Follow the Clothes, Part One

I’ve been wanting to write about clothes for a while, but it’s come to the surface thanks to Friday mornings and Tuesday nights.

On Fridays, I work at my church’s Caring Center, which is a ministry that distributes donated clothing to people who are in need.

On Tuesdays, I go to a book study where some friends and I talk about the excess in our lives (food, possessions, media…clothes) and how we can fight against our Western culture’s message that we always need more. This week we talked about clothes and we were given the simple – albeit painful – assignment of counting the clothes in our closet. Ugh. I shall not expose the number, but I will tell you that after completing the assignment, I immediately began a purge session which resulted in four bags of clothing that I will take to the Caring Center on Friday. Great, right? Yes, mostly. But it’s complicated.

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For about a year, I have greatly reduced the amount of clothing I purchase – to the tune of only about three pieces each season of new, purchased clothing (including shoes). Don’t you dare be a bit impressed because before I went on this clothes-buying sabbatical, I had accumulated a ridiculously large wardrobe. Ridiculously. Large. So I had room to purge. But honestly, my purging this week was really just trimming the fat. It was mostly the rejects that I stuffed into the bags – old t-shirts, some ragged jeans that don’t fit, boots that have seen better days. Some of these items will go on the racks at the Clothing Center. And the rest?

At the Caring Center, we have some large bins where we put clothes destined for bigger donation centers like Salvation Army and Goodwill. These are the clothes that we just can’t offer to our wonderful clients. They’re torn, hopelessly out of date (Polyester suit anyone?), or blotched with stains that can’t be removed. When I see these filled bins, I wish there was another option. Here’s what you probably don’t know (I didn’t):

When you put your clothes in bags to carry to the big donation centers, you’re assuming that your items will be passed on to someone in need in your community. But everyone else is stuffing their clothing into bags too, and so the donation centers are absolutely inundated. Most of what they receive they don’t keep. A large Salvation Army donation processing center (which has smaller feeder locations) can process an average of five tons of outcast clothing every single day of the year. Only a tiny fraction of these end up at the donation store and upon their arrival have about one month to sell before they are pulled. And here is where it gets interesting. Those unwanted clothes (twice rejected) along with other items that never make the store in the first place, are pushed into a compressor that squeezes out neat cubes of secondhand clothing that weigh a half of ton each. Then those cubes are stacked high. One main distribution center for Salvation Army builds a wall made of 18 tons, or 36 bales of unwanted clothing every three days. And that’s just one location in one city. Use your imagination to picture how walls of cast-off clothing are being built in donation centers across the country.

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From there, where do these cubes travel? In case you didn’t know it, there are over a thousand textile processors that recycle clothes in a variety of ways. They come to the rescue of the donation centers like Goodwill and Salvation Army and take the junk off their hands and pay, oh, maybe three cents a pound. Yes, the waters of charity and tax write-offs get a little murky here, but don’t think about that. We’ll just continue our story. According to New York Times reporter George Packer, in his classic piece: “How Susie Bayer’s T-Shirt Ended Up on Yusuf Mama’s Back”, at many textile recycling companies, there are four export classifications: “Premium” goes to Asia and Latin America; Africa A (the clothes that have lost some brightness) goes to the better-off African countries like Kenya; Africa B (clothes with a stain or small hole) goes to the continent’s disaster areas such as DRC or Angola. Oh, and then there’s the Wiper Rag classification where they transform our clothing into cleaning cloths. To sell. After the clothes have been designated, they travel…again. Most of them go here:

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Packer writes,

If you’ve ever left a bag of clothes outside the Salvation Army or given to a local church drive, chances are that you’ve dressed an African.

Trade vendors wait at airports to sort through our stuff so they can haul it to local markets and make a buck. And what’s so bad about that? Nothing, until you begin to peel back the layers.Yes, people in the Global South are able to purchase our used clothing cheaper in the market than they would from say, a local textile manufacturer or a local seamstress. The local textile manufacturing industry in Africa is on life-support. In Ghana, there were over 20 textile firms that employed more than 25,000 people in the last two decades. Now the country has only four textile factories employing less than 3,000 Ghanaians. Is there a cause and effect going on here? Honestly, I don’t know, but I have a guess. And although local seamstresses make a decent living stitching the beautiful wax fabric dresses, skirts, and shirts that are still popular traditional clothing, they are always competing with the second-hand market vendors. If you could buy your little girl a pair of cheap studded jeans and a t-shirt that says “Flirt” on it for a fraction of the cost of a traditional wax fabric dress, maybe you’d take that option.

Children across the continent wear our cast-offs. While these clothes may be a good deal for struggling families in developing countries in the short-run, this is not a viable solution for the long-term economy of a continent. Developing countries need to have a healthy textile manufacturing industry to employ people and lower the cost of goods – not a steady stream of our cheap giveaway clothes hauled over in bales to sell at the local market. Most of the time, Africans assume the clothing was sold in the first place. When they hear it was given away, they bristle and wonder why they are having to pay for it.

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It’s an unfair business filled with some shady business dealings on the back end, and the people who shop the secondhand goods at the market are paying money they barely have for clothes that we were content to throw out. Something about it reminds me that the world can be a very unjust place for those with few resources and a lack of options. So how can one person like me possibly make a difference in a sea of 2.5 billion pounds of donated clothing? I can’t. But I can make a difference in my own sea of clothing. I’ve listed a few good options for places you might consider taking your cast-off clothing. For now, I think it’s good for you and I to at least think about where our unwanted clothing will most likely end up.

Is there something we can do about this on the front end? I’ll give you a hint what’s coming in the next post with this shocking statistic: Americans spent roughly $340 billion on clothing last year – about 25 percent of the global market. I’ve purged. And I still have a closet full of clothes – most of which I have purchased “on sale.” This just might be the problem.

Where to Donate:

Dress for Success

FBC Caring Center (Tulsa)

Souls4Souls

John 3:16 Mission (Tulsa)

14 thoughts on “Follow the Clothes, Part One

  1. Very interesting. I, too, have been trying to purge and give – and last Sat., we took a few bags of clothing the John 3:16. Glad it was on your list. Your article is a great encouragement to do more!

    1. Wow! I had no idea. Thanks for the education and the suggestion on where to donate rather than the 2 traditional places. Our church does some mission trips where they ask for clothes and I plan to try harder to give to those.

      1. I hadn’t thought of mission trips! I’m going to keep my ears open at our church for trips where clothes might be of use and donate. At least we’ll know they are being given away instead of sold. Still doesn’t help the local seamstresses and textile manufacturers, but I’m realizing there are no perfect solutions. Thanks for reading and commenting Susan!

    1. I’m still uncomfortable with not having options that don’t guarantee these clothes will be given away instead of sold. Just don’t know what to do about that.

      1. I still cannot believe how many clothes we buy, barely wear, and then give away, adding to the walls of cubes. Of maybe everyone isn’t as bad about this as I am. Hopefully not. I’m determined to stop adding to the madness.

  2. I have to admit Lisa, I returned home from Ghana with a new stock of what appeared to be new clothes in perfect condition… all original brand name items of course… for ridiculously low prices. Tee shirts for 5 Cedi ($2.60) and jeans for 10 Cedi ($5.20). I often wondered how people could throw out such expensive clothes ($50 shirts and $120 jeans here in Australia) that had been worn maybe once if at all.

    I think one challenge in Ghana in particular is that if the villagers had to pay for clothes from seamstresses, they would have very little clothing. In the villages I stayed in, people were paying around 50c – $1 for clothes. In the current economy, even that is a challenge for many.

    In the cities, most wear cheap Chinese clothes… with many being brand name imitations so the issue there is quite different. It is a tough subject… what needs to change first? It is very much a chicken or the egg scenario.

    Great read, well written, thanks Lisa

    1. I agree Brian – and I didn’t even touch the subject of the Chinese knock-offs. Although this industry hurts seamstresses, the apprentices and seamstresses in our program wear western clothes and rarely do I see them wearing traditional clothing made in the villages/cities. Probably because they make so little money and it’s cheaper to wear second-hand market clothes. I don’t know what the big picture answer is, but I’m determined to at least control my own clothes “flow.”

  3. Lisa, we had similar experience in Guatemala last year. Our luggage got lost, and the American expat couple with whom we were staying directed us to a “used clothing store” to get a few things. I had NO idea I would find a store crammed full of gently used clothes in name brands and lots in my size LOL since I think I’m bigger than most Guatemalan women. We were charged only $2 or $3 per item, and no prices marked so I suspect they were charging us more than a typical Guatemalan.

    I don’t know what the best answer is, but (I think) this was a Guatemalan owned business, with Guatemalan employees, and I’m sure they have to pay to ship, rent store space etc. so only fair they make a profit. And the clothes were apparently cheaper for Guatemalans as there were 2 or 3 similar stores in town. But I totally understand the point about taking business away from local seamstresses etc. In rural Guatemala, a lot of the women and older men still wear the traditional Mayan clothing, but all the young men just wear jeans and T shirts – kind of sad to see.

    1. Very interesting! Yes, there are so many ways that the people do benefit from these secondhand clothes – and now I know that even tourists can benefit as well!

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