By Ashley Davidson
Nothing feels quite so good as purging the old closet and filling a sack or two with last year’s fashions, old college teeshirts, and the like. Nothing, that is, except donating said clothes — you can do yourself a favor and someone else, too! Feel even better and send those clothes to where they really need them; like, say, some dustbowlish developing country in Africa. Can’t you just picture a skinny child running around with your gently used UW sweatshirt? Patting yourself on the back for being so philanthropic, you head to the nearest clothing drive. Good deed done for the day.
Not so fast.
Let’s take a country like Kenya. Once employing up to 30% of it’s population in textile manufacturing, the Sub-Saharan nation became infiltrated with donated clothing when liberal trade policies came into play during the late 80’s. Now, since 1990, the “import” used textile selling business has become a $1 billion dollar industry — and caused a near total collapse of their manufacturing industry.
And it isn’t only Kenya. Uganda, Rwanda, Haiti, Nigeria — the list goes on. Vendors who sell the donated wares may be benefitted in the short term, and certainly these clothes are cheaper than purchasing tailor-made garb, both of which could temparaily help poor communities by providing employment and access to affordable clothing. However, the process has been detrimental to not only textile industries but also farmers of cotton and linen. Moreover, it keeps the countries involved dependent on Western donations, which is not a healthy cycle.
On the home front, I think it’s also damaging: It gives Americans a way to justify rampant consumerism (it’s ok to constantly buy stuff as long as we give away the things we get tired of or don’t want). If a person’s true cause is to help struggling/developing economies, empowerment is far more effective. Worried about poor communities in Africa being clothed? Try supporting a local textile producer. Buy school supplies for kids from a shop in their community. There is more to helping than throwing “stuff” at a problem. Get involved, educate yourself, and find the real needs: believe me, there are plenty out there.