Outside the Asda store in the West Midlands suburb of Great Barr there is a green metal container. Last week shoppers dumped nearly half a ton of old clothes and shoes into it. They believed they were helping the environment.
The bin is one of about 200 spread throughout the West Midlands, West Country, South Wales and Southern England by Green World Recycling Ltd.
On the side of the bin a notice lists an ambitious programme of 18 objectives. With the money raised by selling the clothes, it proclaims, 'We hire rangers, install trails for eco-tourism, arrange nature study camps for schools, conduct scientific studies....'
The bin is marked as the property of The Gaia-Movement Trust Living Earth Green World Action. The Great Barr bin, like all the others, is emptied three times a week; the contents are driven to a warehouse on the Blue Bird industrial estate in Wolverhampton. From there once a week a trailer, usually from Poland, Russia or the Ukraine, is filled with about 15 tons - at £400 a ton they are worth about £6,000 - of old garments and driven abroad. Twice a month a similar lorry leaves an industrial estate in Queensborough, Kent.
That adds up to a turnover of around £468,000 a year. Once a week, a fax arrives at Green World Recycling from an offshore company registered in Jersey, Holland House, confirming payments of several thousand pounds a week to Green World for the clothes. (Oddly, the sums transferred by Holland House to Green World are usually rather less than the sums Green World has invoiced for.)
Twice in recent months, Green World recycling has received transfers of nearly £20,000 from an unidentified bank account at the Deutsche Bank in Germany.
Yet although Green World Recycling has been in business for nearly three years, it has not yet given a penny to charity - nor is there any evidence that any of the projects advertised by The Gaia-movement Trust Living Earth Green World Action exist, except on paper. At the same time another company called Planet Aid UK is also collecting in the Midlands and the North in aid of development aid in the Third World their bins have surfaced in car parks and pub forecourts from Kettering to Sheffield.
Both companies are run by Torben and Birgit Soe, a married couple from Denmark. Torben, well over 6ft 6in tall, runs Green World Recycling from a tatty office on the Wolverhampton industrial estate, drives an old Renault van and lives in a modest semi-detached in Tamworth, Staffordshire. Those who know him describe him as a kind, well-meaning, unassuming man with a poor business sense. His wife, Birgit, who runs Planet Aid UK, is said to have more finely tuned business instincts.
Both belong to an organisation called The Teachers Group, sometimes known as Tvind. The Teachers Group has a long and colourful history, having brushed with authority in its native country, Denmark, and latterly in other parts of the world. In May, newspapers reported on the distressing experiences of several young people at a Teachers Group private college in Yorkshire, from which they fled complaining that they had been misled, and that crude attempts had been made to indoctrinate them.
To many of these idealistic men and women The Teachers Group is more closely identified with making and keeping money than with spending it on good causes, other than the Teachers Group itself. It is run on the principles of a common economy its members are obliged to pool their incomes and wealth. They also submit to iron discipline. Hardly a penny of the millions raised by the Teachers Group goes to the world outside - it is invariably spent on its own charities. And because it is passed across national boundaries and through offshore accounts, it is seldom accountable.
The founder of the Teachers Group, a charismatic Dane named Mogens Amdi Petersen, has not made a public appearance since 1979 and is zealously protected by his supporters somewhere in Florida, Zimbabwe or the Cayman Islands. This strange, secret empire of several hundred ideologues is the organisation collecting through Green World and Planet Aid across Britain.
Three years ago Torben and Birgit Soe were associated with another clothes recycling charity, Humana UK, which fell foul of the Charity Commission for financial mismanagement. It too was part of the Teachers Group. When it was investigated only eight per cent of its turnover was going to 'good causes'. Humana was closed down.
Birgit Soe is also a director of the College for International Cooperation and Development near Hull, east Yorkshire, from which the students fled - a property which was itself the subject of Charity Commission inquiries in 1997, when it was a Teachers Group school for disturbed children.
Holland House, with an address in Gibraltar, is known to be an important Teachers Group trading company. In the 1970s, before they joined the Teachers Group, the Soes had run a socialist clothing factory in Kullerup, Denmark. Later, they managed it as a joint project with a Teachers Group school, Vamdrup Efterskole. According to former colleagues, the enterprise did not prosper and Torben Soe earned the dislike of his uncompromising master, Mogens Petersen.
"Torben has been humiliated during many years by Mogens Amdi Petersen, but he kept bending his head low and working," one ex-colleague says. "At the first meeting with the Teachers Group Torben declared that he was proud to have become a member of TG. Amdi Petersen scolded him for saying so 'because TG is not a sewing club - it is dirty hard revolutionary work'."
The Soes went on to work for UFF, another Teachers group recycling concern in Scandinavia, before arriving in England to help run first Humana UK, and then the present recycling enterprises. So what good works does Green World Recycling support?
Soe and his wife make no claim that either Green World or Planet Aid UK are charities. Neither is registered with the charity commission they are both private limited comanies. The ambiguous notices on the Green World recycling bins might suggest that the clothes support three charities - The Gaia-movement Trust, Living Earth, and Green World Action.
Until a representative of the British environmental foundation, Living Earth, saw the organisation's name on a Green World bin it had never heard of Green World Recyling, and has never received money from it. "We complained to Green World and reported them to the Charity Commission. We never heard anything from Green World," says Roger Hammond, acting chief executive of Living Earth. Similarly, the Gaia Trust of Denmark has no connection with any Gaia-Movement Trust.
Soe has told employees that when Green World has a revenue surplus, it will be passed to a foundation in Switzerland. We found The Gaia-movement Trust Living Earth Green World Action registered in Geneva at an accommodation address in the Geneva World Trade Centre. There is no Gaia office in the building - the address and phone number belong to a British businessman, Michael Rogers, who has no connection with Gaia but passes on mail.
And almost everyone listed as a signatory of the Geneva company is known to be a member of Mogens Amdi Petersen's Teachers Group. They include Peter Kjaer and Lilian Ekbom who give their addresses in Fiji, Jonas Israel in Borneo, Soeren Soerensen and Andreas Stier in Belize. Soerensen is head of a huge mango plantation at Monkey River estate in Belize. This is one of the Teachers Group's biggest commercial undertakings and has nothing to do with helping the third world or the environment. Jonas Israel, a US citizen and the son of one of Denmark's leading sociology professors, has run companies in Denmark, the US, Britain and Holland for the Teachers Group.
We also tracked The Gaia-movement Trust to the United States, this time under the title The Gaia Living Earth Movement Green World Action USA. This body runs a thrift shop at 2918 N Clark Street, Chicago and another in Milwaukee. The Gaia Living Earth Movement Green World Action USA has been in business for a year in the United States, where it joins the Teachers Group's other large enterprise, Planet Aid, in collecting and reselling old clothes. At the Milwaukee store Helle Lund - a former company secretary of Humana UK - says The Gaia Living Earth Movement Green World Action USA has not given any money to charity, either. "We are not supporting any yet. We are a brand new organisation and we are in the start-up phase."
Has the organisation decided which charities to support? "It will be up to the board. It will be something to do with the environment, animals, climate change, that sort of thing," she replies.
The only indication that any of pledges made by The Gaia-Movement Trust Living Earth Green World Action might be honoured comes from Zimbabwe, in a privately printed book about game management. The Teachers Group charity Humana People-to-People has its headquarters in Zimbabwe and the book is a joint production with Mike La Grange, who runs a company, Game Management Africa, in Harare. The book details the minutiae of handling buffalo and giraffes, but gives no indication of any charitable work the movement is supposed to be carrying out. There is no Gaia-Movement address or phone number.
Mike la Grange said the Gaia-Movement Trust had invested in his company. He had written the book at the request of a Dane, Svend Soerensen, "for the benefit of Gaia's overseas directors." "I am a little bit vague about exactly what they are. I think they are a little bit of everything. They have got businesses all over the place here and they do a bit of social work. They do a lot of farming. I think they are connected with Humana. You will have to ask them about charities and nature reserves." We were unable to reach Svend Soerensen at the mobile telephone number Mr le Grange supplied.
Planet Aid's cheeky venture in the Midlands has already been noted by the Textile Recycling Association, which has consulted recycling charities about its concern. Five charities, Barnardo's, the British Heart Foundation, Oxfam, The Salvation Army, and Scope have, with the TRA and Recyclatex, another trade body, drawn up a joint letter to be sent to local authorities and supermarkets, pointing out concerns about Planet Aid and recommending they consider carefully before allowing Planet Aid boxes on their land. "Research indicates Planet Aid UK Ltd is directly related to Humana and thence to Tvind," the letter says. But the charities can not agree on the precise wording and the letter has not been sent.
THREE members of Green World's staff contacted admitted they shared serious concerns about the operation. "We were told that Green World was not a charity, but when it made enough profit the money would go to Gaia. It seemed like a good idea, I worked my butt off - but it's gone nowhere," says one staff member.
"I asked Torben where the money went and he said 'Oh, we haven't given any money to charity yet.' That's when alarm bells started ringing. I asked about the Gaia Movement Trust. All he would say was that it was somewhere in Switzerland, and that it had started at the same time as Green World, but he didn't seem to know any more. I said 'What will you tell the public?' He just said it would be all right. I honestly believe he believes in what he is doing, but he just does what he's told. Someone else is giving him orders."
Another former member of staff - who found himself explaining green issues and the environment to Torben Soe - says "If you met Torben socially you would say he was a nice man. But he hasn't got the right business acumen and he doesn't seem to know what he's doing. Either he's not aware of the true financial situation, or someone else is pulling the strings." So what does happen to the money Green World Recycling and Planet Aid make? What good causes are the environmentally-conscious citizens of Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Cardiff, Bristol, Gloucester and Cheltenham helping to support - and those of Kettering, Derby, Sheffield and Northampton when they drop clothes into a Planet Aid box?
"The money will go to a good cause. Everybody knows it takes time to start up a company. We're just not there yet," Soe says. "We're not in a position to be able to give anything away."