The Shirt Off Your Back


ONE button. A single shard of plastic, that had escaped the wrestling match that is a sewing needle and thread, was all that was missing from Colin Hannigan’s shirt on Saturday. But for Lifeline’s Queensland Business Development Manager, it was the difference between this item of clothing being discarded, and it ending up on Colin’s back. The shirt itself was freshly pressed, Colin’s eyes creased in the corners like someone who has seen it all in his job, but can still crack a smile. Think giving someone the shirt off your back isn’t worthwhile? Think again. In Queensland alone, the clothes you donate result in a staggering $45 million a year in revenue for Lifeline, which uses the money to fund critical services such as its phone support services.

It was an unexpected and delightful development when Hannigan took to the stage at Brisbane’s Eco Expo at the weekend. He was there for Lifeline’s $2 clothing sale where 40,000 items were on sale for the price of a gold coin. But a last-minute cancellation saw him on the stage to speak. I nearly didn’t stay for his talk, so intent was I on hearing the person who no longer could make it. Funny that. How life works out. But I decided to give Hannigan five minutes. And from the moment he started speaking, I was hooked on the power of the clothes we wear, and more importantly, toss away like old relationships. And the ripples those seemingly simple actions have around the world.

Lifeline Queensland has 138 stores from South Tweed north to Mossman and as far west as Mount Isa. There’s nearly 1000 donation bins in the state. The top 10 per cent quality of these donations end up in Queensland stores. The next level, are sent to islands such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomons in the South Pacific. But here’s where it gets even more interesting. Australia has a free trade agreement into Dubai for its second-hand clothing where our donated clothes are combined with those from America and Europe and sent into places like Afghanistan for people such as refugees. At the end of the scale, there’s a commercial ragging business to transform tatty clothes into industrial rags. Only the bottom 10 per cent of donated clothes end up in landfill.

And that $45 million Lifeline Queensland makes? It funds their critical support line 13 11 14 which operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to assist people in crisis such as those contemplating suicide. It’s not cheap running a service like this. Each phone call costs the service $39 to answer once training, support and office space is taken into account. Hannigan says they are currently able to answer about 80 per cent of those calls. In an ideal world, they would answer 100 per cent and Hannigan is working on that, thinking of new ways to turn old items into gold.
“All of a sudden we had all of these donations of pillow cases. We sent them into the Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre and the women put straps on them and turned them into goodie bags,” Hannigan says.
“We sell these for $5 and we can’t keep up with demand. They are a really good example of how we are trying to avoid landfill. It is our last resort.
“Our waste bill is huge and if we could get rid of that cost we would be able to fund that 20 per cent gap of phone calls we can’t take.”

Hannigan says another issue is the ease at which Australians discard their clothes, citing the “Instagram generation” as one of the major perpetrators of such waste.
“Once they’ve had their photo taken on Instagram they can’t wear that item again. If we can get everyone under the age of 21 to wear everything twice…learn to accessorise,” he says.
“All of this is impacting on fast fashion. If we can take away this fuel, fast fashion will dissolve.”

Hannigan says the best way to donate is face-to-face in the store, the second is via a collection service and then there’s the Lifeline bins.
“It is fun shopping at Lifeline shops and digging through one of our sales. We see girls coming to our sales and they leave with between $2000 and $3000 worth of clothing with change out of a $100 note. We see refugees come in with an empty doona cover and they leave with it full of clothing for five families.
“We’ve done the research and one item of clothing passes through 38 hands by the time it leaves your hands, goes to the driver, the sorter, the packer and the store. And we employ 70 full-time people.
“Someone giving us a bag of clothing is the same as giving us a $50 bill, we really do appreciate it.”

Hannigan’s words resonate with me on this warm spring day where I’m wearing a light cotton summer frock I’ve bought in Bali from a local designer, hopefully injecting cash directly back into the Indonesian economy. I’m pleased to say I’ve worn it many more times than once. But I’m also becoming more and more aware of my footprint on the planet. Later that day, in a seminar about the burgeoning Tiny House movement at the Eco Expo, I learn that 1 billion people around the world live in slums. That’s 1 in 8 people on this planet. In a world where there are more than enough resources, it makes me want to weep.
Give someone the shirt off your back, it may just save a life.

To make clothing and furniture donations in Brisbane, you can call Lifeline on 36 32 10 10. Lifeline is opening a new retro clothing store in Stones Corner in two weeks.
If you need help, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
The Global Goddess funded her own ticket to the Brisbane Eco Expo and went with her fellow eco warrior No Impact Girl pictured below.

The reason for the season

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IT’S an uncharacteristically cool December Sunday afternoon and I’m toasting the festive season with some friends in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley at a leafy, outdoor bar when we’re approached by a woman asking for money. Two things strike me about this woman: she appears intoxicated and she’s with a group of friends when she asks whether she can have some change for a phone call. Whether she is genuine or otherwise is not for me to judge. Rather, it’s our reactions that interest me more. We’re all awkward and embarrassed. And frankly, don’t really know how to handle the situation. I look the woman squarely in the eye and say: “No, sorry, thank you.” She pauses for a brief moment, as if she’s comprehending her next move, then she simply looks back, and says “Have a Merry Christmas” before moving on to the next table.

The uncomfortable situation sparks a conversation among us. Did we do the right thing? Should we have handed her money? Would she have actually used it on a phone call or to buy alcohol? Australians are about as comfortable with begging as we are with tipping. Both scenarios are not part of our vernacular and we are clumsy when presented with them.

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A few years back, I wrote a story about confronting poverty when we travel for The Australian newspaper in which I stated: “Many tourists, with just a few short days to experience a city, grapple with ways in which to address the issue without making situations, like begging, worse. Few things test your character and mettle more than being exposed to extreme poverty, and the way in which you handle it can linger long after your plane has departed the impoverished land. At best, many travellers feel ineffectual and embarrassed, and at worst, some transform into the uncaring, ‘ugly Westerner’.”

At the time, I quoted a travel writer mate of mine Kristie Kellahan, who regularly volunteers in orphanages throughout south-east Asia, who suggested contacting aid organisations, such as the Red Cross, to assess the needs before you visit a country.

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Kellahan, who works with a Buddhist orphanage in Thailand’s Chiang Mai, advises travellers to think about what they are giving and avoid pushing Western values on to different cultures.

“People come to visit the orphanage and want to give the children reams and reams of toys and lollies and coke and ice-cream,” she said.

“What would be useful would be to turn up with medicine for baby formulae. But that doesn’t seem very exciting to those giving.

“You would prefer people bring educational supplies, things like blank exercise books, pencils, sharpeners and things like nappies for the babies.

“By supporting kids selling post cards and chewing gum, it encourages families to send their kids to the city and they may be missing out on essential services back home like education.”

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In my article, and with the advice of some incredible people working in the field of responsible tourism around the globe, I penned a list of things which travellers might consider before they arrive in a country and are confronted with the ugly truth of poverty.

 These include:

  •  Where possible, eat at locally-run restaurants and order local dishes, made from local produce
  •  Support local performances – many of which are held for free – and drop some money in the donation box at the end
  •  Buy locally-made souvenirs, straight from the source
  •  Speak to local charities before you go and ask the people-on-the ground best ways to make small differences when you get there
  •  Leave a tip for good service – it’s appreciated world wide whether you are rich or poor
  •  Donate an afternoon to read or speak English to local school children
  •  Continue to visit impoverished countries. Tourism is one of the greatest employers world wide
  •  Ask questions. Where is this money going? What are the benefits of donating? Become educated on the issues
  •  Tread carefully. Wait, watch and observe before you act

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So, what does this all mean back in Australia, the relatively Lucky Country?

Australian comedian Corinne Grant recently penned an excellent post “This Christmas We’re All Human” on The Hoopla in relation to this issue much closer to home.

“Any one of us could find ourselves in a difficult situation—a catastrophic illness that bankrupts you, a bad marriage break up that leaves you without a cent to your name, an undiagnosed mental illness rendering you incapable of making the sorts of decisions necessary to fend for yourself effectively. Becoming homeless is, frighteningly, far easier than many of us think,” Grant wrote.

In a timely reminder, Grant talks about the impact the sparkles and baubles must have on people who have nothing. Heck, I’m intimidated every time I see a Christmas advertisement from a major grocery chain in which (a) everyone appears to be middle-class and white (b) there’s an over-representation of white linen frocks and boat shoes and (c) everyone seems to be loving every other family member sick. I suspect, like me, that’s not the reality for many Australians. And, I imagine, even more devastating, if you are poor. (And let’s not forget if someone hadn’t loaned a certain young couple a barn in which to birth their baby, we may not be celebrating December 25).

VietnamCambodia2012 134“This time of year is miserable for the homeless. Many of the services they rely on close for Christmas or run on limited staff. Not only that, but everywhere they look are the cheery, tinselly reminders of a happy world full of food, family and love that is out of their reach. It must be crushing,” Grant wrote.

But what I took most away from her thoughtful post was her advice: “Next time someone asks you for change, look them in the eye. Give them money if you like but if not, smile at them and say, “Sorry, I can’t today.”

On Sunday, with Grant’s advice fresh in my mind, I looked that woman outside the bar squarely in the eye, and wished her a Merry Christmas back. It doesn’t solve the world’s issues, far from it, but for a brief second, we connected as fellow human beings. And surely, that’s really the reason for this season.

To read Corinne Grant’s post in full, please go to www.thehoopla.com.au. There’s a host of wonderful charities who assist those less fortunate at this time of year, including Vinnies – www.vinnies.org.au; The Smith Family – www.thesmithfamily.com.au; and Lifeline – www.lifeline.org.au.

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