington, D.C., graduate student studying international development, signed up with the Institute in 1987. She expected that when she finally went abroad to Africa with the school she would have a fulfilling experience improving the lives of poor people. She and her group were supposed to go to work in Tanzania, she says, but after arriving in Kenya they were told that their visas had been denied, so they were sent instead to work in Zambia. No one in the group was familiar with Zambian history, language, or culture, and she says that after a few days of being in Zambia a group of local farmers told her and several other students that their land had been stolen by the school for its project. Three months later, she says, the students were ejected from the country for working on tourist visas.

The experience was not what Heckscher anticipated, but she says it did open her eyes to what she alleges are the organization’s unsavory practices. She says she learned that many of the humanitarian projects being operated by Humana seem less charitable than development-oriented, and she now believes the organization props up its operations with funds collected through its so-called charitable arms—including the proceeds from clothes collected in cities like Baltimore by Planet Aid.

“They make money because they get things for free, which they then sell,” says Heckscher, who adds that for part of the time she was in Zambia she worked in one of Humana’s clothes-sorting facilities. “The clothing from their donation boxes is not going to poor people for free—they are sold in Africa and in Eastern Europe for lots of money. . . . In Zambia there is a huge market for used clothes. The really poor people couldn’t even afford to buy the clothes we were selling.”

According to Planet Aid’s financial filings, a significant portion of the money it raises goes right back to running the used-clothing business. Of the $5.4 million it generated in the United States in 2002, $4.2 million was spent in the “collection and recycling of approximately 12,500 tons of used clothing.” Only $661,514 was spent in direct “support of 23 child aid and development projects in India, Africa, and Central America.”

Neltrup says she thinks that despite what detractors say Planet Aid is doing “a world of good.

“It is important to realize that it costs money to run the operation, and that we have to cover those expenses as well out of the money we make on the sale of clothes,” she says. “We feel that we are very open and honest about what we do and how we do it.”

Marianna Maver, a former employee of a now-shuttered Tvind-run school for wards of the state in Virginia, is blunt in her assessment of the organization. “Planet Aid is a scam,” she says. “It is not a nonprofit charity. . . . I would warn the public against donating any money to Tvind fund-raising activities.”

Maver is part of the Web site, operated by British journalist Michael Durham to expose the many-tentacled organization’s activities around the world. Maver points out that Planet Aid tries to distance itself from the network of Tvind-related organizations by pointing out that it is an independent entity that operates on its own, but the organization does share board members and directors with the Institute for International Cooperation and Development, the Gaia Movement (a Chicago nonprofit clothing-collection group), and the Teachers Group school Campus California TG. In addition, Fred Olsson, Planet Aid’s general manager in Massachusetts, was listed in 2003 as holding the books for Planet Aid Philadelphia. Planet Aid Philadelphia is being run through power of attorney by a man named Michael Herman whose address is listed on its financial forms as that of the Humana campus in Zimbabwe.

When asked about the relationship between Humana, Tvind, and Planet Aid, Neltrup simply states that Planet Aid is “an independent nonprofit organization.”

“We comply with all the law and requirements of the jurisdictions in which we work,” she says. “We support a number of overseas projects run by other organizations that, like Planet Aid, are members of Humana People to People.”

When asked about her hopes for expanding Planet Aid’s activities further into Baltimore, she says, “We would like to do even more, which is why we are now expanding our collection to Baltimore. More clothes equals more development.”

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