*UPDATE in October, 2017, the New York Times published: For Dignity and Development, East Africa Curbs Used Clothes Imports

Yup.

On a recent flight to Kenya, my husband sat beside a Kenya small business owner. Her clothing shop sells locally made dresses using Kenyan materials and employees. She said these used clothes imports make it incredibly difficult to sustain her business. She gave him her business card and the next day he and I visited her shop and I bought an amazing dress.

There is a debate in the development world about whether or not people in developed, wealthy nations should send their used shoes and clothing to less prosperous nations. This debate was raging around our lunch table recently (because even among those doing aid and development work, even in my own family, we don’t all agree).

You have a pile of used clothes and old running shoes or sandals and purses and hats from last season. What do you do with it? Donate seems like the best answer, right? Is it? Is it the best practice for wealthy, developed nations to send their used items to Africa?

who died used clothes(This is a ‘who-died,’ a pile of used clothing in the market in Djibouti. Who-died as in, ‘who died and sent us these clothes?’ Clothes here are often worn until they are completely worn out, the idea that people would give perfectly good clothes while they are still alive is a foreign concept.)

What are some of the problems with sending used things to this side of the world?

  1. About those TOMS“A 2008 study that found that used clothing donations to Africa were responsible for a 50 percent reduction in employment in that sector between 1981 and 2000 on the continent.” Some Bad News about TOMS shoes
  2. Some of the shoes and clothes that land here are not just used, they are trash. Torn, stained, faded. It is embarrassing, to the point of feeling ashamed, to dig through boxes of donations sent to the running team in Djibouti. When people send their garbage, it makes those on the receiving end feel like garbage. Would you wear a bra with two different sized cups? Underwear with one leg stretched so big it sags and the other is tight? A t-shirt with a crooked hem or uneven sleeves?
  3. There are wealthy, well-clothed people in Africa. To be specific, there are wealthy, well-clothed people on my block in Djibouti. There is also a large number of poor families, including a little boy who runs in our street with no pants and no underwear, just a long t-shirt. Lucy and I have a pair of shorts on our front table, waiting for the next time he comes around. Local people, and I include myself while we live here, need to rise up and get involved in our own communities. Outsiders sending free things undermines that by giving local people, from the neighborhood level to top government levels, excuses.
  4. When it comes to running shoes, they have already seen hundreds of miles. You stopped wearing them because they are too old and could cause an injury. It is not any different for an African athlete.
  5. Sending shoes does not solve the underlying problem of shoelessness, which is poverty. Job creation and economic growth will address poverty. Sending shoes undermines the jobs of shoe makers and shoe sellers.
  6. Sending shoes costs money. Why not donate that money to a job-creating charity or a local initiative who could purchase shoes locally?
  7. Studies have found that doing one perceived good deed can contribute to a failure to do another. So doing the easy and anonymous, faceless act of donating used clothing might mean a person is less inclined to get involved in an actual person-to-person interaction that could meet a real and pressing need.
  8. Ways of giving that promote trendy consumerism, like TOMS, that offer a buy one, give one incentive are more about the consumer than the receiver. “So next time you’re faced with buying some slick $200 Armani shades (whose parent company gives a MASSIVE 1% of its total revenue to the Global Fund) why not grab a $20 pair and donate $180 to something worthwhile on the ground.” Craig Greensfield
  9. Donating can feel good, can be helpful, but it can also promote a savior complex. Pippa Biddle
  10. The idea that you can simply donate used clothing to Africa allows the endless consumption of goods in wealthy nations to run on, unabated. Why not buy a new wardrobe every season? Surely some naked kid in Africa can use these out-of-fashion clothes. This is harmful for the environment, damaging to our souls that turn to consuming as religion, and it promotes a wasteful mentality. If all that used clothing wound up in American garbage dumps instead of African markets or African garbage dumps, Americans might start to reconsider the need to constantly purchase new items.

All that being said, I do think there is a place for donations in the world of development and I think a generous, giving spirit is a commendable, spiritual, and beautiful character trait. We are often on the receiving end of incredibly generous donations – from money to books to shoes to school supplies to soccer balls…for which we are grateful and the things go to really good use. I would rather have our girls run in gently used shoes than get thorns in their feet, for example. I will not tell people to stop donating but I will make some recommendations on how to be smart about it.

How can you be wise and generous?

  1. Don’t send your trash.
  2. Don’t donate with the idea that it will save the world. That’s not your job and it won’t be accomplished with a t-shirt anyway.
  3. Don’t send it in ignorance, thinking the continent is filled with naked people. Do a little research, learn about where you are sending your things, use the desire to donate as a launching  pad for educating yourself and your family and your community.
  4. Don’t sent it simply so you can feel better about an addiction to consumption.
  5. Find a useful way to send it. Find an appropriate way to send it. Find a relational way to send it. Rather than dumping at Goodwill, engage with a local community development project, like Girls Run 2 or a school, an organization with which you can form an ongoing relationship or an organization with a proven track-record of relationships and development.
  6. Pay for the shipping yourself, don’t ask the receiving organization to pay for that or for port fees or the inevitable import taxes.
  7. If you aren’t sure that used clothes or shoes will be helpful, relational, or desirable, donate money instead and trust the people on the ground to make wise decision in allocating that money.
  8. Consider the amount of waste involved in constantly updating your wardrobe and shipping those goods and consider renewing your wardrobe less often, less expensively.
  9. Ask yourself, really truly ask and demand an honest answer, Why do you want to send your used clothes to Africa? Why does it make you angry to hear it might not be helpful or that cash would be more useful? Does it challenge your ideas about the continent? Does it challenge your consumerism? A do-gooder-without-pain-or-real-sacrifice attitude? Does it make you feel guilty, confused, uncertain? That’s okay. I will say it again, that’s okay. Everyone I know here, in the US, myself, my family, we all face these issues. So answer the question with courageous integrity and then go about addressing that answer. We are all on a journey and instead of judging or boasting, let’s grow.
  10. Research, ask questions, learn, and then act, with eyes open wide and a heart filled with humble generosity.

We want to help, right? I know that. I wrestle with how best to help every single day here. Sometimes the answers are incredibly painful and sometimes they aren’t answers, they are gropings in the dark, prayers for wisdom, confessions of ignorance. And sometimes we simply need to act, to not be paralyzed by fear,  to do due diligence in seeking wisdom and then to take a risk and act in faith.

 *******

Useful articles:

Second Hand Clothes in Africa on CNN

Am I a Bad Mother or Has Africa Run Out of Shoes?

You Can’t Buy Your Way to Social Justice

NFL T-Shirts

The series: When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They are Being Rich Westerners

Is Foreign Aid Bad for Africa in Time

Why Sending Your Old Clothes to Africa Doesn’t Help in the Huffington Post

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