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.

Photo Credit: http://www.fashioneditoratlarge.com/2014/07/five-thoughts-secret-life-clothes-obroni-wawu/

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.