Overall, the United States exports about a billion pounds of second-hand textiles, making it our eighth largest export. And shockingly, this constitutes only a small portion of America’s yearly donations. So, if you imagine someone happily using the bags and bags of crap you discard at your local donation center on a regular basis, you’re likely wrong. Most people do not want your junk or your trash: your broken electronics, your dirty clothes, your excess.

Only 20% of donated items end up in circulation in the United States, while 45% are recycled. Any wet or mildewy clothes get thrown away immediately. In 2014, Goodwill sent 11% (22 million pounds) straight to the landfill due to their condition. Donated items that do show up on clothing racks at your local thrift shop have a short shelf life. At Goodwill, for example, if your item doesn’t sell in 4 weeks, it gets sent along to a discount sell-by-the-pound outlet, and then sent on to a recycling center or overseas. Thousand-ton bales of donations are packaged and sent to Subsaharan Africa, China, and South America. The bales are then split, sorted, and resold locally, disrupting the local economy.    

The Language of Second Hand Clothes

  • Nigeria: “okirika” (bend down boutique) or even “London clothes”
  • Ghana: “obroni wawu” (clothes of the dead white man)
  • Zambia: “salaula” (‘selecting from a bale by rummaging)
  • Congo: “sola” (to choose)
  • Zimbabwe: “mupedzanhamo” (where all problems end)
  • Kenya & Tanzania: “mitumba” (bundles) or “kafa ulaya” (clothes of the dead whites)

Source: Andrew Brooks, Clothing Poverty

Let’s unpack this a minute, using my own experience as an example. As a person with disposable income, living in a materialistic society, I buy more than I need. I like variety, and a good bargain too, so I tend to spend less per item so I can have more. I feel the pressure to not be seen in the same outfit too often, especially for special events (thank you social media!). These items tend to be of lower quality, and so they need to be disposed of more often. Then I feel guilty about how much I accumulated that I don’t even wear, and so I donate it to someone who “needs” it. I dump a giant trash bag of stuff at Goodwill and feel awesome about myself. “Someone in my community will have new clothes to wear! Wait, what, everything is going abroad you say?! To Africa?! EVEN BETTER!!!”

Meanwhile, there are tailors and seamstresses throughout the world producing quality garments for their local communities. When thousand ton bales of second-hand American goods arrive in port, how are these local businesses supposed to compete? Too often they cannot, and their livelihood is thwarted by t-shirts from a team that lost the Super Bowl. It is egocentric to assume that our discarded waste is better than locally produced goods. When the best solution we can offer is our leftovers, we ignore the fragile balance in which we all exist together. 

All of this is not to say that people can’t benefit from our donations, whether in our own communities or on a broader scale. There is absolutely a place for charity in our world, but a little bit of intention and big picture thinking can go a really long way. If we are conscious about what we give away, by asking what is needed instead of assuming anything we give is better than nothing, we can really be helpful. And if we buy less of what we don’t need in the first place, that leaves less waste and more resources to contribute to real, lasting solutions to poverty.

Our carelessness and superiority directly contribute to and create new issues of unemployment and loss of skilled trades on a global scale. We have the ability and, I personally believe, the obligation to correct our course and create meaningful change. We don’t even have to do that much – just buy a little less, take a little time considering what we buy and where we buy it from, and when it’s time to let go of our things, doing so in a manner that is actually beneficial to people and the planet.