It's hard to top a job where you get paid to evaluate strains, so we thought we'd take it the other direction: Here's our team's Worst Day On A Job stories
By Kendra Vair-Haley
Ever wonder what happens to the bags of clothing you’ve pushed through the mailbox-like revolving door of those large blue donation bins in the corner of some parking lot? I know all too well what happens next and it’s not a path you want to follow.
Of all the jobs I’ve had, buying clothing for a living seems like it should have been the best one. I like clothing, I like shopping and I was being paid to spend someone else’s money. Seems great, right? Wrong.
The used and vintage clothing industry, AKA the Rag Trade, aims to carve a small dent out of a larger environmental problem created by our need for textiles. A recent study shows that one garbage truck of textiles is wasted every second and fashion is responsible for 92 million tons of solid waste dumped in landfills each year. As fast fashion continues to gain traction we are constantly contributing to the ever-growing pile of waste.
While there are negative aspects to the industry, there are many companies working hard to recover and recycle textiles. I’ve been to factories that had assembly lines set up to sort the cotton whites, wash and tear them up to be reused for car seat filler. My colleagues and I recovered thousands of pounds of mom jeans that saw a second round of life as hipsters took the stage. But in the grand scheme of things, the life of a garment is relatively short and digging through the reject pile is one of the filthiest jobs imaginable.
I was hired to travel to California and Arizona where clothing isn’t ruined by winter street salt to work in raghouses, procure clothing and and ship large quantities back to Canada to sell in used and vintage clothing stores. Though it may sound glamorous to travel and buy clothing for a living, most of the places I worked in were cold warehouses or factories with piles of dirty laundry stacked to the rafters by migrant workers wearing surgical face-masks to prevent inhalation of the dust and dirt that was everywhere. I found myself looking through piles of tyed-die, plaid or denim searching for unique and interesting pieces that were salvageable enough to resell.
I found love letters and grocery lists, diamond earrings and receipts, drugs, gum and once-through-the-wash wallets. Every day was an endless sea of tossed-aside wares and not-so-precious treasures.
The bins we searched through contained around 4000 individual articles of clothing and weighed approximately 1000 lbs. On a typical day we would search through up to eight bins and countless 100lb shrink-wrapped bales.
I had a system. (Project manager. Go figure.)
Pick quick, lay flat or toss, repeat. Once I got through the whole bin I would examine my pile more closely and discard or keep what we could turn a profit on. We worked block shifts of four weeks on, two weeks off, of physically demanding 12 hour days. I was lucky enough to work with close friends making the most of our weekends and enjoying our time travelling together. On this particular occasion my crew and I hadn’t booked flights home at the same time and I was sticking around longer than everyone else.
It was the last day of work at the end of a long few weeks and I was the only one from my crew left at the warehouse. At the end of a twelve hour day, I was punching out to leave the warehouse floor when I reached in my pocket and realized I had lost the rental car keys in the mountain range of clothing piles.
I panicked recalling the key replacement clause in my rental agreement was $300.00 USD and went back to the hills to start my search. I tore the warehouse floor apart for four hours, shaking down every dirty, discarded piece of clothing I could get my hands on before I finally caved and called a tow truck.
While trying to translate the directions given to me from the Spanish-speaking woman at the front desk, I gave the driver the wrong address. Two hours, five phones calls later he finally showed up to rescue me from the industrial wastelands of Phoenix, Arizona.
But of course, things could always be worse.
As I returned back to the rental unit, I discovered I lost the apartment keys too. My passport, a month’s worth of clothing, phone charger, camera, toiletries and what was left of my dignity, was inside this unit. After trying fruitlessly to break and enter, I called the superintendent for an extra set of keys, and was told he would be there in two hours.
Four hours later, I was let into the apartment, packed my bags, and went to the airport. Only to miss my flight home on Thanksgiving. It was the longest twenty-two hour work day I hope never to repeat again.