Neighborhood Industries is a social enterprise. It takes a market-driven approach to business coupled with a non-profit mission to care for the environment and help people in need.
It all starts with too much stuff. The company will pick up your used clothes, stained T-shirts, old rags, ripped jeans, electronics, broken vacuum cleaners, and even random wires.
“We have routes that service Fresno specifically. But we also service about 320, 330 donation bins between Bakersfield and Sacramento,” says CEO Anthony Armor.
Trucks even pick up things that other thrift stores can’t sell. And what makes Neighborhood Industries unique is very little of the second hand material ends up in a landfill.
“We try to keep our waste under 5 percent,” says Armor. “That’s just garbage, that’s just stuff we can’t do anything with it.”
So where does it all go? Some of it is sold at the Neighborhood Thrift store in the Tower District. And the rest? Well, it ends up in a vast warehouse just south of Roeding Park in Fresno. On this chilly morning, Aaron Arnold is baling clothes like a farmer bales hay. But instead of a pitch fork, he empties trash bags full of shirts, pants and dresses into a vertical baling press that smashes them down into a huge colorful cube.
“I’m wiring the bale down so the clothes don’t go everywhere,” he says.
He turns on the machine and the intact bale drops out. Next a forklift grabs it and adds it to the rows upon rows of bales waiting to be picked up by a truck. The bales typically go to grading houses in places like Oregon or even Ontario Canada. Grading houses take a more detailed inventory of the clothes -- evaluating them piece by piece. Some of it then goes to vintage buyers or even second hand stores both domestically and abroad.The stuff that is too damaged to sell is shredded and turned into carpet padding or fiber for insulation.
“It’s all just jobs that are created and sustained by collecting and processing these clothes,” says
Director of Development Ricky Bravo.
He says the the point of all this stuff is jobs. Neighborhood Industries hires people who have had major barriers to getting work -- maybe they can’t read or they lost their driver’s license because of unpaid traffic tickets.
That was Aaron Arnold’s situation. And he couldn’t afford to get a new license because he owed child support. He was out of work for a long time. But then he says, he got lucky.
“Most of the welfare [to] work places don’t have programs like this. They paid a couple payments of child support, they gave me money towards PG&E for a month, have helped out in a lot of different ways,” he says of Neighborhood Industries.
Revenue from the thrift store and the recycling warehouse pays for a full time social worker who figures out what employees need to stabilize their lives and keep their jobs. It might be literacy classes or getting a GED. For Arnold, the job of baling clothes has been life changing.
“I don’t have to look at my kids like ‘uh daddy can’t do it because his own mistakes,’” he says.
But it’s not just clothes that provide jobs.
Chue Yang works on the other side of the warehouse where giant cardboard boxes are labeled with spray painted signs that say things like “Flat Screens” and “Motor Breakage.” Yang untangles wires from metal pots and other stuff that looks like junk.
“Some of these metals, stuff here, I’ll test it out, see what kind of metal it is. I have a magnet here to test,” he says.
He picks up an old coffee pot. “This is stainless steel and I have a little bin here. That’s where I toss them,” he says throwing it into the bin.
All of these things are sold to brokers who specialize in recycling metal or transformers or things like number 3 wires.
And now Neighborhood Industries is growing its enterprise with a new pop-up store in downtown Fresno. It sells used higher end fashion -- at higher prices -- all in the name of more jobs. At a recent ArtHop, customer Lorraine Sepeda dropped in. She found a San Francisco Giants bomber jacket.
“Pinstriped down the arm,” she says describing her find. “It’s light enough for a day game, but you could still use it for a cold night with a scarf and a beanie.”
A scarf and a beanie that she might be able to find next time she shops here.