Up until a few years ago, Bernd always used to carry several six-pack crates of mineral water and Coca Cola to his truck before leaving his house in Hünstetten in the Taunus region of Germany early in the morning. But back then, his lorry was a lot bigger and his tours lasted several days. The burly 44-year-old FWS service staff member from the federal state of Hesse has always been interested in cars, and of course foreign countries, too. When he first set off across the Brenner Pass in the Alps in his 30-ton truck, he thought he was in heaven.
“But the sense of freedom soon wears down,” says Bernd in his familiar Hesse dialect. The sheer fun of being on the road was simply not enough to make up for the deadline pressure, the weary hours at the wheel and in particular the long periods spent away from home. “If you’re 20 or 22 years old, being a trucker is more than just a job, but with a family that all changes.” So Bernd spent quite a while looking for a job that allowed him to keep driving trucks but sleep in his own bed at night, too. When his second child was born, he finally made the move: the truck was smaller and the distances he had to cover were shorter - much shorter.
Today he climbs into a 3.5-ton Mercedes Sprinter every morning to cover his route. In the Rhine-Main region he is responsible for emptying and maintaining his designated textile collection containers within a radius of 40 kilometres . His daily schedule takes in 20 or 30 so-called depot containers. “It can be done very smoothly providing you’re well organized and stay on the ball,” he says. “The route has to be just right, you see. Every metre costs time and fuel,” he adds with a grin. “It’s just the way my mind ticks - it's stayed with me from the old days.” Sure enough: the collection routes for the second-hand textiles really are as short as possible. The FWS network consists of more than 30 service teams and over 100 loading stations throughout Germany – that's unique! The Bremen-based company always works in collaboration with local companies. They know the area so they can respond quickly - it’s the only way to ensure a 24-hour service as promised.
Bernd takes a different route every day. He empties some containers every two to three days, while others he only sees once every two weeks. It all depends on where they’re located. When he arrives at a container, he opens it up and packages obvious garbage in red waste bags. This accounts for 5 to 10 % of the content. Then the used textiles are packaged in transparent yellow FWS bags. This means that the sorters can get a rough idea of the content just by looking at the bag. After this, a barcode scanner is used to record the fill level and this information is sent back to head office along with the GPS data. Before going onto the next one, Bernd clears up the area around the container. “Leave the container the way you’d like to find it.” That’s a pretty sound motto! Then he drives on through the Taunus region to the next container site. Along the way Bernd remembers all kinds of stories. “On one occasion, an elderly lady had hidden her savings in a pillowcase. Unfortunately she forgot about it when she was clearing out the wardrobe. She was in a real state when she called the number on the container. But it all turned out well.“ Head office was indeed able to trace the item concerned and Bernd returned the precious pillow in person that evening. “That kind of thing doesn't exactly happen every day of course, but I do have a lot of contact with people – it's something I enjoy”, says the FWS driver.
When the tour is over, the content of the van is gradually loaded off onto a truck swap body before it makes its way to one of the various FWS sorting facilities. Bernd heaves the yield of his tour out of the van sack by sack. “A bit of fitness in the evening,” he says, a little out of breath. “I never used to get this much exercise. My wife thinks it’s great.” And a quarter of an hour later he’s back home again – just like every evening. Short distances.
Behind an inconspicuous facade on an industrial estate near Luxembourg, Meyers Charles and his team spend every day working on an important task: new life goals. At the “Centre d'Insertion et de Réinsertion Professionnelle” – a youth reintegration centre known locally as ‘Jongenheem’ – social workers, educators and skilled crafts experts work with marginalized youngsters to help give them a perspective in life. And second-hand textiles are often the “raw materials” they use to do so.
The “Jongenheem” has a long tradition of supporting young people in Luxembourg. Founded by priests after the war as a boarding school for the children of artisans and farmers, it has been sponsored by the state for more than 40 years. Today the Jongenheem provides a place to live for more than 120 young people. More than 80 teenagers and young adults manage to find a job through the programmes offered at the Jongenheem workshops. “Our mission is to motivate young people, stabilize them and help them focus on getting a job. Not all adolescents in Luxembourg who finish school at 15 find it easy to do this. With us they get a structure, as well as developing a sense of learning discipline and goal orientation,” says Charles, director of the Jongenheem. Another key aim is social integration: half of those working at the Jongenheem have African roots. In addition to a woodwork shop, a sewing and ironing service, a restaurant, a gardening service and an electrical workshop, textile recycling has been one of the main activities for more than 40 years.
It started in collaboration with the Kolping Association, which traditionally runs a major street collection of used textiles in September with up to 300 volunteers. But changing consumer behaviour and housing conditions called for a new approach here, too. “Here in Luxembourg, the apartments are very expensive so they tend to be small. Virtually nobody has the space to stack their discarded clothes for collection,” says Charles. So Jongenheem and Kolping decided to set up the first depot containers 25 years ago. Since then, the bright orange containers have been distributed all over the country. They are taken care of, maintained and emptied - work which is all done by Jongenheem teams. Two youngsters set off in a van with their supervisor in the morning and cover the route. In this way, many hundreds of tons of used textiles are collected each year, which FWS then feeds back into the recycling circuit via professional sorting. This not only gives the adolescents a meaningful activity, it also provides them with a job pays their social insurance. And in Luxembourg that is currently EUR 1,900.-.
But recently Charles and his team have branched out into a new project with the clothes they collect. The magic word here is upcycling: discarded jeans are used to make new patchwork-style cushions, iPad covers and bags. There are currently five adolescents who do this work, training to use a needle and thread in the tailor’s workshop as they go. Having met with a good response so far, Charles is now planning another step. “We’ll be presenting upcycling goods at Christmas markets. This year on Gutenbergplatz in Strasbourg in fact!” So the second-hand fabrics from the Jongenheem are now embarking on a career as designer products.
When she trained to become an office assistant, Sabrina König from Bremen learned more than just the typical skills required for the job - including a good deal of self-assurance, independence and environmental awareness. For FWS, sustainability is a key issue when it comes to human resources management, too.
When we meet her for interview, Sabrina König from Bremen just has a few weeks to go before her exams. The 21-year-old has an air of confidence about her at her workplace at the FWS office in the centre of Bremen. “I feel well prepared and I’m very grateful to have been able to do my training with FWS. People here looked after me right from the start, always taking plenty of time to explain everything. There is very harmonious sense of teamwork here, even across the different departments. That’s important, because recycling is a very diverse field,” says the budding office assistant. Before she started her training just over two years ago, she had no idea how interesting it would be to work for a textile recycling company. “I’d seen second-hand clothes containers now and again but never used them.” It wasn’t until she joined the company that the young lady learned about how the disposal of used clothes in an FWS container marks the start of a whole new lifecycle. When she’s involved in work in the field, Sabrina visits sorting facilities and watches used garments being sorted by hand according to more than 300 criteria and then put to new use. From here, used T-shirts, blouses, trousers etc. go back into the economic cycle as second-hand items or as raw material.
“I was surprised to find out how positively this impacts on the environment, for example, and I’m actually quite proud to be able to make a contribution myself through my work,” she says. Today she not only likes to ride her bike to work but every now and then to the used clothes container, too. “I don’t put my old clothes in the garbage any more when I clear out my wardrobe. Why would you just throw things away when there’s so much that can be done with them?!”
Joyce’s workplace is well-shaded and rainproof at all times - perfect for the seamstress from Ombasi, a small town in the very south of South Sudan.
You can barely see the local market from the road: you have to go through the little wooden huts with corrugated iron roofs to get there. The market itself is a whole new world of its own: multi-coloured, noisy and usually cheerful. The dry season is just coming to an end, so the first bouts of heavy rainfall are beginning to interrupt each day. The farmers have been waiting for the rain for a long time, playing their drums at night to encourage it, but the market women tend to be more apprehensive. After all, during the rainy season the red, loamy soil is transformed into a thick sludge – not a good prospect for the roads and marketplace. At the centre of the big square, local farmers have spread out their goods on blankets and boxes beneath huge mango trees: bananas, okra seedpods, rock salt, pineapples, sesame oil, avocados and dried green coffee. There is a vast selection, and prices are low to suit people’s income levels.
The wooden huts around the market sell higher-quality goods. Here, there are dealers who stock everything the local people need: bicycle tyres, plastic toys, milk powder, school exercise books and cheap clothes from the Far East. Everything is imported from nearby Uganda so it's expensive. Joyce has found her place between all the stores. What she and her colleague Simon have to offer here is unique: Joyce is a seamstress. Her two old sewing machines are in excellent shape and have one crucial advantage over modern appliances: they are operated by pedal so they don’t require electricity, which only comes out of generators. People dress in very different ways in South Sudan. They wear traditional clothes made from colourfully patterned fabrics imported from Uganda or West Africa. Or else they opt for new products from China, tailor-made garments or used clothing from Europe. Joyce most enjoys making traditional clothes of course. But these have become less common in a country which has still not come to rest after winning its bloody fight for independence. The multi-coloured traditional clothes are expensive and not very practical for everyday use. The same applies to tailor-made shirts and trousers. They look smart, but the fabric is synthetic. Joyce usually buys her fabric and thread in small quantities on the market in Yei, about 25 kilometres away. It’s a city with an estimated population of one million, although this is not immediately apparent. Of course Joyce could buy her materials herself in Uganda - there are plenty of buses that go to the border some 45 kilometres away. But tickets cost 100 pounds, equivalent to more than 10 dollars, so it’s only worth making the trip for large quantities. And she lacks the capital for that.
In view of the high temperatures and even higher air humidity, the shirts and trousers Joyce makes Joyce from synthetic fabrics are only suitable to be worn on Sundays and public holidays. What is more, the clothes have to withstand being washed in the nearby Yei river. This is the great problem with the colourful clothes to be seen here in on the stands that are brand new and wrapped in crispy cellophane: they don’t look this good for long. And then there’s mitumba (second-hand clothing) that has come all the way from Europe and the USA. We ask Joyce whether she regards the used textiles as competition. She laughs: “No, why should they be? In fact the opposite is true.” The garments rarely fit people properly here. And if something doesn’t fit, they bring it to her. Alterations account for a significant share of her turnover. A new pair of trousers costs the equivalent of eight dollars, a new shirt only 2.50. But that’s a lot of money in a region where the vast majority of the population has to make do with far less than one dollar per day. Many live off subsistence farming so they are practically cut off from the monetary economy. But getting Joyce to alter a pair of used trousers only costs a few cents. So altering second-hand clothes is a welcome source of income. At work she wears a dress she made herself of course. And at home? “Of course,” she says, “I have mitumba too. It’s comfortable and practical.”
Olga is a fast worker and she’s good at making decisions. These are excellent qualities for her job. After all, she has to make 10,000 decisions a day - each in fraction of a second. Of German-Russian origin, the young lady works in the pre-sorting department of one of the large sorting facilities for used clothes. Everything here has come from wardrobes in Germany – and there’s a lot.
According to a current study, there are an average of 18 items of clothing in every German wardrobe that are never worn, or only rarely. Anything that has found its way to the used clothes container will often end up here in Bremerhaven, on Olga’s sorting table. She handles up to 2.5 tons of textiles in a single shift. Having picked up an item she takes one look at it, then another, turns it over, takes one more look and then throws into one of boxes - and it’s always the right box, incidentally. Olga has 21 boxes spread out in front of her and the same number behind her. They bear labels such as Charity, Knitwear, Sport and UTS. There are also colour codes in red, green and blue - which stand for good, medium and recycling. Olga has to assess each individual garment in a split second: material, quality, condition and marketability. The table is gradually cleared as the items disappear into the boxes, one by one - and at the press of a button the transport system disgorges the next 80 kilos. No machine can replace Olga’s instinct, keen eye and accurate assessment. Since she and her crew do their work thoroughly and expertly in the pre-sorting stage, her colleagues in the fine screening department get a constant supply of accurately sorted textiles. This is the only way to ensure that by the end of a sorting process, up to 350 categories of used clothing emerge from the content of the collection containers - ready to be sent off around the world. What remains is waste, which accounts for less than five per cent of the incoming material.
It rarely happens that Olga goes to work at sunrise - only on a few days in midsummer. This is because the working day at the sorting facility on the edge of Bremerhaven’s port district starts early – very early! But Olga likes getting up at the crack of dawn - and that’s something she shares with her colleagues in the pre-sorting department. According to the schedule she starts sorting used clothes every day at 6.30 am. But most of the sorting tables are actually occupied half an hour earlier. In addition to a standard wage rate, the pre-sorters get a bonus for every kilo of the best category. It’s an incentive that gives them an even keener eye. The ladies work 40 hours a week at their sorting tables. The job is full-time, permanent and pays their social insurance of course. This is by no means to be taken for granted in an economically underdeveloped area such as Bremerhaven where the unemployment rate is more than twice the German average. The job does not require previous experience or training and only a limited knowledge of German, but special skills and dedication are expected. This makes the job attractive to many who would otherwise barely have a chance on the labour market. As a result there are large numbers of women from Lithuania, Russia and Poland among the pre-sorters. They do not have professional qualifications that are recognized in Germany and often struggle with the language barrier in their day-to-day lives - but none of that matters here. A keen eye and a feel for good clothing are international.
When you emerge from the traffic chaos of Nairobi and leave the asphalted road near Narok, you approach the settlement area of the Maasai. This relatively small ethnic group is caught up perhaps more than any other between the contradictions of a traditional and a modern lifestyle. It is a phenomenon experienced on a day-to-day basis by Legishon, a Maasai from the Eastern Province of Kenya. You can see even see it in his clothes.
A pastoral people that is still semi-nomadic, this ethnic group is probably the best known of all East Africa. Numerous books and films have made the Maasai well-known far beyond the borders of their ancestral homelands in Kenya and Tanzania. The Maasai’s settlement areas are situated in the Serengeti and in Maasai Mara National Park, which are visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world ever year, so this is probably one of the reasons why this formerly warlike people has gained something of a worldwide reputation.
There is no doubt about it: the Maasai certainly have a striking appearance. You cannot miss their helix piercings, colourful traditional adornments and large ear holes. But they can be identified above all by the “shuka” - a large, brightly coloured blanket in striking red tones. For modern Maasai, too, this universal garment is indispensable and part of their proud identity.
The “enkaji” stand away from the main roads: low, circular huts made of mud and dung covered with densely thatched roofs. We’re visiting the enkaji belonging to Legishon, the clan chief’s 28-year-old son. The name is very apt, as Legishon means “The polite one”. Beforehand, he and other “morani” welcomed us to their “enknag” or village with a traditional dance. The young warriors wore a shuka and lots of jewellery, since this is all part of the way they dress and present themselves.
Legishon has four huts and four wives, so by traditional Maasai standards he is very well established. But our host is relatively prosperous by modern standards, too.
The times in which the Maasai were able to live solely off livestock breeding are long past. Tourism is a second mainstay that is becoming increasingly important for Legishon’s family and indeed for all Maasai. When Legishon appears again after a short break, he has thrown his shuka casually over his shoulder and his now wearing jeans and a faded T-shirt. He invites us into his hut, where the fire burns day and night. The windows are tiny. The unaccustomed eye takes a while to get used to the darkness and the thick smoke. For Legishon the darkness is not a problem - he has been used to it since he was a child.
While we talk, Legishon’s face is lit up again and again by the screen of his iPhone. The young man seems to be popular: WhatsApp messages keep coming in during our visit. It would wrong to assume that encounters with tourists have severely altered the Maasai’s way of life. There are simply too few things in common between the worlds of the visitors and the visited. The real revolution came from the numerous transmitter masts, originally intended to provide network coverage for the tourists. Initially the power generators in the Maasai settlements were only switched on for the televisions. As the development of technology progressed, however, demand grew for the products advertised on TV.
It has become rather cool outside. Residents gather in front of the television at 7 pm as the sun goes down to watch “Papa Shirandula” together, as they do every evening. They use their shukas as blankets to keep warm. The programme is a superficial comedy soap series featuring a clumsy protagonist: its sheer simplicity is what makes it so popular. The life of the smart but stressed-out city dwellers is constantly turned upside down by ignorant country bumpkins. The people gathered here know exactly who is meant and which group they don’t want to belong to.
In addition to mobile phones and motorbikes, clothing is among the most common status symbols here - as it is everywhere in the world. And that means western clothing of course. Especially popular items are those bearing sports equipment manufacturer labels, world famous jeans brands and the shirts of English football clubs. Apart from a few boutiques in the capital, new brand-name clothing is virtually impossible to get hold of here. So it doesn’t matter at all that the much-coveted shirts, jeans and shorts worn by the young Maasai have travelled a long way and come from someone else’s wardrobe. Mitumba – or second-hand clothing – is both widespread and highly popular in Kenya. It has to be in good condition, fashionable and robust - otherwise it’s difficult to sell. New products from the Far East are also available but not very popular, even though they are often cheaper than mitumba. But they lack quality and the bright colours don’t always appeal to people’s taste.
In the main Maasai town there are huge mitumba markets where the region’s residents do their clothes shopping. Hundreds of dealers and distributors live off this trade. A T-shirt costs the equivalent of about three dollars, a pair of jeans five or even seven dollars, depending on the condition. At a current average monthly income of 68 dollars, this would be a rare investment. Sometimes relatives bring individual items from Nairobi with them. Prices are much cheaper there and there’s a bigger selection, too. But these garments have to be durable and make a lasting impression. After all, nobody here wants to walk around like the country bumpkins in the TV series.
It’s late. The television is the only source of light. We take our leave of Legishon and set off for the nearby camp. Legishon’s smartphone rings. It’s a Facebook message. Tomorrow he can look forward to another day of cattle breeding and tourists, ritual dances and satellite TV, jeans and shuka. A life between the traditional and the modern.
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