Scholar Finds Secondhand Clothing Donations May Do More Harm Than Good in Developing Countries

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A scholar at King’s College London warns in a new book that donating clothes in the United States and the West may do more harm than good in third-world countries, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Washington Times reports that in order to cope with their overwhelming inventory and to raise money, Western-based charities that accept used clothing sell their excess donations to textile and apparel companies. These companies then recycle and resell the clothing to other countries, typically third-world, low-income countries such as Malawi and Nigeria.

Dr. Andrew Brooks, a lecturer in the Department of Development Geography at King’s College London, believes that this practice has a detrimental effect on these countries. Rather than clothing the world’s poorest people, this practice actually stunts local economic growth and edges out local sellers. Brooks’s new book, Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-Hand Clothes, expounds on that point.

“Donating your used garments might be well-intentioned, but the situation on the ground means they may be doing more harm than good,” Brooks said.

According to Brooks, secondhand clothing providers “dominate local market stalls in sub-Saharan Africa,” stifling domestic economic growth and entrepreneurship. Brooks found that in some countries, secondhand clothing makes up the majority of clothing sales. In Uganda, for example, used clothing from first-world countries account for 81% of all clothing sales.

The situation is so bad, in fact, that locals have come up with derogatory terms to refer to secondhand clothing. Nigerians, for example, call them “kafa ulaya” (“the clothes of the dead whites”) and Mozambicans dub them “roupa da calamidade” (“clothing of the calamity”).

However, not everyone agrees with Brooks’s assessment. Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART), a secondhand clothing company based in Maryland, believe that the sales they generate pump more money into local economies, create jobs, and most of all provide affordable clothing. On its website, SMART cites the non-governmental organization Oxfam when describing its benefits.

“Respected non-governmental organizations like Oxfam applaud the second-hand industry because its clothing sales create jobs and affordable apparel in numerous lesser developed countries,” SMART’s website claims.

Indeed, a 2005 Oxfam study found secondhand clothing sales are ultimately beneficial, boosting economic growth in other areas and encouraging conversation and charitable giving.

“On one hand, the increase in second-hand clothing imports is often held responsible for the decline of domestic textile and/or clothing production,” the Oxfam study said. “On the other, the second hand clothing trade generates employment as people repair and distribute clothing.”

SMART spokeswoman Josie Hankey echoed the study’s conclusions.

“We aid many charitable organizations by purchasing clothing and textiles that cannot be resold through second-hand thrifts and consignments — this material would otherwise end up in landfills, and charities put the hundreds of thousands of dollars back into funding their programs,” Hankey said.

In addition to providing clothing to third-world countries, clothing donations very much help the poor in first-world countries. In the U.S., for example, members of the Vincentian Family, which collects used clothing, help 12 million people every year.

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