October 3rd, 2013

T. Is Helpful

T. has always been Helpful. Sometimes perhaps a little _more_ helpful than one had in mind, especially if he's decided it's time to pack up the van and leave on vacation _NOW_. That can get a lot interesting.

But last night, I thought I'd get him involved in picking through a bunch of the toys littering the dining table. I figured we could reduce it back to the single bin in the middle, type of thing. This is what happened:

Clear table

We got the two boxes emptied and put in the recycling, a bunch of toys went Away (as I have noted before, I do not believe in Donating fast food kids' meal toys), and then T. decided the bin that normally sits in the middle of table as an attempt to corral the clutter should itself be put away on a shelf in the playroom. After crumb and stickiness removal, we decided to add a couple placemats.

I did have extra coffee yesterday. That may have been a factor.

ETA: I feel like I should invite people over. It's _never_ this nice looking around here.

Observations about High Volume/Low Margin vs. Low Volume/High Margin businesses

Some aspects of business size are driven by market size: you just cannot sell more than so many x to certain groups. Either they lack the resources, just aren't that interested in more even after the price is effectively zero, or whatever. We _think_ consumption is unlimited, but it's not. At all. I'm not talking about that situation.

If you have substitutable goods (and that doesn't mean stuff -- it can mean a service, and the service includes relieving you of things, not just giving you More), and one business can make a small margin of money on a very large volume, and a competing business operates on a much smaller volume but with a much larger margin, the smaller business will probably Go Out of Business. I know you are thinking, well, luxury items vs. TJ Maxx or Kohl's or whatever, but I said substitutable, and if you think those things are substitutable, but then not, well, that's not much of an argument against what I am saying. The Innovator's Dilemma seems to talk about what I am describing, but that author is really looking more at a Worse Is Better (fewer features, worse build quality, less reliably -- but Good Enough and a lot cheaper so as to create a new market as well as cannibalize the existing higher end market) situation.

Again, I'm not talking Worse Is Better. I'm talking Substitutable.

Here is an example, sure to annoy. I want a book, and for the sake of this particular argument, I want a p-book from a major publisher. A particular one. I could get it at Amazon, my local bookstore or a mall bookstore, it will be the same book everywhere, altho I might be able to get it used if it has been out for a while. We know how this is going for the p-bookstores, and they've done everything in their power to make the Buying Experience NOT substitutable, but, alas, they are Really Up Against It, because I can buy it used for a penny with $3.99 shipping if I'm feeling broke, or discounted with Prime (if it's new in hardcover) and get it probably the next day, two days max -- and place the order while watching the author be interviewed on The Daily Show. This Buying Experience is way superior to having to figure out how to get to the bookstore during the hours my kids are in school, which tend to be somewhat occupied anyway, and if the local bookstore doesn't have it, add an hour round trip to the malls. And if it isn't a current and widely available book, I might not even be able to find it in a store I have time to drive to.

But that, ironically, is not what I was thinking about. What I was thinking about was textile recycling. When you've gone through your closets and determined that it is time to move some clothing along (table cloths, cloth napkins, etc.), there are a bunch of options for where to send that clothing. Kids stuff can go to a friend with kids, or a kid consignment shop if it's in really good shape. Adult stuff probably goes to a thrift, altho again there are consignment shops if you dress better than I do and you maybe even have friends you do swaps with. But once you've decided you can't (or won't) resell this thing yourself (even via consignment) and you haven't pre-identified someone you know to "give" it to, the Substitutable Good is Where Do I Put the Bag? Perhaps you go to thrift stores to shop and can drop it off then. (Consignment is also likely in a parallel situation where you think it is sale-able.) But if you don't ever go to thrift stores to shop, then it's truly Where Do I Put the Bag. Given the prices at thrift shops, it is hard to imagine the tax deduction making any meaningful difference in the lives of the person who donates to but never shops at thrifts. While charities offer the tax deduction, taking it is probably more hassle than is justified (I was trying to imagine a person who itemized and had income to offset but who did their own taxes and blah blah bleeping blah, trying to make those few dollars make any sense at all to collect). And the convenience of depositing a bag in a nearby bin versus a shop with limited donation hours is a potential difference.

But here's the real killer. A thrift operates on a business model which is driven by the hope that the donators cannot be bothered to Consign the Good Stuff. They will sell the stuff you may have been able to, then bale up the rest and send it overseas or to a fiber recovery operation or whatever. They'll extract value from it all, but the business model is driven by the high margin of the nicer items. If too little of what lands in their bins is resaleable, their labor costs and facility costs for processing the stuff are too high to be profitable on the rest. And they are Not Shy about publicizing this.

There are, however, for-profit enterprises which have figured out a way to make money off of the lower margin items, but it requires a _lot_ more stuff, and it requires a completely different processing strategy. If you put potentially consignable stuff onto this path, it probably won't go through a process-and-extract-resale-items-locally stage: it'll get shipped somewhere faster and may never be cherry-picked at all. So that's an argument _against_ this system.

But boy, it sure would be convenient if I didn't have to think about every single damn piece of clothing and try to predict which operation might want it and then stage it to go to that location. If the Good I want is Where To Put the Bag of Used Textiles, the for-profit that will take all of it, right now (ideally, pick it up at the house when I put out the recyclables and the trash) is going to Win. And I don't think I'm alone. Many people who donate to charities send them stuff the charities are exasperated at having to process. We _know_ this is true, because they complain about it, often in the same breath that they complain that their input stream is being diverted to fiber recovery by for-profit corporations.

It's easy to think, my gosh, well, you _should_ ... whatever. But it does take a certain amount of cubic to stage stuff, and the trips aren't free, especially if they are by car, and especially if they are additional trips. If we could get the 85% or whatever of textiles that is ending up in landfills into the recycling stream, would we be okay if we lost a few shirts that someone might buy at a thrift to a manufacturer of wiping cloths?

Something will be lost. Borders went out of business. Barnes & Noble is hurting, and the independents are scrambling. Used bookstores have moved online almost entirely. You can say, well, take those nice things to a consignment shop! Or a thrift store! Shop at an independent bookstore! But if they are inconvenient _now_, that isn't going to get any better, and if they are distant now, well, that can only get worse as they close up due to lack of supplies.

We've been here before. Pre-curbside recycling and similar innovations, you could sell aluminum cans (even in non-deposit states) to people whose business was recovering the aluminum. Curbside recycling absorbed some of those -- if they were able to scale -- but it put a lot of the small operators that relied upon self-exploitation of owner-labor right out of business. What really drive the decision to scale up and involve the government and so forth in recycling a new category, however, is current waste stream fractions. As soon as enough _other_ stuff that you can get money for is diverted from landfills, textiles will be top of the list.

Still More About the Other Side of Decluttering

R., aka, "B." made some excellent points about Thrift Shops, which suggests that I am almost certainly wrong that fiber recovery and other, lower value operations might crowd them out.

(1) Value Village, which I knew from Seattle, and Savers (which R. probably pointed out to me when one opened in Nashua) are the same. And that chain is really enormous (they have a dozen stores in Massachusetts/RI/NH -- I was aware of _two_ of them). Yelp suggests that as Value Village is the default Thrift Store in Seattle, so Savers is around here.

(2) Value Village/Savers is a buyer from, well, everyone else. _Everyone_ else. So I missed a step in the value chain, which is Important.

(3) Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" spent several weeks at #1, which sort of suggests that a whole lot of people were connecting to the experience described in the song.

It makes sense to me that Thrifting belongs to the "sharing economy" that is AirBnB, ZipCar, RelayRides, Uber, blah, blah, bleeping blah.

SMART, a trade association for Secondary Materials, etc., has been bashing its head somewhat unsuccessfully against a tariff on imported used clothing. The tariff is on _new_ clothing, but the interpretation is that it's only "used" if it is falling apart. Used wearable clothing is subject to tariff just like new. So if you were ever looking for a reason why used clothing exits the US and doesn't enter, well, that could be a factor and the fact the trade association is fighting it suggests that the world might one day be Otherwise.

I'm now off on the unlikely to be successful mission to figure out the current state of automation in the industry. It seems crazy low, which is okay at first (especially for non-profits or even for-profits willing to work with governments and NGOs who are attempting to do job placement for people who have difficulty accessing the job market, supported employment type of thing), but you'll use up your cheap labor fast and then you'll have to automate or labor costs will limit your.

R., aka "B." also told me about the "dead man's clothing" euphemism, which is clearly real and quite widespread, altho I'm not entirely certain what the connotations of the phrase are when it is used, vs. when someone first hears about it.

Sample coverage suggesting that "dead man's clothing" is more about class than about ew ick someone died: http://www.arabnews.com/node/329159

Textile Recycling Link Fu

http://www.betterplace-lab.org/en/blog/exposing-the-used-clothing-market

I found this via google images; I'm sorting for pictures of how textiles are sorted. Currently, it looks like amateur hour is a bunch of tables, and mid-range professional operations have belts and people standing along them, so you don't need to feed the tables by hand. I don't know what a high end operation looks like -- that's what I want to know.

The article is interesting because the author's tone is really even and compassionate and his position clearly presented, also because it is a UK and Germany perspective; you can never assume that things are the same in one place as another and the changes are unpredictable.

ETA: Swiss people sorting used clothing: http://www.texaid.ch/en-us/textilerecycling/sorting.aspx
This probably is a high-end operation. Belts and headset microphones.

ETA: 2009 article about SortUK

http://www.letsrecycle.com/news/latest-news/textiles/positive-response-to-textile-sorting-initiative-sortuk

More concerns about input streams being diverted, accusations that other participants in the industry are Behaving Badly (landfilling, illegal labor, etc.).

http://www.waste-management-world.com/articles/2013/06/textile-recyclers-fighting-for-survival-in-face-of-crime---price.html

This one says that people have been stealing bins, that the price of the stream has gone up at the same time that volume has dropped. It also notes margin pressure in the US.

The Dutch textile recyclers are here:

http://www.textielrecycling.nl/templates/mercury.asp?page_id=1633

Here is the Bureau of International Recycling on the subject of textiles.

http://www.bir.org/industry/textiles/

Here's a hopelessly problematic opener:

"Today, clothing not only responds to practical needs; fashion has become a form of self-expression"

The author appears to believe that at some point in the mists of the past, clothing was once purely practical and fashion was NOT a form of self-expression. Ha! Probably the opposite of true, and clothing began as an impractical form of self-expression, but then we co-evolved to allow us to live in places where unadorned humanity would never have survived.

Their processing picture is belts.

Jargon: Credential Clothing is non-cherry picked clothing from a container in a, er, cherry-picked neighborhood.

http://alarecycling.com/recycling/credential-used-clothing-recycling/

I feel like this explains a lot. It's sort of like when I was a kid, and we only went to garage/yard sales in certain neighborhoods.

ETA: Numbers on employees, pounds per day, number of grades and a list of (most of) the grades

http://tranclo.com/buyers.asp

Sounds like each item is handled for maybe 15 seconds at a time, and some fraction of the items are getting multiple passes.

ETA: When items are not reusable, they can still be sorted by color and turned into yarn that does not have to be redyed.

http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/hook--loom-rug-co-pioneers-use-of-recovered-textile-fiber-to-create-colorful-eco-friendly-hand-woven-rugs-226305761.html

History, Doomed, Something or Other

My husband told me he saw an article about textile manufacturers in the US being unable to find workers. I was unable to find the article, which supposedly was about Minnesota. Which, to be honest, I sort of didn't believe in, because Minnesota? Textiles? Well, his memory about Minnesota was correct, altho the NPR bit was maybe not right. It was in the Boston Globe.

I figured I'd wrap up my digging around in textile recycling by searching on textiles in google news and stumbled across it.

http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2013/09/29/amid-rebound-textile-factories-scramble-find-skilled-workers/ta0PxNNGipi6SqE6JDn7cO/story.html

Here are some things that are worth pointing out.

(1) http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes516031.htm Sewing machine operators in the US appear to be kinda scarce -- and not very well paid. No wonder AirTex is having trouble finding them. I don't think you're going to see this wage rate -- especially not in Minneapolis, which has a notoriously high cost of living -- in conjunction with making people pay for their own training. _Especially_ not if the going rate in _China_ is $11/hour.

(2) "In the various waves of American textile production, dating to the 1800s, the problem of an available and willing workforce solved itself.

Little capital was required — the boss just needed sewing equipment and people willing to work. That made it an attractive business for newly arrived immigrants."

Kinda breathtaking, given how hard labor worked to put a stop to management just importing entire villages full of people to break strikes. People _died_ over this sort of thing. Having it erased from our history makes me feel ill.

ETA: Oh, yeah, and then there was that whole move the factory South phase as well, and then there was the whole Don't Let the Black People Leave phase . . . Roland points out that while it seems like little capital from our perspective, at the time it wasn't so little at all.

Manufacturing is up against what the health care industry is up against. There are plenty of people eager to do the work that needs to be done. But not at the going rate -- and not when the education costs as much as it does, for an uncertain future return (well, it's certainly low, and might be zero).

We have apparently _finally_ hit a point where getting people from Somewhere Else to do the work (either by exporting the work or importing the people) is breaking down. From here, labor actually has a chance to improve its lot. Or possibly robots. Maybe both.