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.
The Uganda Importers and Exporters Association, for instance, estimates that the value of secondhand clothing imports to that country in 2002 exceeded $22 million and that 80 percent of Ugandans buy such garments.
In many developing countries, especially in Africa, the textile industry is the main provider of jobs, but a recent ITGLWF report says tens of thousands of workers have lost their livelihood recently because of the trade in used garments.
Losing one's job can be devastating in Africa, where workers often support extended families numbering as many as 20 persons.
According to the federation, about 1,000 people work in the textile industry in Malawi, 27,000 in Zambia, 35,000 in Kenya, 47,000 in Ethiopia, 48,000 in Zimbabwe, 85,000 in Mauritius and 225,000 in South Africa.
ITGLWF also estimates that 4 million to 5 million people are dependent on the earnings of the half-million workers employed in the garment industry in those seven countries.
"The damage had already been done ... and what damage," Mr. Kearney said, pointing out that at least 25,000 textile and clothing jobs have already disappeared in Zimbabwe, owing directly or indirectly to imported used clothing.
He cited a recent ITGLWF internal document, saying 40,000 workers were already unemployed when the textile industry ran into financial difficulties in Uganda, and 15,000 more are now unemployed after seven major textile industries shut down.
Mr. Kearney said Angola, Djibouti, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania and Togo are among other African textile industries that are hard-hit.
The continent is losing its capacity to produce clothing.
Imports of used garments are "neocolonialism in action in its purest form," said the ITGLWF internal document.
A U.N. Industrial Development Organization report last year said that if the Nigerian government could stop imports of used clothing, it could revitalize the local textile industry within five years, create at least 75,000 jobs, generate $500 million each year through exports and attract $250 million in direct foreign investment.
Some countries -- including South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Eritrea -- have imposed restrictions or bans.
But importers continued to smuggle the clothes into those countries anyway, attracted by the seemingly inexhaustible demand.
"Workers and their unions in the countries concerned and internationally have no objection to the collection of used clothing for charitable and humanitarian purposes," said Mr. Kearney. "They object to the fact that used clothing collected for the poor then becomes a big commercial operation."
"Charities must stop exporting poverty," he added. "We have to ensure that used clothing donated for the poor is used for that purpose and distributed free of charge, thus avoiding the damage being caused in developing countries."
Although the donor to a charity probably doesn't know that somewhere down the line, someone is making money from his charitable act, secondhand clothing is impoverishing poor communities.
"European and American families dropping their no-longer-fashionable garments into the collecting bins of the charities concerned need to think again," Mr. Kearney said. "Their 'feel-good' factor through donation to charity would surely plummet if they realized that they are exporting poverty to Africa."