Clothing bales and hurting more than we help

Several years ago, I had an opportunity to tour a recycling center.

Much about my visit was interesting, but what I still remember most vividly are the giant clothing bales.

During the tour it was explained to us that not all of the clothing we donate to thrift shops is redistributed locally; some is shipped abroad and sold at markets to people who are poor.

I remember being surprised by this news … but then I basically thought “Well, that’s good. I want people to have clothes.”

Some time after the tour, I lived abroad in a developing country. I met people who were wearing t-shirts with slogans related to ordinary things in the United States, like little league teams and sandwich shops. I asked about how they got their shirts and they said they had purchased them at the market. They picked out the shirt because they liked the color, but didn’t know what the designs or words were really about.

I began to have questions about this global phenomenon but, even so, I kept on thinking things like “One’s person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” And, upon my return to the U.S., I continued to donate to Goodwill and similar shops, well aware that many of my donations weren’t going to help people locally.

I was reminded of all this last week when I was fortunate to view the film Poverty, Inc. with a great crowd of concerned citizens here in La Crosse. (Find out if the film is going to be screened at a theatre near you here.)

Poverty, Inc. is incredibly thought-provoking; challenging many of my ingrained assumptions about the effective ways to help people.  Although, to quote a concept in the film, I believe I am basically a person that has “a heart for the poor and a mind for the poor” and tend to be careful about what sort of charities I donate to, I realize I still have some embarrassing assumptions about poverty and other people.

Back to the clothing bales, I suppose I assumed the reason people need our old clothing to be sold at markets is they didn’t have the means to fabricate garments locally. So, when a woman from Kenya was interviewed in the film and spoke about how several decades ago the shops there sold clothes with the label “made in Kenya” and there were many thriving cotton farms, I was disturbed.

As explained in an article published in The Guardian, the policies of World Bank are to blame for the fact that Kenya’s textile industry has been in decline since the 1980s. Kenyan manufacturers can’t compete with our cheap second-hand clothing, in the same way that other local businesses are frequently unable to compete with free goods (like TOMS shoes) that are flooded into developing economies. This is one of many examples of how the current global aid system keeps people poor.

Even with our good intentions and values, often times we are hurting others more than we are helping them.

Undoubtedly, the system is complex. Poverty, Inc. did not present any easy solutions because there aren’t any. I gained more consciousness about globalization, poverty, and structures that perpetuate inequality. I left with more questions than answers. The film highlights that what is lacking in the current aid system is “the ladder out of poverty” including access to the rule of law for the ordinary person, a simple infrastructure to set up and manage a business, and so on.

As people of faith, we have a duty to be mindful about how our actions impact others. We must be thoughtful, charitable people. We must be focused on justice as we work for peace and the protection of the dignity of every person.

We must keep in mind the words of Jesus.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” –Luke 6:31

““You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” –Matthew 22:37-40

As I continue to pray and discover ways to advocate for just changes, I will remain supportive to the NGOs and charities that promote the dignity of those who are poor and offer support to people as they emerge from poverty–organizations like Heifer Project International and Catholic Relief Services. I continue to believe it is important to provide food to people when they are hungry as well as to help them gain the stability and skills to feed themselves.

And so, instead of donating clothing to charities that may gather it up into giant bundles to be sent to developing countries, I will work to reduce my consumption and keep my former goods within the local economy. More clothing will go to my neighbor who might understand the t-shirt slogans, the bales will get smaller and the African woman can once again take pride in labels that say “Made in Kenya.”

Then, hopefully, I will be truly be helping people near and far.

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  1. There is a very interesting book that mentions this but also puts the whole clothing business in context, written by a Georgetown University professor: Pietra Rivoli, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and the Politics of Trade. It includes a bit about “baling”.
    There’s also a more recent book that concentrates more on the production: Kelsey Timmerman, Where Am I Wearing?: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes.

  2. An interesting and thought provoking piece. You mentioned the policies of the World Bank affecting Kenya’s textile industry being in decline. Could you say more about how those policies are involved? An inability to compete with cheap second-hand clothing doesn’t seem to be directly related to World Bank policies. Can you fill the the gap? Thanks.

    1. Hi Mark, I’m not the author of this piece but have studied a bit of this issue- its more the WTO policies (World Trade Org) in play I think. The fact that every item of clothing you and i own has a different ‘made in ____’ label. The textile industry is very fluid and always seeking the cheapest labor in order that our clothing prices remain cheap. Think about it: a t-shirt cost the same now as it did 20 years ago… this is because of the ever moving textile manufacturing economy. Also textiles are a ‘2nd world’ industry- they are a good ‘beginning’ level industry for newly industrializing nations- a stepping stone to bigger and more substantial economies of scale. This is why the US textile industry is dead because our economy has advanced well past this chapter. This just a snap shot, it of course much more complex.

  3. We need to look at ways to do more for the poor and needy here in the U.S. before we worry about other countries. We have not solved the problem with in our own country what makes us think we know how to fix their problems?

  4. This is very insightful. I have long been a donor (clothing) and costumer of thrift stores. Love them. But you have given me something to think about.

  5. Thanks for sharing this. It’s really sad about the textile industry, but I think it is just what happens as markets change. It’s actually pretty nice that Kenyans are able to get clothed cheaper! I don’t think the answer is in artificially propping up an industry. I like the name of this blog… This Jesus business IS messy! I appreciate your heart of concern.

    1. I think about how my home state of Wisconsin would be impacted if China started giving out free milk and cheese here, because they could make it cheaper and the government subsidizes their farmers. We would be devastated. Instead, our government makes very sure that could never happen to the US dairy industry. In fact, our government “artificially props up” many US industries.
      It’s not that the markets are changing naturally. Governments are purposefully changing the tax and tariff laws to favor their own products. It’s a super complex issues but I thought Poverty Inc. did a great job of breaking it down simply. …..

  6. I continue to feel that in the poorer, subsisting parts of the world; it is better to spend the few meagre cents, which may have been made from selling some excess vegetables, on the education of their children far outweighing low cost second hand clothing.

    1. That’s an idea, Angie, but I suspect that using our fabrics for their craft–instead of creating their own– challenges the local textile makers, cotton farmers, etc; not to mention the traditional clothing and textiles of several cultures!

  7. I worked for Goodwill and another thrift store company. The bales of clothing are a commodity. The charities sell them to “Rag Shops” for so much a pound. Last I heard it was about 12 cents/lb. The bales we use were 1500 lbs each. These are items that were deemed too worn or dirty to put on the sales floor or items that did not sell. The “Rag Shops” sort through the clothing and ship to third world countries, while some are used to make shop rags etc. We used only half of the tons of clothing we received, meaning they didn’t go onto the sales floor and out of those that made it to the sales floor, only about half sold. All go the “Rag Shops.” Tons and tons of product per year per Goodwill store. I had no idea of this impact on countries like Kenya. I’m not sure what would be done besides filling up our landfills, but possibly these “Rag Shops” could give part of their profit to these communities. That probably won’t happen without some requirement by the receiving country.

  8. As someone who purchases from markets where those bales are sold in a third world country, I have to disagree with the article. At least in Bolivia, the items are sold for MORE money than are local made goods, but people (including me) buy them anyway because they are better quality. And this applies to not just textiles, though that’s most of it, but also other home goods. I can buy the same item NEW at Walmart or Target here in the USA for cheaper than I pay for second hand ‘bale’ clothes in Bolivia. However, as I said, people buy them because they are better quality. The socialist party that is in power in Bolivia has threatened many times to stop importing these clothes because they say they are taking away jobs from Bolivians who work in the textile industry. However, there are always protests because a) people want the option to buy these clothes even though they are more expensive, b) that would put many Bolivian business owner out of business. These people own or rent booths or stalls to sell the ‘bales’ of clothes. Shutting down imports and options is what socialism wants. People working in textile factories not running businesses. Isn’t the USA for business, competition, and free market? My other thought is unless someone is willing to buy EXCLUSIVELY American made products….from clothes to electronics to art and home wares, why do we want to butt into someone else’s economy and force them to do what we are not even doing here? Here in the USA we have products from all over the world and we shop around and buy what we think is best. Lots of Americans do choose to buy locally or items made in the USA even if they cost more money in order to support our own country and workers. Why do we think people in other countries can’t make those same decisions? It seems a bit egocentric to think we need to limit their choices, because they can’t make good ones. Sorry for the way too long post. This whole “when helping hurts” mentality of ‘we might hurt someone, so it’s better not to give’ gets to me.

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