Let’s Talk About Old Clothes

Matt Yglesias recently posited that the influx of used t-shirts to Africa is a good thing that “reflects a real improvement in living standards.” The development experts have got to be all over this, right? I mean, used clothes? At the very least the snarky aid bloggers. Especially after the whole World Vision t-shirt fiasco. But no, they’re not. Or maybe yes. Well, not exactly…

Used clothes imported to Africa by wholesalers and sold through local networks aren’t the same as big dumps of free clothing. They play a totally different role. Local retailers buy and resell the clothes, and it supports small businesses. So, maybe Yglesias is right and we can count it as a win for quality of life in poor countries. On the other hand, cheap used clothes from the US compete with the local textile industry, and are probably a serious factor in stunting the development of textile factories in Africa.

So it looks like used clothes are good for consumers and retailers, less good for people who need jobs and would benefit from a textile industry that could hire them. You will notice there is probably solid overlap between consumers and people who need good jobs. There’s a six-year-old Oxfam report that probably sums it up best when they conclude that – we really can’t be sure what the net impact of used clothing is. But we know it’s not simple.

(photo credit: swan-t)