When we donate to Goodwill or Salvation Army, it is with good intentions — to help people in need and to be more sustainable in how we dispose of unwanted clothing. However, where our donated clothes end up has been masked by the idea of charity. In light of the growing economy of thrifting culture, this has become particularly problematic and created an unstable system of international dependency. What we believed to be a charitable act has actually been detrimental to some Zambians for decades.
In 1991, Zambia opened its markets to free trade after years of owing money to the International Monetary Fund, allowing foreign countries to export their products into Zambia in exchange for loans from those countries. This brought in container after container of used clothes that wholesalers could sell without paying for production, labor costs or tariffs. This inevitably undercut the cost of domestic manufacturers and put them out of business. Since then, charity thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army have been large contributors to this ongoing problem. These charities only keep the clothes people donate. They sell the ones they believe are profitable in their stores, and the rest are sold to companies that will clean and sell the clothes to developing countries at a higher price. Local sellers then buy the bales of clothes to sell at salaula markets. The once-extensive clothing and textile industry in Zambia is now virtually extinct today because of this long-standing cycle.
There is no simple solution to this. Zambia is increasingly reliant on donations that damage local businesses and create a cycle of economic oppression. It doesn’t help that there is a growing thrift shopping culture amongst American millennials and Generation Zers, who are unaware that this is an issue to begin with. I didn’t know of this problem until I came to NYU and took a class about the globalization of fashion, so it’s safe to say that many thrift shoppers don’t know about the potential implications of their actions.
Since learning about where donated clothes end up, I’ve been more careful about where I choose to give my clothes, in order to avoid this neo-colonial act that keeps Zambians reliant on the West. I continue to shop at charity thrift stores, so that my money funds the charity, but I have not donated clothing to them to avoid the possibility of it ending up in a landfill in a developing nation. This is one solution on the individual level to avoid the continued exploitation of Zambia.
We need to have transparent conversations about how seemingly harmless acts like donating clothes are actually acts that keep certain countries in purgatory. The onus is on the consumer; only by choosing to do better can we begin to fight the problem.
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Email Clare Shiraishi at [email protected]