This article was originally published as a guest post on Forage & Sustain.
Traditional dhows on the beach in Bagamoyo, Tanzania.
For most of us that grew up in the age of fast fashion, getting rid of last season’s styles in order to buy new, trendier ones was just a way of life. You may have even been told that your old Forever21 or Target top would help support the local Goodwill, or clothe a child in need in some far-off African nation. But few of us actually stopped to ask where our clothes went when we dropped them in the donation bin… and the answer might surprise you.
As a Canadian who spent two years living in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, a small coastal town in East Africa, I can definitely confirm that much of our used clothing really does make it overseas. I saw a teenager wearing a GoodLife shirt, kids with Hockey Canada trackpants, and a boy with an Oregon Ducks jersey. My friend even had a reusable bag from the LCBO. But the path these items took to get to Bagamoyo was far from straightforward.
See, the major fast fashion brands of the world taught us that consumption was good, and donating our clothes (in order to buy new ones) was the responsible and conscious thing to do. But in reality, the donation process is a whole lot more complicated than that. In Bagamoyo, like in many other towns and cities across the region, there was a weekly travelling market called “TopTop” that sold all sorts of products, from kitchen utensils to handmade soap to secondhand clothes. But how do the clothes actually get from your closet to a market on the other side of the world?
It works a little bit like this: we donate our clothes, the clothes are packaged up then sold in bulk to a middleman. The middleman exports the clothes (usually to a developing country) and resells them at a profit to someone on the ground. There’s no quality or consistency across orders, and no way for the purchaser to know what they’ll get in each shipment; one could be full of old baby clothes and vintage skirts, and the next full of outerwear and ratty cotton t-shirts. The purchaser then takes their collection of items to the market, and sells each piece to local consumers for as little as a dollar or two. Usually, these imported, secondhand goods are cheaper than buying new, locally-made clothing, so there’s a steady demand for more shipments.
In theory, consumers in these countries now have access to affordable, secondhand clothes. But like everything in life, it’s not that simple. Here are just a few of the problems inherent to the system:
1. Clothes often don’t make it to your intended destination.
It’s almost impossible to trace a particular item and verify where it actually ended up. Statistics Canada data provided by Global Affairs Canada for CBC News reports that used clothing exported from Canada in 2017 alone was worth over CAD $173 million (original source here). The importing countries are spread across the globe, but with a heavy concentration in India, Pakistan and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Countries that received more than $100,000 worth of worn clothing from Canadian exports in 2017 (Statistics Canada & Global Affairs Canada). Source: CBC News.
2. Middlemen are likely the ones profiting from your donation.
Even if you donate your items to a local charity or non-profit, they probably receive a lot more clothing than they can actually process or use. According to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), less than a quarter of clothes donated to local charities actually get resold locally. The excess is then bought by a middleman, or a for-profit broker, who prepares the clothing for export. Most of the time, it’s the middlemen, not the charity or the end consumer, who profit the most from your donation.
3. It undermines the local clothing and textile industry.
Africa produces close to 10% of the world’s cotton, and in the 1980s, many African countries had growing textile industries. Between the rise of Asian manufacturing and Western second-hand clothing imports over the past few decades though, many of the African clothing and textile businesses just couldn’t keep up. While you’ll still find people wearing traditional fabrics, like the kanga and kitenge, as well as seamstresses and tailors in every community, it’s hard to compete with the rock-bottom prices of a second-hand shirt. Most people only wear locally-made traditional designs or textiles for special occasions, and wear cheap used clothing for everything else.
4. Countries become reliant on imports.
Because local textile and manufacturing industries have been so drastically impacted by globalization and trade, many countries have become reliant on imports in order to satisfy domestic demand. In response to this, the East African Community (which includes Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan) has been discussing banning used clothing imports entirely since about 2015. The original goal was to block all secondhand clothing from entering the region by 2019, which obviously hasn’t happened, as most experts say that an outright clothing ban isn’t the right strategy to boost local industry while meeting the needs of the population. That being said, East African governments recognize that the reliance on foreign imports is a major problem, and something that policy and economic interventions need to address moving forward.
5. Many articles still end up in landfills anyway.
In countries like the U.S., Canada, or the U.K., there are lots of great textile recycling programs to collect all the clothing that isn’t resold or exported. These companies take old clothing and fabrics and repurpose them into things like insulation or car upholstery. In places like Bagamoyo, though, finding an accessible, large-scale textile recycler would be nearly impossible—there isn’t even a municipal waste management or recycling system in place. More often than not, I saw fabric scraps and textiles in the garbage, burned, or washed out with the tide, all places that we definitely don’t want our clothing to be.
So, with all this in mind, what can you do with your used clothes? First of all, you can re-wear the pieces that are already in your closet, or upcycle them into something different. If the clothing is still in good condition, you can sell it or swap it with a friend. If it’s a little more run-down, DON’T put it in the trash—try and find a responsible textile recycler in your community and support the circular economy. There are lots of ways to get creative with your old clothing as long as you’re willing to put in the effort. But hopefully, you’ll at least think twice now before dropping them off for donation.