Cloth donations – causing more harm than good?

Being a student in my twenties I have moved a lot in the past few years. From Germany to Austria, to the Czech Republic (…) and finally my last relocation to Spain. Thanks to a limited amount of luggage that I am able to carry with me in trains and airplanes, I learned to cut back on the amount of clothes I own. Just like many other people I decided to give some of my clothing to charity, believing that I would help others with my donation. However, growing up in Germany I realized more and more that I have quite a Eurocentric way of thinking. At one point I started to question my decisions and to look behind the business that is made through the collection of old clothes and the potential harm it causes.

There are different organizations who collect ones clothes. Depending on the organization, a little percentage of the donated items is kept by the organization and sold in thrift shops or given away to people in need. For free, without trying to make profit out of it. Threadbare and useless fabric are sold to textile recycling firms. As one can see, there is already a business made with the donated clothes and we do not always know if the profit is reinvested into charitable projects. In many cases a high percentage of the clothing is shipped to Sub Saharan countries or to other continents. And here comes the point where I try to look behind this kind of business. I realize that I, among many people, have a huge misunderstanding of what people in so called underdeveloped countries need and that we should question our decisions more frequently. Most people do not know that there is a huge market of old clothes in African countries, which is destroying its local textile industry. In this blogpost I will only concentrate on this continent, because that is where the market began in the early 1980’s1. So, one could say who are we to think, that dumping our clothes in another country will help the economy and the people living there? I will try to look at both sides of the coin, when trying to evaluate this kind of Business.

Europe’s secondhand clothes brings mixed blessings to AfricaOn the one hand, you need to take into account that these imports ruin the domestic textile industry which used to be a major industry in many countries. I would like to stress the word “used to”, because since cloth donations started in the 1980s, the clothing industry across Africa suffered a 40% decline in production and a high drop of the unemployment rate. According to G. Frazer² and his paper “Used-Clothing Donations and Apparel Production in Africa” the imports of used-clothing have a statistically significant effect on the textile and the apparel production in African countries². Local factories are not competitive with second hand fabrics from America or European countries. Since those clothes have been donated, there are only little costs such as administrative, sorting or transportation expenses. As a consequence to those low prices, many local factories had to shut down. In addition to the cheap clothes from donors, which are also known as “Mitumbas”, low quality products from China are threatening the market as well. Therefore the only niche for the local industry seem to be the production of traditional robes, school uniforms or work clothes, which cannot be found on the second hand markets or from the Chinese factories2,3,4.

On the other hand, a whole economy with different jobs is generated through the business with donated clothes. Once the organization who received the donations has gone through the clothes and sorted out useless items, a wholesaler is buying a container full of ballots with old clothes from Europe or America and sells the ballots to another broker. After several steps the retailer purchases a ballot without knowing its value and tries to sell everything at the highest price at a market. One of the biggest markets is the Gikomba Market in Kenya. However, most of the time the journey of the old cloth has not come to an end yet and more jobs are created. Intermediaries are trying to find the best deal at the market in order to resell them in offices or to tailor new garments out of useless pieces. Besides those jobs there are others, such as ballot carries, security staff, tailors and many more linked to the business with old clothing3,5. As one can imagine, profit is made by each intermediary, but the money is not necessarily going to people in need. Furthermore you have to keep in mind that this kind of industry always depends on the donations of others.

"Pepe" by P. Woods and Ben DeppThe donation of clothes can be seen as very controversy. I do not think that the solution would be to throw away unwanted clothes, but one should consider that money is made with those donations and that this money is usually not helping the people in great need. Furthermore, the local industry is suffering through those donations. At first glance the business with donated clothes seems to be reasonable, because it creates jobs and people are able to buy used clothes for a cheap price. One can say that any kind of business opportunity is an import step, but the new business established will always depend on the donations of others. Do you think that this kind of dependency really helps the economy? Wouldn’t it be more helpful and sustainable to strengthen the local industry by the money which is spend through financing the whole logistical and administrative process?

In my opinion actions are needed to set an end to this habit and to invest in the local textile industry to help it recover. The European Union as well as the countries which receive those donations should work together to strengthen the industry. 12 countries in Africa have already banned those textile imports in order to protect their own local industry4. However, as a response to a parliamentary question the European Parliament states, that they do not “take measures limiting either trade in used garments or export of these products, since such exports take place outside normal commercial circuits and often as small scale initiatives”. Therefore it seems to be in the responsibility of each country to adopt precaution through trade policy, but it is also the responsibility of everyone who is donating clothing.

There is not an easy answer whether to stop donating clothes or not, because other factors, such as the influence of cheap clothing from China, can ruin the local industry as well. Beyond that,  monetary help is not the key factor to success either, since it is hard to track where and how the money is actually spend7. I believe that we should not try to sooth our conscience by “doing something good”, if we do not really know the consequences. Instead we should rather invest into long lasting and sustainable projects which are not trying to impose an idea to a community while destroying its local industry. However, I recognise that this topic is very controversy, just like the effect of many other developing or charitable projects – but this is another huge topic which I will not get into any further at this point…


Main sources

1Brooks, A. and Simon D. (2012) “Unravelling the Relationship between Used-Clothing Imports and the Decline of African Clothing Industries”, Development and Change, 2012, vol. 43, issue 6, pages 1265–1290.

²Frazer, G. (2008) “Used-clothing Donations and Apparel Production in Africa”, Economic Journal, 118(532), pages 1764–84.

³Höft, M. (2011) “Das Kilo für 1,20 Dollar – Das große Geschäft mit den Kleiderspenden aus Deutschland”, Zeit online

4Mark, M. (2012) „Europe’s secondhand clothes brings mixed blessings to Africa“, The Quardian, (last access 5/12/2013)

5NDR Fernsehen (2013) “Die Altkleiderlüge – Wie Spenden zum Geschäft werden” (last access 28/11/2013)

6European Parliament (2012), Answer to a written question (last acces 3/1/2014)

7Easterly W., Pfutze T. (2007) “Where does the money go? Best and worse practices in foreign aid”, Global Economy & Development, Working Paper 21 | June 2008

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