Follow the Clothes, Part One
Updated: Apr 29, 2022
I’ve been wanting to write about clothes for a while, but it’s come to the surface thanks to Tuesday nights.
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 Goodwill on Friday. Great, right? Yes, mostly. But it’s complicated.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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 best moment of my fashion-less statement life.