Donated Clothing as an Economic Force

PBS has recently released a documentary, titled “T-Shirt Travels”, which looks at the economic phenomenon of used Western clothing sold in Africa. The filmmaker, Shantha Bloemen, became interested in the phenomenon when she was working with a humanitarian agency in rural Zambia. She was amazed – as many travellers are – to find that most of the people she lived and worked with primarily wore Western fashions instead of traditional African dress.

As Bloemen observes, the reasons for this pervasive fashion choice are as much economic as aesthetic. When charities in the US and Europe like the Salvation Army, Goodwill or Oxfam receive donated clothing, they sell only a small amount of it in local stores. The vast majority is sold to textile recyclers, who sort it into various grades, pack it into shipping containers and sell bundles to wholesalers in Africa, Eastern Europe, South Asia and the Carribean. Local wholesalers sell single bundles – usually between 40-100kg – to retailers, who sell clothes in local markets.

Now that the process has moved, in part, online, it’s easier for observers to get a sense for the dynamics of the trade. Recycle.net has a special Africa section where textile recycling is prominently featured. Recent offerings ranged from jeans at $1 a pair (the very high end) to unsorted clothing at $900 per ton (small orders) or as low as $0.10 a pound in orders of 40,000 pounds or more. (Recycle.net is an interesting question to a lot of questions I’ve had about African commerce. Where do folks buy used tires? Right here, at $2.50 each. How about recycled steel I-Beams? Got them too – structural I-beams at $300 a ton. And Pentium IIs are going by the palletload…)

Americans give their clothes to charity, keeping them out of landfills, and Africans get inexpensive clothing. So what’s the problem? Well, there’s the very real possibility that this trade is killing fledgling textile industries in developing nations. As the spokesman for the Manufacturers Association of Zambia observes: “How can we compete with clothes given away as charity?” If fashionable, high quality clothing is available from America at lower prices than domestic fashions and fabrics, will domestic textile makers, tailors and fashion designers be able to compete?

The Swiss government has obviously heard this question more than once. Their charming FAQ on textile recycling includes the question: “Do exports of used clothing to sub-Saharan Africa damage local economies?”. The answer is interesting:

Following criticism of exports, Texaid commissioned a scientific investigation of the phenomenon of used clothing in Africa. On the basis of empirical evidence, the study shows that the importance of the used textile sector does not hamper the development of the local textile and clothing industry, either in Ghana or in Tunisia. On the contrary, the used clothing sector has become an essential part of the economy in both instances, providing a livelihood for more than 100,000 people in the countries studied. In addition, used clothing enjoys a high level of acceptance in all social classes in both countries, and a ban on imports would have serious implications for broad sections of the population.

Unfortunately, the “scientific investigation” using “empirical evidence” is not available online, and it’s unclear whether the 100,000 people employed in the industry have sub-minimal wage “jobs” selling used clothing in markets rather than unionized jobs in textile factories.

As for the impact on the clothing industry in Ghana, Andrew Lawson begs to differ. He’s the executive director of the Association of Ghanaian Industry, and he reports that 60% of jobs in the textile industry have been lost in the last decade and that 30 firms have folded in Ghana, in part due to competition from recycled goods.

Lawson is pushing anti-dumping legislation and other protectionist policies. But he’s also got a very creative way of promoting locally-made goods – an initiative to get public officials to wear traditional clothing on Fridays. It’s certainly an interesting political twist on casual Fridays…

So what to do with that old, used t-shirt? If I give it to Goodwill, am I subverting the economies I’m so interested in supporting? Personally, I’m thinking of taking up quilting

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