The Destructive Truth About Donating Your Clothes
BY LIZ BREUER
It’s Sunday afternoon, you’re bored and your subconscious is advising you to use your time wisely. “Does online shopping qualify as using your time wisely?”, you’re asking yourself as you’re staring at the accumulating items in your virtual shopping cart. Taking a sharp look at your closet, an idea pops into your head: “What if I do a closet cleanout, donate the clothes I no longer wish to keep and then replace those items with an item or two from my online wishlist?” While in theory, the act of donating clothes, hoping they’ll reach an appreciative recipient sounds like a selfless act in itself, one might ignore the rising issue tied to the growing second hand market in developing countries- a direct result of us “Westerners” donating our pre-loved clothes.
So how exactly you might wonder, can this selfless act impact regional economies in developing countries? Even though the second-hand clothing trade represents less than 0.5% of the total global trade in clothing, in many sub-Saharan African countries the latter serves as a dominant feature of the local clothing market.
In most sub-Saharan African countries, the majority of consumers, despite their socio-economic background, are opting for SHC over locally produced clothing. This is largely due to the low prices at which these SHC are being sold at. In addition, consumer preferences have equally shifted to a more “Western” aesthetic over the African one. With over 30 per cent of the total value of imports stemming from SHC, the trade of the latter is supporting hundreds of thousands of livelihoods in developing countries, including jobs in trading, distributing, repairing, restyling, and washing clothes. Seems like a rather favorable trade, doesn’t it? Well, unfortunately the industrial textile/clothing production and employment in West Africa has suffered as a result of increased imports over the past two decades.
Many small farmers, particularly in West Africa, have their livelihoods depend on fruitful cotton exports. While 95% of cotton produced in West Africa is exported as raw fibre, local policy makers have been unsuccessful, despite their best efforts to promote greater transformation of cotton fibre into finished and semi-finished products, in order to stimulate employment and the local industry, due to increased cotton dumping (the sale of cotton abroad by agribusiness firms at prices below what it cost farmers to get those crops ready for sale), particularly by the US. Take Mali for instance, one of the poorest countries in the world and simultaneously the largest cotton supplier in the world, doesn’t produce a single T-Shirt. Even Nigeria, the region’s largest textile producer, has suffered from 80,000 job losses in the clothing industry in the past decade, after changing trade policies in the mid-1980s. While many sub-Saharan countries offer sufficient manpower and natural resources to move towards industrialisation, increased SHC imports, as well as increased low-price, low-quality clothing imports from Asia have put a rapid halt on the latter.
Now, as “easy” as it may seem to blame SHC imports alone, there are other factors that play into West Africa’s reluctance towards industrialisation, such as unreliable infrastructure, widespread customs fraud or the lack of access to credit, just to name a few. With that said, can we proceed to donate our clothes without knowing exactly whom they’ll end up with? As the interaction and integration of the world’s people, governments and companies are increasingly becoming more valuable, the ramifications of our actions are becoming more significant as well.
Therefore, I will ask the initial question I wanted to dive deeper into with this article once more: Is this primary selfless act really that selfless? If the fact that the largest cotton suppliers are amongst the poorest countries in the world, considering cotton currently makes up 33% of the global textile production, with the latter being valued at $858 billion, doesn’t sit right with you, I know where you’re coming from. So what can we as individuals do?
Next time you’re doing a closet cleanout and want to donate your clothing, inform yourself about the organization you’re donating to and try to retrieve information on where your clothes will end up. Alternatively, help out in your local community by giving your pre-loved clothes to people in need directly. That way you’re creating an underlying bond with these individuals you’re helping out and don’t need to worry about contributing to the harmful repercussions of globalization.