What happens to used clothing?

I met Roubik my senior year in high school  We were at boarding school.  I was a US Citizen with my parents living in Lagos, Nigeria.  He was an Iranian Armenian with his parents living in Tehran, Iran.  It was the 70s.  It was Switzerland.  He and I didn’t really travel in the same circles.  He was a star tennis player.  I grew up playing tennis so I appreciated his skill and enjoyed watching him play.  Beyond that we had little in common.

I was on the volleyball team.  My junior year we won the championship for our division for all of Switzerland.  My coach was driven, she wanted to win.  The bad news was most of the good players graduated and we were left with a much smaller team.  So the coach came up with this brilliant idea.  She knew the Persian guys at school liked to play a pick up volleyball game from time to time.  She recruited them to be the team we practiced with.  That was how I met Roubik.  He was a killer volleyball player.

Since then we have kept in touch mainly through various reunions.  I met up with him in Miami in April and was very interested in his current line of work.  He works for SOEX Group, a textile recycling company.  I had never heard of it.

SOEX Group has facilities in 14 countries and employs over 2,500 people worldwide.  The main facilities are in Germany, California, and India. They collect used clothing and shoes in cooperation with major charity organizations such as the German Red Cross.  They also purchase used clothing in large quantities from charity organizations in the USA and other countries thus providing revenue to those organizations.  They collect, sort, grade and recycle in excess of 300,000,000 pounds or approximately 450,000,000 pieces of used clothing, used shoes and accessories every year.

The items are sorted into three categories.

Re-Wear – clothing and accessories are sorted and graded and sold in bulk to distributors/importers in developing countries.

Re-Use – secondary usage, for example, excess carpeting is cut up and sold as bath mats, or door mats.

Re-Cycle – discarded clothes and carpeting in too poor condition to be re-used are recycled into new industrial products such as carpet underlay, insulation for autos and construction, and nylon pellets that can be converted into commercial goods.  This process takes place in two of the major recycling factories, Wolfen, Germany, and Fresno, California.


I asked Roubik if he would be willing to answer some questions about himself and the SOEX Group.  Here is the interview:

Kathy:    What is your title?

Roubik:   Chief Executive Officer of all USA operations

Kathy:   Can you give a high level overview of what you do (personally)?

Roubik:  I am responsible for the following companies and facilities:

1- SOEX WEST USA, LLC which is a 130,000 sf grading and sorting facility in LA employing over 250 individuals. We process between 80-100 million pounds of used clothing, used shoes and accessories annually.

2- SOEX WEST TEXTILE RECYCLING, LLC which is a 280,000 sf textile recycling factory on 24 acres of land employing over 60 individuals. This factory is responsible for pulling fiber and producing multiple qualities of padding and insulation material for the mattress industry, the automotive industry as well as residential and commercial construction industry.

3- SOEX EAST USA, LLC which is a 23,000 square foot quality control and export facility in Rahway, NJ employing 6 individuals.

4- We are also partners in several related companies such as a used clothing brokerage company in Seattle, Washington and a fashion company in LA. I’m not involved in the day to day operations of these companies; however, I’m involved with quarterly reviews and board of directors meetings.

Kathy:  What do you find most rewarding about your work?

Roubik:  In general I find “work” very rewarding; therefore, I’ve always felt rewarded no matter what I’ve done. I do however find this work more rewarding for the following reasons…

1- Creating jobs/employment in the US in large numbers.

2- Producing new products 100% from recycled textiles that are consumed by the US market.

3- Of course it goes without saying that helping our one and only planet is very rewarding.

4- Providing current worldwide fashion and high quality apparel to the citizens of the developing countries.

5- Creating layers of entrepreneurship and employment in the developing countries.

6- This is not exclusive to this position, I find teaching and helping young people develop as human beings extremely rewarding. I love observing over a period of time the development of young and insecure person into a confident and happy individual.

I spend many hours talking to our staff about life, family, their children and their individual growth. This I find the most rewarding part of my work.


Kathy:  How important is recycling to the environment?  Doesn’t it use more energy and additional waste?

Roubik:   These are very complex questions and the answers are constantly changing as new information and new technologies become available.

In general I would say, we as the temporary custodians of our planet don’t have an option but to think of ways to help the environment. As we move forward and as years go by I’m sure we will discover that some of the things and the ways we did things weren’t the best or the most efficient; however, this shouldn’t stop us from moving forward. I will quote one of the speakers at my daughter’s graduation last weekend, he was talking about the field of medicine and said “50% of what we’ve taught you in the past four years will be wrong in ten years”. This means constant education and reevaluation of our work is a must to guarantee a positive outcome.

We must also recognize that the US as the richest and most developed country has a long way to go to reach the levels recycling that are experienced in some Western European countries.

I strongly believe that one of the best ways to recycle is to “extend the life of a product” and that is exactly what SOEX GROUP does. However, we must recycle those articles that have no life left in them otherwise they end up in our landfills or incinerators.

Kathy:   How are the clothes distributed to developing countries? 

Roubik:  In order to maximize efficiency and reduce shipping costs, the reusable clothing are pressed into 100 lb bales and are loaded in 40 ft shipping containers for transportation to their destinations.

Kathy:  Do you personally donate clothing, is recycling part of your life in general?

Roubik:   We certainly do donate. The so called Green Awareness is increasing by the minute and will be part of everyone’s life. Our generation learns from our children as they’ve been raised with environmental consciousness in schools and universities.

Kathy:  Did your background have an influence on what you are doing today? (going to school in Europe, speaking several languages, traveling at a young age).  It isn’t what you originally set out to do in life, was it?

Roubik:   Wow, I can spend days talking about these interesting questions…!

I would say my background and life experiences did not have direct influence on me being involved in the recycling world, but they have a lot to do with how I do what I do at SOEX. I strongly believe that they had a tremendous influence on who I am today and how I view life and the world.

I do however believe that my educational background and previous work experiences have an influence on what I’m involved with today. I’ll try to make this short. I studied architecture at Syracuse University and have a masters degree from Harvard University in Urban Design and Planning. After working several years in the building industry designing and building large residential complexes in NJ I went into a partnership with a friend and got involved in the fashion and sporting goods industry, we took our company public in 1992. Later I managed a large textile/fabric company in LA for 12 years.

When I was offered the CEO position at SOEX GROUP in 2008 I found it very interesting that my Urban Planning education and experiences in construction as well as my 20 years of experience in fashion and textiles have somehow and without any planning come together! Life has funny ways of doing things…

Kathy:  Is there anything you would like to add?

Roubik:  I think I’ve talked enough…(laughing)

Roubik’s parents left Iran in a hurry and had to leave many things behind.  One thing he told me when we talked in Miami was he regretted never being able to go back and say good bye to his room, his childhood memories, his country.  He has done very well for himself in his new home.


One thought on “What happens to used clothing?

  • July 10, 2013 at 8:30 PM

    Re cycling and up cycling trends are bigger than ever. Clothing that is pre loved is being sold world wide. Unfortunately, too many people in the United States still attach a negative view of wearing “used” clothing. In being a top vintage clothing purveyor with Buffalo Gal Vintage, we hear all kinds of …what we deem are silly comments. Once, we were showing an alligator purse to a woman and the condition was very very good, but is was once used. The possible buyer of this hand bag said: “I couldn’t buy this because the handle isn’t straight up and stiff. The handle is slightly drooping and that makes me sad” Another potential buyer exclaimed “you want me to wear dead people’s clothing?”. Unfortunately, these folks are missing out on wonderful construction, materials , fabrics and developing a unique style. Most of all, they are not shopping or saving green. Think twice before you turn your nose up to fashion history.

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