Second Time Around
Less than 1 percent of the clothing Americans donate to charities actually ever gets to a person in need. That barely worn winter coat and the jeans with the stain given to charity are more likely to be sold to a recycling firm than given to a low-income family — and that’s if they don’t end up on a market in a developing nation.
The average American discards about 68 pounds of textiles a year. That’s a lot. Clothing represents 4 percent of the 230 million tons of trash we place in bins each year.
Of the clothes donated, 10 percent is sold in thrift shops, providing income for the charity and bargains for low-income families and individuals who can afford them. The remaining 90 percent is sold to textile recycling firms, typically for 4 to 6 cents a pound. These companies sort out the 55 percent in such bad condition that they can only be used as rags or recycled.
The rest? Bundlers ship that to distributors in nonindustrialized countries where they are sold to market vendors who sell them to the people.
Jeans weigh about 1.5 pounds, so charities get about 6 to 9 cents a pair. Bundlers, however, sell them for $1.30 a pair, which includes the cost of sorting and shipping. Consumers purchase the jeans for about $7, a week’s wages in many developing nations. In Africa, where much of the secondhand clothing goes, that represents a 500 percent markup from the moment the jeans arrive on the continent. The markup for new items sold in major U.S. department stories is about 250 percent.
The volume of used clothing collected is mind-boggling. Working with 30 charities in the New York metropolitan area, Trans-American Trading Co., based in Clifton, N.J., purchases an average 70,000 pounds daily, about two tractor-trailer loads a day. Between 1990 and 2003, the United States exported 7 billion pounds of used clothing. It is one of the most successful U.S. export industries.
The African market is especially hungry for the discarded items. The continent receives more than 25 percent of global secondhand clothing exports. In many countries, more than 80 percent of the population dresses in secondhand clothing. They are cheaper than items produced locally and afford wearers a “hip” U.S. look.
The economic impact
While discarded clothing is a very strong market in many developing nations, it can be devastating to the local economy.
In Kenya, between 1990-1998, 87 textile factories closed unable to compete against low-cost used clothing. In the late 1990s, Zambia lost 30,000 jobs to discarded clothing. The problem is throughout the continent. According to LO, Norway’s main trade union, “The biggest textile company in Malawi had to close down because it could not compete with the used clothes from Scandinavia.” Bankruptcies have also occurred in Mozambique and Uganda.
Free-market economists see this employment loss as collateral damage. There is no question discarded clothing is the more efficient technique to fulfill the consumer needs. People buy it because it is less expensive. Thus, it is more efficient. Why pay more for locally produced items? Most people in the non-industrialized countries do not have the disposable income to “shop local” at a premium price.
Some also argue that the second-hand clothing sales account for a transfer of jobs not a loss of employment. People get jobs unloading the containers, and local tailors alter the clothes. A 2005 study by Simone Field, Ph.D., of the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, supports the assertion that the used clothing industry directly and indirectly employs 5 million people in Kenya.
However, the economic impact of secondhand clothing is far deeper than job elimination. It undermines businesses that have the potential for developing an export market, and with secondhand clothes no local capital is created.
It is a model analogous to the entry of big box stores in depressed areas in the United States. Small shops have to charge higher prices than the big stores, and they lose out. Those pursuing the American dream of owning a small business are thwarted by the mega-corporations creating minimum wage jobs in retail outlets with tenuous ties to the community.
Consequently, some countries protect themselves from the impact of the used clothes sales. The Philippines and India ban the import of used clothing. Others restrict its distribution. South Africa permits secondhand clothing imports only for charitable purposes and prohibits their resale.
A better way
There are people who need clothes. There are people who have clothes to donate. How can donors ensure that their discards will get to the people who need them?
The best bet is to give them to local charities that serve low-income families and individuals, such as the social service projects of local churches and homeless shelters. The smaller the clothing recipient organization, the more likely that the clothes will be distributed in accordance with the donor’s intent. This can be done locally.
For example, Brighter Days Ministries in southeast Washington, D.C., distributes used clothing donated by the public and members of five area United Methodist churches. The clothes store is tied to its food pantry, which distributes goods three days a week in one of the district’s most depressed neighborhoods.
The clothes store has considerable experience, having operated since the 1970s. The Rev. Ernest Lyles was raised in the neighborhood and remembers his mother volunteering in the store.
“We have grown incredibly,” he said. “We serve over 900 households. The recipients make over 10,000 visits per year.”
Pearl Skipworth, 72, president of United Methodist Women at Brighter Days, has volunteered in the clothes store since the 1990s.
“We help in any way that we can with clothes,” said Ms. Skipworth, a mother of four, grandmother of 12 and great grandmother of 10. “It gives me joy when I can help.”
United Methodist Women volunteers clean the donated clothes before placing them in the store and put items in poor repair in the garbage.
Give what’s needed
One key to helpful giving is first finding out what is needed. Giving unneeded items creates a problem for recipient organizations. Where will they store the clothing? How will they distribute them? It can be a diversion of resources that the agencies need to apply elsewhere.
One of the most acute burdens is donation of goods following a disaster.
“Among relief agencies, clothing donations are seen as the second disaster after the disaster,” said Jay Rollins, United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) communications director. “It clogs the channels that are needed for dealing with the needed aid. Minimally, there is the problem of storing them. If an area has experienced a natural disaster, they do not have the warehouse capacity that was there before the disaster. Storage facilities have been destroyed. The last thing that they need is more items to warehouse.”
The recent massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School points to the issue of an overflow of unneeded items. In January, a 20,000 square foot warehouse was packed with donated toys.
Often, cash donations are more helpful.
Matt Cole, an organizer of a Dec. 21, 2012, vigil for the Sandy Hook victims, said, “A teddy bear is wonderful, but a teddy bear can’t pay for counseling, a teddy bear can’t pay for a funeral.”
Richard Lord is a freelance photojournalist based in Ivy, Va.