Americans give away a lot of clothes. Whether it’s that raggedy old pair of cutoff jeans, the wine-stained dress shirt or those out-of-style sneakers, there is a lot we don’t want. But well-intentioned charitable donations of old clothes may be undercutting the market for struggling entrepreneurs in some of the world’s poorest countries.
To raise funds and reduce the huge influx of clothing donations they receive on a daily basis, U.S.- and Western-based charities are selling large portions of their inventory to textile and apparel companies that recycle the clothes and resell them to vendors abroad. The results, according to a systematic study, could be damaging to the very people who were supposed to benefit.
Andrew Brooks, a lecturer in development geography at King’s College in London, argues that the reselling of secondhand clothes is hurting local businesses and production in low-income countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Donating your used garments might be well-intentioned, but the situation on the ground means they may be doing more harm than good,” Mr. Brooks wrote recently in Britain’s Geographic magazine, summarizing the thesis of his recently published book, “Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-Hand Clothes.”
Far from clothing the poor and needy in countries such as Malawi or Mozambique, Mr. Brooks says, the sale of secondhand goods from charities in the U.S. and other developed countries actually undercuts domestic sellers and stunts the local economy.
Secondhand clothes from an array of developed countries “dominate local market stalls in sub-Saharan Africa,” he said. “Across the African continent, secondhand clothes are a mainstay of informal traders, even accounting for the majority of clothing sales in some countries. In Nigeria, they are known as ‘kafa ulaya’ (the clothes of the dead whites) and ‘roupa da calamidade’ (clothing of the calamity) in Mozambique.”