They don’t sell all the clothes to Africa

Like many families across Britain, we have a box of clothes sitting by the front door almost permanently, ready to be sent to the local charity shop. But, once we’ve lugged them down the road, I always feel slightly offended on my daily walk past the shop, because my rather natty cast-offs never seem to make it into the window display.

Now I’ve discovered how unlikely it is that any of the shirts, suits, children’s T-shirts and jeans I donate actually end up being sold in that particular branch – or indeed in any of the charity’s outlets. They are, it turns out, just as likely to be sold on the side of the road in the tiny village of Gyen Gyen in Ghana as on the racks of Marie Curie in Islington.

The strange journey of Britain’s cast-offs is the subject of an arresting BBC documentary. It traces how the rise and rise of fast fashion in Britain has helped fuel a multi-billion pound second-hand clothing industry in Africa, providing countless people with a livelihood, but also – worryingly – damaging local textile manufacturers in these developing nations.

The “damage to local textile manufacturers” can be ignored. We should always look at these things from the point of consumption, of the consumer. Does it make them richer? Yes? Then good.

But they don’t all go to Africa. The town in North Bohemia I work in has a second hand shop. Obviously and clearly getting a couple of containers a month from the UK of used clothes. Lots of Next, M&S etc among the stock. Picked up a brand new (sale tag still on it) M&S lambswool for £2 only a few weeks ago.

Does a massive turnover that shop. Maybe 250, 300 square metres of space, stuff jammed on long racks, turns the lot over each month at least.

8 comments on “They don’t sell all the clothes to Africa

  1. This is fascinating and gives a real insight in to how a whole industry has sprung up around distributing our cast off clothes. Isn’t that what we want rather than just giving something away and it not being valued?

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2013/12/11/250240941/episode-502-the-afterlife-of-a-t-shirt

    The best thing about the excellent Planet Money, and NPR in general, is that I never feel I’m being preached at, unlike the BBC’s documentaries.

  2. Like many families across Britain, we have a box of clothes sitting by the front door almost permanently

    The classic error of homo islingtonensis is to think himself representative of the rest of us.

    How many families have a box for clothes permanently by their front door? Who needs to buy so many new clothes that they are constantly having to dispose of pre-loved garments?

    I hope he trips over his box and breaks his ghastly consumerist neck.

  3. Apply this to the welfare state-

    “The “damage to local [production]” can be ignored. We should always look at these things from the point of consumption, of the consumer. Does it make them richer? Yes? Then good.”

    Charity is virtuous. But once you have a permanent charitable economy- rather than just temporary and specific help to those in genuine distress- you start eradicating the basic “need to produce” that drives the free market. When Bastiat counselled us to always think of the consumer, I’m not sure that handouts were what he had in mind.

  4. Firstly what “local production” How many plants are there in Ghana knocking out 100% cotton polo shirts ?
    They’re all in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and if there were factories producing polo shirts they would all be sold in Primark in Croydon, not Accra.

    Secondly, this is not charity. Oxfam (spit) or similar organisations, sell the clothes en masse to African brokers for a few quid a ton. It is business driven by local demand. We the punters, stuffing our shirts into those hoppers in Tescos are the ones being exploited.

    Thirdly – also look at how meat that isn’t sold/sellable in Europe is shipped to Africa. Instead of chicken feet just being discarded or turned into pet food, it is frozen and stuck in containers headed for Lagos.

  5. It’s not a business if you’re using emotional blackmail to get people to give you stuff, so the argument that charitable giving is exploitation is valid. Whatever, it has the same economic effect as welfare, it just happens to be being implemented by a charity rather than a government. The point I’m making is taht if you accept the argument that welfare is a bad incentive to those receiving it, you have to apply the same to people getting charity.

    If a person cannot produce- perhaps they are too elderly, disabled, etc, or just in temporary dire straits- the economic effects may be negligible and (morally) positive. Once you have entire populations on the receiving end, you get Soviet boroughs where people just give up trying to produce, because they’re so disincentivised. Hence the reasonable argument that the worst thing you can do for underdeveloped economies is to turn the economies into reliance on charity, or “Aid” or whatever you want to call it.

    Remember Say’s Law; people produce in order to consume. If they can consume without producing, they won’t produce.

  6. Oh, for Pete’s sake, what is wrong in sending second-hand clothes overseas, if the rate at which the well-off discard them is so much greater than the rate that the smaller number of poor can wear them out? Either you burn them in a municipal energy-recovery plant or you give/sell the to someone who wants them.
    The Greenies should be screaming support and providing volunteers to administer this (and, if they did, I should admire it).

  7. > what is wrong in sending second-hand clothes overseas

    Well, you could use such an argument to persuade people to send their unwanted clothes to Africa, certainly. But that is not what is happening: instead, Oxfam et al are using the argument that “Those Africans are so poor they can’t even afford clothes” to persuade people to send their unwanted clothes to Africa. So, if you want to be strictly capitalist about it, that’s fraud.

    Especially since, in my experience, the people giving the clothes tend to have second thoughts when they discover that they’re putting local African clothing businesses out of business. You might disagree with them, but surely, in a free market, their clothes, their choice what to do with them.

    There is a charity in my town that pays a few quid for clothes and refuses to pass them on to Africa, specifically because they believe that it is not the job of charity to undermine entrepreneurs. They take the clothes to neglected East-European orphanages instead.

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