The Trouble With Giving Stuff

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.


  1. caitpetrie

    What an interesting read! Such a good example of the un-intended consequences of our actions. I myself have donated clothes to Africa, and even volunteered for such clothing drives. Ashley, so you know of any research about similar consequences in the US? Am I potentially hurting people by donating my old clothes to the goodwill?

  2. katielowell

    On a side (yet semi-related) note, I recently learned that Goodwill is a for-profit company. I don’t know why I always assumed it was a charitable non-profit organization but it’s another example of charity masking the capitalist consumer pillars that underpin American life.

    1. caitpetrie

      I never knew that?! Wait, so why can I get a tax reduction on the stuff that I donate to Goodwill? That does not seem to fit with the for-profit model. Who actually owns Goodwill?! Maybe that’ll be my next blog post…

      1. caitpetrie

        And by tax reduction I meant rebate…ha

    2. caitpetrie

      Well, this is disheartening…Goodwill CEOs get paid more than half a million dollars a year, while not providing a livable wage for their staff. They accept millions in government funding (and I get a tax rebate when I donate) but, they pay some of their workers less than the federal minimum wage, “Some employees earn just 22 cents per hour”. I won’t be donating there again…

  3. millicentg

    This is awesome! Two really great examples of consumer and business models that fit nicely into your blog post would be the Superbowl Clothes and Toms.

    The Broncos designed and printed Super Bowl champions apparel and obviously they lost (Go Hawks) but after they lost the game they sent the garments overseas. Imagine a bunch of little kids in Kenya running around wearing Denver Bronco Super Bowl Champion t-shirts? We are so obsessed and have to prepare clothes only for them to not even have market value in the US and sent overseas. Also, every time we buy a pair of Toms the business model promises we are placing a pair of shoes on someone less fortunate than ourselves in a developing country feet. While this gives the consumer a moral satisfaction that they are being philanthropic we are totally ripping off the local shoe maker. however, buying a pair of Toms gives you an identity. You fit in with other Tom wearing consumers because you donated a pair of shoes to a child in Africa.

  4. ccceprosperity

    I’m curious as to how this sort of critique would change if we talked about things being donated domestically. I totally see how this is a problem when it comes to donating used clothes, shoes, etc to countries that are trying to build their own manufacturing bases. But what about when I donate clothes that are going to be worn by foster kids in my community? Or bought by someone at a thrift store locally, with the proceeds going to a non-profit organization? It certainly doesn’t get us out of the cycle of “stuff,” but does this help prevent creating further economic dependency on the part of impoverished countries? –Kaleigh B

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