While charity is often considered the highest virtue, donating used clothes has the power to destroy the economies of developing nations.
Every year Americans clamor to purchase memorabilia from the champions of major sporting events. And vendors, likewise, are immediately ready to provide fans with their sportswear of choice, emblazoned with the winning team’s name. This type of apparel seems to be created almost instantaneously, when in fact, merchandise is prepared well in advance for both competitors. Meanwhile, the readymade stock for the losing is generously shipped away to the impoverished. As the American sporting industry becomes larger every year, the donation size increases as well—and this has given rise to an unexpected, but disturbing trend.
Clothing donations come from sources beyond just rejected sportswear. Private donors also contribute billions of dollars worth of clothing. However, while most donors believe they are freely giving away their old clothing, in reality, companies sell these clothes to merchants for a profit.
Nevertheless, the model seems clever in theory: western charities sell merchants in impoverished countries with well made western clothes in bulk for low prices which in turn is purchased by the citizens. Everyone seems to benefit.
However, such second-hand donations can include anything from badly tattered clothing to used undergarments. Moreover, the body types of western donations can differ significantly among the people receiving the donations. As a result, the citizens, who are dependent on these clothes, are resigned to an undignified appearance.
However, the deleterious economic impact of these clothing donations is far more serious. The availability, quality, and inexpensiveness of these clothes make them a more desirable commodity for consumers. As a result, local textile producers who cannot compete with the prices or appeal of western brands, are undercut by these donations. In turn, this hurts the local economy and drives the economy towards import dependence, while western countries enjoy offsetting their own trade deficit by reporting these donations as exports.
Moreover, textiles from alternative fashion outlets that borrow and mass manufacture cultural attributes for an exotic appeal will often be redistributed as excess to the same populations where the cultural attributes were inspired from. In African countries, total used clothing donations have resulted in a 40% decline in their local textile industries.
The solution seems to be simple enough: limit or ban the influx of these donations. That, in turn, would cripple the merchants who currently earn a living through resale of these donations. Is the short term damage to the local economies worth the long term gain?
Despite numerous African countries limiting or altogether banning donated clothing imports, it is still hard to decisively determine which model of the textile industry is better. On the one hand, western donations provide stable, cheap clothes, while on the other, natively made clothing fits better and stimulates local economies.
Perhaps a solution may be found in rethinking the nature of these donations. Instead of shipping over whole clothes, companies like the Salvation Army can break down old clothing and textiles into useable raw goods. Plants that recycle these old clothes can bring new jobs either in the U.S or overseas. The resultant material can still be exported as textiles driving down the trade deficit, and the people who once sold donated clothing can now wholesale the raw material needed for local textile manufacturers. And though critics may argue this could potentially undercut existing wholesalers, responsible overseers of distribution of the recycled material could mitigate this risk. For example, in cotton rich areas, exporting companies could sell other materials like elastic or synthetic fibers such as polyester.
Additionally, individual consumers have donated billions of dollars towards charitable causes over the years. In the same way, the spending power of consumers is not to be underestimated.
Often times the countries that receive these donations have rich cultures that inspire the latest fashion trends. But instead of purchasing such apparel through typical larger retailers, buying straight from the source, the bazaars and rural manufacturers overseas, can make all the difference. To address this, fashion startups like Kaahani offer small batches of handmade goods straight from the source. The $12 spent on a headband equates to nearly 800 INR, keeping the local markets of India – where the poverty line is around 40 INR – healthy and unique.
The lesson to be learned is that there is a difference between charity and strategic waste management. Dumping one’s unwanted clothes into a bin and turning a blind eye to the consequences points to the latter. The charity companies that would resell this refuse to people too poor to make a choice exhibit exploitation. And the retailers that would take the unique cultural ideas of such societies for mass manufacturing are guilty of appropriation. But the solution is simple and starts with the individual consumer. Purchase responsibly—your money is power.