Where Worlds Collide: Second-hand Clothes Reconsidered

by Patty Chang

Mitumba trader in Mathare Valley, Photo from REculture

Three things over the past few months got me thinking about second-hand clothes: (1) bedbugs, (2) the public debate waged through social mediaearlier in April that pitted development specialists against entrepreneur Jason Sadler over his questionably well-intentioned but spectacularly ill-conceived 1 Million Shirts for Africa project, and (3) the link between second-hand clothes and sustainability with the rise of environmentally conscious and socially responsible designers and consumers, who care about each step of the production process (re: ethics, labor conditions, carbon emissions, biodiversity, waste, animal welfare, etc.) Bedbugs aside, the last two points touch on the uneasy relationship regarding “doing good”, charities, and commerce, as well as a process more colloquially known as “aid dumping” which informs the subject of this post.

In 2008, Oxfam published a survey that estimated that in the U.K. alone, close to half or 2.4 billion items of clothes remained unworn gathering dust on shelves and hangers in British homes. The charity urged consumers to be more environmentally conscious and help fight poverty by donating their unwanted clothes to charities across the U.K. The U.S. spent a collective $282 billion in 2006 on new clothes and the average American got rid of 68 pounds of clothing and textiles. According to Goodwill, approximately 23.8 billion pounds of clothing and textiles end up in U.S. landfills each year. In an effort to make a dent in the percentage of discarded clothing, Levi Strauss & Co. partnered with Goodwill to launch in 2010 a product care tag that also encourages people to donate their unwanted clothing. With the rise in environmental responsibility over the past decade, more consumers are dropping off their excess clothes at their local charity or thrift shops. Many of us would concede that donating unwanted goods to charity is morally the right thing do, and a win-win situation – your items are going towards those in need and you get a tax write off.

Bale of Second-Hand Clothing. Image from Collective Selection

While a cohesive definition of “sustainability” on the supply side of the fashion industry has yet to emerge, as consumers we are often called upon to recycle and reuse, barter, swap or buy second hand where possible or even simply buy fewer but more durable items to contribute to the overall concept. And by extension, some people deliberately seek out second-hand clothes as a form of validation of their ethical stance on wasteful over-consumption and over-production of clothing for what some deem to be ‘superficial’ purposes.

How your clothes donated to charity organizations winds up at market stalls in far off foreign locations has been the subject of increasing scrutiny. The process goes something like this: before second-hand clothes can be re-consumed or take on a ‘new’ life with other owners, charitable organizations like the Salvation Army and Goodwill need to sift through the loads, price, and evaluate the items at their warehouses. Special period clothes are set aside for foreign and domestic vintage garment buyers. The rest of the load is indiscriminately compressed into 50 kg or heavier bales sometimes containing other unsorted clothing. The lowest quality clothing is shipped to Africa, medium-quality to Latin America, while Japan gets the bulk load of the top-quality items. Used clothing companies known as “rag traders” pay a few cents per pound for what they take and relieve logistically overburdened charities of these donations. Some estimate that as much as 75 percent of the clothes we donate in the U.S. to charities are exported globally to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Once the bales arrive at the country of destination, they are sold off to wholesalers and pass through a number of transactions before they end up for sale at local market stalls (see here for a firsthand account). By the way, since 1990 the second-hand clothing trade in U.S. and foreign markets is valued at approximately $1 billion annually.

Monrova, Liberia, Photo from Foreign Policy

Media coverage of Western cast offs to developing and least developing countries has not been positive, especially the impact of the second-hand clothes trade in sub-Saharan Africa. While various regions are affected by the trade differently, sub-Saharan Africa is the number one destination for these garments. Some argue, with much eye rolling, that the dumping of Western “leftovers” in Africa is symptomatic of a culture of excessive overproduction of low grade clothing waste. Still, others assert that the ailing local textile and garment industries are direct products of neoliberal markets and adverse economic policies dictated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The cases of Zambia and Uganda are often cited as examples in which cheap North American or European second-hand clothes flood the local markets and undercut the competitiveness of local textile industries, and with that, induce the decline of ‘traditional’ culture. In the sub-region of West Africa, where the dumping of cotton on the international markets has already produced adverse impact on the 10-15 million small farmers, the recent trends in a study by Oxfam show that out of the 41 textile and clothing industries that were in existence in the region in the mid-1990s, only six were operating at full capacity in 2004, and only three had satisfactory levels of performance. These trends have been detrimental to national policy makers who strove to transform the cotton fiber into finished and semi-finished products to stimulate employment and industry in the region. Countries like Eritrea, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, the Philippines, and South Africa enacted protectionist trade policies to ban the trade of used clothing in what they claim to be because of porous borders and illegal smuggling practices that went along with the trade.

Justifications in defense of second-hand clothing trade tend to point out that it creates employment in recipient countries, especially in the form of transporting, cleaning, repairing and restyling clothes. Development economist Steven Haggblade has argued that second-hand garments provide low-cost (or more affordable) clothing for people living in poverty. His study of Rwanda in the 1980s demonstrates that while the country was an outlier in that did not have an indigenous textile and a garment manufacturing industry, the second-hand clothing trade created better paid jobs in cleaning, repairing and restyling of garments for the 88 percent lost of employment in the informal sector tailoring.

Along similar lines, anthropologist Karen Tranberg Hansen has argued with respect to Zambia that it’s too easy to blame used clothes imports for the poor performance of local textile and clothing industry which were already ailing prior to the liberalization of trade import regulations. She views the embrace of the second-hand clothing trade as a response to the economic woes of the early 1990s. Moreover, she claims that the second-hand clothing trade has generated more income for locals and the government from import tariffs. Her analysis also moves past the argument of the consumption of Western goods in Africa (especially clothes) as a symbol of Western domination and global imperialism. Instead, she convincingly shows us how Zambian men and women have culturally re-appropriated and re-defined Western notions of dress to their own contexts and outward function of their identity. Lastly, she’s quick to point out that countries like Kenya and Uganda which are large importers of second-hand clothing also have textile and garment manufacturing firms that export to the U.S. under the provisions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

George Packer proclaims in a matter of 5,000 words, “I have become a convert to used clothing. Africans want it. It gives them dignity and choice”. Me, on the other hand, I’m not all that sure. I often think about Anthony Appiah’s case for cosmopolitanism. While he acknowledges that many people in least developing countries are simply too poor to live the life they want lead, irrespective of what one calls ‘choice’, he also queries the premise of a cultural expression of “authenticity”. He notes that if people in impoverished communities one day become richer and still choose to wear T-shirts, then “Talk of authenticity now just amounts to telling other people what they ought to value in their own traditions”.

Still yet, the question remains whether impoverished recipients of Western cast offs should pay for items effectively donated to non-profit charities?