Monday, January 11, 2010

Where that T-Shirt You Donated Actually Ended Up

Remember those clothes you donated to Goodwill or maybe threw in the donation bin around Christmas time? Where exactly did they go? After only a few days in Mozambique, I began to realize that although everyone was speaking Portuguese, Mozambiqueans all seemed vaguely familiar. I guess it's easy to get that impression when they're all wearing the clothes you and your friends sported just a couple years back. Recently I was with a group of about 15 Mozambiqueans, and asked how many were wearing 2nd hand clothes. Everyone raised their hands. Here's a few shirts I noticed just in the past couple days:

"Got Your Tickets to the Gun Show?"
"Don't Mess with Texas"
"Nuva Ring" (worn by a man)
"Y Basketball" (YMCA)
Huge American flag with bald eagle in the foreground
Super Bowl XXXIX: Jacksonville, FL (I was pumped to see this one)

(On the back of the shirt of the kid in the picture it was all Sharpie'd up with notes like "Have a great summer!")

I'm still waiting on the Vanderbilt Cross Country shirt to turn up. Anyway, intrigued, I started asking some questions. As someone interested in development, I've thought a lot about whether clothes donations are in the end good or bad for the country. Do they help clothe people or are they really killing the textile industry and in effect the economy and potential jobs?

What struck me the most was how big of a business it is. It's not how I envisioned a bunch of people just getting hand-out shirts and shoes from the back of a truck in an isolated village. Instead, the owners of the for-profit resellers ( there are 8 in Nampula alone!) are often foreigners, driving Land Rovers like Bilal and Akram, a couple of Lebanese I interviewed. When your clothes go to the NGO donation boxes, a large portion of the articles (the good quality ones) are sold by the NGOs in the US to fund their other activities. Bilal and Akram speculated that only 20% of the clothes actually make it abroad. They then go through suppliers in the US to the port of Maputo, and eventually to large cities like Nampula.

Once they arrive here, they are packaged into 45 kg "mystery bundles". People like Mussa Xavier, a seller I met, dig through the bundles. They aren't allowed to open them, but amazingly they can get a feel for what's inside (see pic 2 for how just alittle bit of the clothes peeks through the wrapping). I talked to a group of buyers - the sought after items are athletic wear, or anything with a synthetic feel to it, and speficially size 40 or above. Laughing about the specialized nature of these resellers, Akram said, "They can know just by feeling. It's surprising." Mussa said he and most buyers prefer to sell shoes though, because with the high profit margin, 3 or 4 good pairs would cover the cost of the whole bundle. I asked what my shoes (retail $100) would fetch - only about $20, or half the price of a "good" pair. I guess that's what happens after 6 months of trekking in 4 different countries.

Mussa has a tiki-hut shop and has recently expanded his business to another nearby city. Withf our employees now under him, he said that 2nd hand clothes have greatly changed his life. “These days business has been increasing more than ever…Last year I bought my motorbike, and this year I was able to buy furniture and improve my home. I had money to buy a refrigerator, but I used it to buy a cell phone for my wife.” He says he will find a way to buy the refrigerator for his family.

It's easy to see the effects of the industry on people like Mussa. There are countless people in the market doing exactly as he. And it's not just the resellers - even the uneducated people loading the bundles into trucks were making decent money. In short, there's a lot of jobs created.

The more difficult thing to gauge is what could have been. Bilal and Akram explain that importation of 2nd-hand clothes is only allowed in countries where there is an absence of a garment industry. But could it be preventing the birth of an industry? My gut tells me that given the domestic political roadblocks and fierce competition from established textile countries like Bangladesh and China, it would be highly unlikely without a big external push. It wouldn't just happen on its own. At the same time, cheap clothes make the consumer happy, and after talking with many people I learned that remaining tailors make a good living repairing damaged 2nd-hand items. Still, something bothers me about promoting a practice, an industry if you want to call it, that really has no value added component. No one is producing anything. Just reselling. For a scathing critique of clothes donations, see this Washington Times article.

With my limited reading on the subject, I can't come to a conclusive conclusion. What I do think is that what is happening now is better than just handing out free t-shirts to every Dick and Jane that wants one - that's good for disaster relief but not for creating an "industry" like this. In a week or so I'll be chatting with a member of Parliament, so I'll be sure to get his thoughts.

1 comment:

  1. Good topic for discussion. Definitely a huge difference between Africa and Bangladesh. Interestingly enough, one of the families I work with at Clairmont from Cabo Verde. The mom actually buys used clothes at the Goodwill and elsewhere, packs them into these blue plastic barrels and ships them home to be sold--she makes money and so do her contacts back in Africa.