Clothing operations linked to controversial Danish group continue to thrive

Organizations linked to Tvind come under scrutiny

Chicago Tribune/May 14, 2011

Some of the most ubiquitous clothing donation boxes in the nation are also the most controversial.

In 2004 the Tribune published an investigation on the hundreds of green donation boxes that had started appearing all over the Chicago area. It found they are connected to a Danish group called Tvind, and financial records showed that Gaia, the main Tvind-related organization in Chicago, was spending a very small percentage of its revenue on environmental projects.

Tvind's leader, Amdi Petersen, had been taken into custody in Los Angeles at the time and was extradited to Denmark to stand trial on embezzlement and tax evasion charges. A judge eventually found Petersen not guilty, but he left the country in 2006 before the government could file an appeal.

Since then, numerous other journalists have published or aired investigations into Tvind-related clothing boxes, which are labeled Gaia, USAgain, Planet Aid, IICD and Humana. British journalist Michael Durham operates a website,, that tracks the organization's many interconnected businesses, properties and charitable operations around the world. And philanthropy watchdogs have given failing ratings to most of Tvind's clothing operations.

Yet those operations have flourished, with thousands of boxes now on American streets.

The American Institute of Philanthropy says it gives an F grade to both Gaia and fellow Tvind-related group Planet Aid (which has boxes in about 80 cities in 20 states mostly outside the Midwest) for lack of transparency, insufficient spending on program services (11 to 44 percent) and too much spending on fundraising ($76 to $85 per $100 raised).

The Better Business Bureau said Gaia failed to meet eight of its 20 charity accountability standards, noting that it classified money it spent on its clothing resale business as a charitable program expense rather than a fundraising expense. It further notes that if Gaia's clothes collection activities are counted as fundraising, only 1 percent of all revenue is spent on "program service activities."

Those assessments were based on 2008 reports, and Gaia said it has recently changed some of its accounting practices so that only parts of its clothes collection operations are called "program services." Director Eva Nielsen adds that Gaia has cleaned up thousands of toys from its bins and donated them to Chicago children, as well as donating many winter coats from the bins to prisoners.

The Better Business Bureau gives an A to the Tvind-related for-profit recycling company USAgain - citing among other factors a lack of complaints filed - but reminds potential donors that USAgain is not a charitable organization as some may believe. Some of its boxes still state its commercial nature in relatively small lettering at the bottom.

Among the Tvind-related organizations in the U.S. are camps where volunteers train for projects in the developing world. Former volunteers have reported they were told to place boxes and sort clothes to help work off their tuition. Others said box placement was a mandatory part of their preparation for going abroad.

Former USAgain Seattle operations manager Lea White told the Herald & Review newspaper in central Illinois earlier this year that she and other employees never explained the for-profit nature of the company to owners of sites where boxes were placed.

"Yes," White told the Herald & Review, "your community is being deceived."

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