- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Every year, people in wealthy countries donate mountains of unwanted clothes to charity groups, convinced the garments will go directly to the poor.

In fact, only a fraction of the clothes many charities collect are given to the needy. Most are sold to dealers of used clothing and exported to developing countries, especially Africa, where they sell at market prices, depressing local textile industries.

“There is no charity when it comes to the trade in used clothing. This is a lucrative business. In the market stalls of most African countries, castoffs donated to charity command prices about 2,000 percent over what the wholesalers pay for it,” said Neil Kearney, general secretary of the Brussels-based International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF), during a recent telephone interview with The Washington Times.

Used-clothes dealers have turned people’s generosity into a multibillion-dollar business, some exporters say.


Charities like Goodwill Industries and the Salvation Army sell donated clothes by weight to wholesale merchants, who grade them. The top grade usually ends up in vintage shops in the United States or Europe, and lesser-grade merchandise, much of which is faded or stained, is labeled Africa A or Africa B.

“A lot of the unsold merchandise will be sold to salvage dealers, who may turn and take those clothes overseas, where we are not quite sure what happens,” a Goodwill official said. “What happens to them after — we don’t have any control on that.”

David J. Samson, export manager of Exown Inc., a Columbus, Ohio, secondhand-clothing export company, said he buys used garments that are not sold in the charity stores network.

The charities “try to sell the clothes to the public, and on a weekly basis, they add fresh items. I buy what is left.”

He said some export companies do not conduct business that way. “They want to make as much money as possible and buy the clothes without giving the charity shops the opportunity to sell them.”

Mr. Samson said many shoppers in African markets say they prefer American clothes to local products because the fabrics are more durable and “Made in America” has a certain cachet.

So while tourists are looking for traditional African clothes, the natives are eager to buy T-shirts with logos of American professional sports teams. Hats with sports logos are all the rage among young Africans, as are faded jeans and T-shirts sporting beer ads.

The reason for the used clothing’s popularity is clear.

Taking average African incomes into account, most people cannot afford to buy new clothes sold in shops, where the prices are comparable to those in the United States or Europe.

But the trade in secondhand clothing is destroying the textile industry in Africa and sinking poor countries deeper into poverty, Mr. Kearney said.

The overwhelming quantity of used clothing has adversely affected textile and garment industries, thus preventing developing countries from taking advantage of favorable international trade agreements like the 2000 U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act, which offers tangible incentives for African countries to continue their efforts to open their economies and build free markets.

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