My Trash…Africa’s Treasure? Not Likely.

Posted on August 31, 2012


This is part 3 in a blog series exploring our wardrobe and our lifestyle: who makes our clothes, where our clothes come from, and why a struggle for quality over convenience might just change our outlook on life and the world around us. Read part 1 and 2.

thrift shop sign

Photo credit: James Greenfield via Flickr.

It’s easy to think there will always be a need for our unwanteds

In the previous post on fast fashion, we went back to the 1980s to check out the decade’s developments in retail and the subsequent big bang of overseas manufacturing. Now that we’re back in the present, I hope you can still appreciate the Back to the Future novelty, while embracing the reality of our current consumer culture.

I’ll be the first to admit that the topic of waste just isn’t that compelling. I try to shop at thrift and resale stores as often as possible, and along with reuse and repurposing, I believe these are all responsible consumer choices. Heck, a large slice of the apparel pie is getting a new lease on life because of all this second-handiness.

This slice, however, amounts to only 15% of the whole. The other 85% of our leftovers head straight to our landfills, and here in the US, we’re contributing 78 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year. In 2010 alone, this waste added up to over 13 million tons.

Though I’d never toss old wearables into the dumpster, I’m definitely keen on tossing my own closet clutter into any donation bin that happens to present itself. It’s a feel-good alternative. Why wouldn’t I want others to benefit from my excess?

Thrift shop: solution versus afterthought

Have you ever wondered where your old duds ended up after St. Vincent de Paul and Goodwill got sick of them? Or, how a kid in Africa was spotted wearing a t-shirt from your home town?

After investigating these scenarios further myself, I’ve realized that a place called the “wild blue yonder” just doesn’t exist, no matter how much I’d like it to. And the idea that buying a little secondhand can offer a real cure for the reality of cheaper and faster fashion, well, I don’t think that’s altogether informed either.

“Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes. According to John Paben, co-owner of used-clothing processor Mid-West Textile, ‘They never could.’”

— An excerpt from Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline (Published by Portfolio Penguin, 2012).

Because we can acquire such inexpensive and readily available clothing in today’s global marketplace, we have and continue to create an excess that no thrift shop, charity, or textile recycler, has the ability to fully utilize.

At textile recycling plants, like Trans-America outside of NYC, clothing gets pulled and sorted from the mountains of cloth. The vintage, high-end, and collectable items are typically imported by Japan, and the destitute items are removed for recycling. The rest of the garb, not considered vintage or high-end, gets shrink wrapped and baled up for shipment to developing nations.

mitumba, bales of second hand clothing

(Left) Bales of secondhand clothing in a warehouse in Cotonou, Benin. Photo credit: betterplace lab. (Right) A woman shops at a mitumba market in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo credit: Waste Couture.

Strikingly enough, the clothing we discard has the potential of later being sold in over 100 different countries. In African countries like Tanzania, used clothing has become their number one import.

It’s called “mitumba” (Swahili for “secondhand”) by most Africans who receive secondhand bales from North America and Europe. Just like with any large-scale global industry, there are pros and cons at work. The upside is employment for many Africans. The tradeoff is that, though employment for Africans results, development of local industry is thwarted. Mitumba may seem like treasure in the short-term, but I contend that Africa’s economy and its people deserve better than to rely on the rest of the world’s castoffs.

Similar tradeoffs are being accepted by Western countries who continue to outsource in order to keep production costs at an all time low. The US today only makes 3% of apparel in country, down from 90% in 1955. If little to nothing is being produced in the continent, what can little to no economic growth sustain?

Another paradigm to consider

Perhaps, we are actually learning to do ‘faster’ better and more responsibly as a society, with the advice from our slow food and ethical fashion movements. Perhaps, we are choosing to create businesses that improve the livelihoods of our laborers and add value to the country in which the goods are made. And just perhaps, we, as consumers, are choosing to relinquish the fears that hinder us from taking control of our own values and decisions. Perhaps, a new culture is brewing, and we’re really on to something great.

When we focus inward instead of pointing the finger outward, these are the types of solutions that can and are creating change.

Stay tuned for part 4.