I shop at third-hand stores here in Honduras—stocked by the cast-offs of second-hand stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army. Honduras imports used clothing by the ton, almost all of it from the United States, and this imported used clothing represents the majority of clothing sales in the country.
I knew all this, but when I found a “Women’s March” t-shirt in the racks, I wondered how the twenty lempiras I paid for the shirt (around eight-five cents) could possibly cover the travel this article of clothing had done, over land and sea, tracing thousands of miles from an activist’s closet to this particular thrift store in Central America.
Most people, when donating clothes to thrift stores such as Goodwill or Salvation Army, aren’t aware that only about ten percent of the clothes will be re-sold in the United States. About twenty percent of donated clothes are too stained or torn for resale, and are recycled into rags and industrial fiber filling. Around seventy percent of donations—all the functional clothes that don’t sell in the United States—is sold for pennies per pound, bundled into multi-ton shipping containers, and sent around the world, from Poland to Peru.
Once the clothing is sold, it’s no longer charity—it’s part of a booming global business. Used clothing represents as many as 40,000 jobs in the United States, and worldwide, generates around $3.7 billion in sales each year.
Proponents of the worldwide used clothing trade, particularly its stockholders, portray it as a global recycling initiative, reducing the need for new clothes while giving old clothes new life and keeping them out of landfills.
A 2005 Oxfam study concluded that the process “has clear consumer benefits,” and “supports the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in developing countries who work in trading, distribution, repairing, restyling, washing, etc.”
But used clothing is not without controversy.
Particularly vocal opponents have been East African countries, including Rwanda, which in 2016 announced a ban on importing used clothing. These countries say that when cheap foreign clothes flood the market, they price out local manufacturers. Local textile industries can’t compete with inexpensive used clothing, and this ultimately harms the country’s economy.
More than economic reasons, East African advocates talk about “compromising dignity” by subsisting primarily on another country’s cast-offs. “No one goes around proudly showing off someone else’s discards,” The Guardian quoted Joseph Rwagatare speaking to the Rwandan newspaper New Times.
There are also hygiene concerns about using used clothing, particularly underwear (and if you think donated underwear is far-fetched, just google “used bras for Africa”). In addition, the glut of inexpensive foreign clothing, can affect a country’s culture—with cheaper options, fewer people opt to wear traditional garments.
However, this ban on used clothes has also been controversial. Critics of the ban say that local industries aren’t strong enough to pick up the full demand for clothing. Local textile industry in East Africa, where it exists, is generally for specialty or high-end markets—beyond the reach of the majority of locals. Instead, critics say, a ban on used clothing from the U.S. will simply push the market towards new clothing imports from Asia, clothes that are likely to be more expensive and of lower quality than the used clothing poorer citizens of these countries are accustomed to buying.
One of these critics is the United States itself, egged on by the used clothing lobby. In response to the proposed ban, the U.S. now threatens to retaliate by re-imposing tariffs on goods imported by the bloc of East African countries. These actions would serve as a strong warning to other countries like Guatemala and Honduras that also run on cheap U.S. imports.
Of course, the trade agreements that the U.S. are defending are already heavily weighted in the U.S.’s favor. Countries like Rwanda and Honduras could bow to the pressures of the U.S., remove tariffs from imported clothes, and watch their local production wither, only to then see U.S. interests change and shift to a neighboring country where trade is cheaper.
The damage may already be done. “In several West African countries it is not clear that, even in the absence of SHC [Second-Hand Clothing], local textile/garment production would recover, as new imports from East Asia are cheaper than locally produced goods and there are serious supply-side constraints (expensive inputs, high interest rates, etc.),” observed the Oxfam report, “SHC may have contributed to the demise of the industry but its absence might not bring the industry back” [emphasis mine].
Reading these arguments and counter-arguments, facts and counter-facts, is exhausting, precisely because this issue sets competing values against each other. Do I value environmental sustainability, or the economic independence of developing countries? Do I believe used clothing is empowering, because it allows more people to afford the clothing they need, or humiliating, because they are dressing themselves in others’ cast-offs? Can I believe both at the same time?
I have a sinking suspicion that most issues work this way—they deeper we go, the more tangled we find ourselves, looking in vain for an exit.
The culture of imported used goods is deeply engrained in Honduras, which makes it hard to a successful phasing out—the ubiquitous “American clothing” stores and big yellow school buses repurposed as public transport are only some of the more visible examples. Honduras also imports cars, used electronics, old toys, even expired medicine. An article in the Honduran newspaper Tiempo noted: “The proliferation of these imported “used” products means that they are not only sometimes the most immediate option for purchase, but that they can also become the only form for the population to acquire these goods.”
Clothes are worn far longer here in Honduras than they are in the United States. But all clothes, particularly those cheaply made to satisfy “fast fashion” desires in the United States, must meet the end of their lives at some time. One result of the exportation of used clothes is that the end of the products’ lives will happen in less-industrialized countries, which are poorly equipped to handle effective recycling of tattered clothing. In this, as in so many other areas, the United States is exporting the costs of its consumerism.
“We’re the trash can of the highly-industrialized countries,” Honduran economist Claudio Salgado told Tiempo. This makes me think that one of the most radical ways to respond to this debate is to stop making trash. If we decide as a society to value durability and function over fashion and style, these conversations could look entirely different.
Eighty billion articles of clothing are produced every year, far more than the population of the world realistically needs to clothe itself. The average US citizen throws away eighty-one pounds of clothing per year. There are serious conversations that need to happen at a global level about the used clothing trade, but we as individuals can be more conscientious about our own part in it.
Donating your used clothing remains a far better option than condemning it to a landfill, but with the many implication it carries, from the oil used by the transport vessel to the tailors in other countries whose jobs are threatened by massive clothing imports, a better choice may be not to opt into the system at all. Consider shopping second-hand if you need to supplement your closet—or better yet, consider making do with what you have.
I’m as guilty as anyone of buying clothes I don’t need—like this Women’s March t-shirt that will never exactly fit me. At least, I hope, it’s a reminder of my place in this cycle, a reminder that every action I take, every purchase I make ripples out into the rest of the world, for better or for worse.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).