Do you ever wondered what becomes of the clothing those of us in the U.S. donate to charity? Pietra Rivoli explains it all in her book, The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy. I didn't read this whole book, just the last three chapters — and it was a fascinating read.
You may have already known that much of the clothing donated to Goodwill or The Salvation Army winds up overseas, because there simply isn't enough demand in the U.S. for the huge amount of clothing that gets donated. (And about 85 percent of the clothes we throw away goes into landfill, which is sad — since almost all of it can be reused.)
But much of what Rivoli explains was new to me, including this concept:
The global used clothing industry is ... a fascinating study in the market for "snowflakes," as almost every item of clothing that enters the trade is unique. ...Rivoli takes you to one such company, Trans-America, which has been a family business for multiple generations. About half of the clothing it buys "has another life to live as clothing" while the rest — clothes that are torn or stained, for example — goes to rags, or gets shredded into bits for various industrial uses. Trans-America loses money on this part of the business; the money comes from finding those snowflakes.
The snowflake factor means that the most successful firms in the industry are those with highly developed expertise in picking out special snowflakes, and with worldwide but personal relationships that allow them to match snowflakes with customers.
Certain items of clothing are especially in demand, and may go to London, Tokyo, New York or Los Angeles, and sell for quite a sum. When this book was written, T-shirts from 1970s rock bands were one such item. Other clothing goes to places like Eastern Europe, the Philippines, Chile and Guatemala. "But most of the clothing whizzing by on Trans-America's conveyer belt is headed to Africa."
And Rivoli takes us to Tanzania to see what happens next. "Almost all of the men and boys in Dar Es Salaam wear mitumba —clothing thrown away by Americans and Europeans." And African buyers are just as particular as those anywhere else in the world — so again, "the business is all about snowflakes."
Rivoli notes that "critics of the used clothing trade are not hard to find," and a number of countries, including some in Africa, ban the import of used clothing. But she argues:
There is little evidence ... that the African textile industries — at least in many countries — would be flourishing but for mitumba. ... The Tanzanian textile industry, ironically, seems to have withered long before the flood of mitumba, and now is recovering even in the face of swells of used clothing imports. ...But a brief summary and a few quotes can't do justice to Rivoli's writing; I recommend reading this book if the topic interests you. There's a second edition of the book out now, and I've reserved it from my library system. I'll come back and modify this post if anything has changed significantly in that new edition.
As for employment, while mitumba may destroy some jobs, it very clearly creates others.