At first glance, the wares at the bustling Gikomba Market are dreadfully unkempt. Squeezed into every crevice of its wooden stalls, racks of frayed jeans and worn shirts are haphazardly displayed, shaded by tattered canvas which scarcely deflects the grime and filth of the outdoors. An unpleasant odor emanates from the stalls–a mixture of human sweat and unidentifiable decay. Yet, here in the largest secondhand clothing market of East Africa, undeterred individuals rummage through the disarray of garments, searching for heavily discounted clothes. Most of these handouts originate from the United States, where 300 million dollars’ worth of unwanted secondhand clothing – a staggering 70 percent of the total clothes we donate – are exported every year (Freytas-Tamura). The numbers do not lie: our willingness to donate clothing is disproportionately higher than our willingness to buy used clothing – and those worn clothes need to go somewhere.
Seldom are well-intentioned, environmentally-conscious consumers aware of where their donated garments end up; even fewer relate their surplus of unwanted clothes to the patterns of helplessness and dependency which persist in the Global South. These gaps in knowledge expose what is missing in the resale industry’s commitment to sustainability: equity. Though secondhand clothing stores are conventionally labelled as ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘green,’ these characterizations are largely myopic, overlooking the importance of human dignity in sustainable development. Consumers who buy into the industry’s premises of sustainability must move beyond their roles as passive donors if they are to meaningfully and ethically disrupt the fast fashion industry.
The process of recycling clothing is fraught with inequality and degradation. With markets that have tremendous demand for clothing of any condition, the Global South serves as a final destination for the dregs of Western society. The exportation of unwanted garments may appear to be socially responsible when there is a genuine need for clothing in the Developing World, but no amount of justification can disguise the fact that this region is a dumping ground for anything that is deemed undesirable by Western consumers. In a throwaway culture characterized by disposable products, planned obsolescence, and fast fashion, the ‘unwanted’ and the ‘undesirable’ are practically synonymous with ‘trash.’ The Global South frankly serves much of the same functions as a landfill, unjustly absorbing the product of our unfettered consumerism–the only difference lies in the optics. In the process of ‘ending poverty in Africa,’ we conveniently export the externalities of our fashion industry, evading responsibility over the waste we generate. The glut of secondhand garments in the Global South not only reflects our culture of disposable fashion, but also indicates the misconception that donating clothes is wholly ethical and sustainable.
Before consumers can even think about keeping clothes out of landfills, they need to address why so many clothes are thrown out (or donated) in the first place. A closer examination of consumer patterns in the resale industry reveals that recycling clothing and reducing waste are not necessarily actions that go hand in hand–in fact, it is entirely possible for individuals to donate clothing without actually diminishing their clothing consumption. Today, charities such as Goodwill and Salvation Army are receiving record numbers of donations–a figure that is still rising, and ironically reflects both our increasing concern for sustainable fashion and our growing consumption of clothing. Secondhand charities only exacerbate this figure by accepting anything and everything–including soiled underwear, holey socks, and unsalvageable rags. These practices certainly make it easier for the consumer to participate in the resale industry, but they also propagate the notion that a consumer’s responsibility ends once their clothes hit the charity’s doorstep. This could not be farther from the truth: donating and buying used clothing is important, but the environmental impact is negligible if consumers continue to buy more clothes. As demonstrated by the excessive trade of secondhand clothing in the Global South, a clothing surplus is still a clothing surplus, regardless of whether the garments are donated or thrown away.
Many individuals tacitly understand this predicament but fail to assume a more active role in the movement towards sustainable fashion. Nearly half of North Americans admit to having “way too much stuff” (Savers 3). Goodwill and environmental consciousness are certainly factors in their decision to donate, but there is also a practical need to clear space in the closet. Purging an overflowing wardrobe is cathartic too. For many, the empty hangers represent a clean slate – that is until they are filled once more with new, trendier clothing (or even hip vintage pieces, for that matter). Confronting an unruly wardrobe needs to encompass more than just donating clothes that are buried in the back of the closet and never see the light of day; it entails a commitment and discipline from consumers to downsize and then maintain that minimized closet.
This is certainly not easy.
Retaining a minimized closet requires a dramatic shift in our paradigms of fashion. When 94 percent of women report that they only buy clothing on sale, it should be no surprise that consumers have an appallingly warped perception of the cost of clothes (Kestenbaum). They often assume an adversarial relationship with retailers, expressing outrage when goods are exorbitantly priced. Inexpensive products require lower maintenance, and clothing is no exception; the cheaper the clothes, the more disposable they become and the less attachment we can hold to them. Regardless of individual motives, consumers across the board neglect to take ownership of an article’s real cost. Accounting for the labor and energy required to produce, ship, repurpose, donate, and sustainably dispose of clothing from cradle to grave, even the most outrageous prices would fail to adequately encapsulate the actual price of fashion. In the Global South, where markets are inundated by our unwanted clothing, the social and psychological costs cannot even be measured in tangible units. When there is an awareness of these true costs, the discipline needed to minimize our closets becomes much less of a burden; instead, it becomes a humbling opportunity for consumers to give back.
To this end, buying and donating used clothing is an important but inadequate response to the astounding environmental impact of the fashion industry as it fails to dismantle the dangerous misconception that the price of a piece of clothing is the same as its cost. While it would be impractical to raise the prices of clothing to match its real cost, consumers can make a profound difference by unsubscribing from the culture of bargain shopping and cherishing each and every article of clothing–even the terrible quality five-dollar T-shirts from Forever 21 that wear out after two washes. To give practical examples, this means taking the time and effort to follow those pesky, itchy wash care labels that are mindlessly cut off and forgotten; it means buying good quality, staple pieces that endure the waves of fleeting fashion trends; it means that we donate clothes with purpose, recognizing the hidden costs that we are inadvertently passing off. Rather than defining value by individual needs and tastes, we need to consider the value of a piece of clothing by the painstaking labor and energy that will be used to produce and dispose of the product.
The fast fashion business model will certainly not change until consumer behaviors change first. Fast fashion is the second dirtiest industry in the world, but individuals–especially millennials–are increasingly recognizing this: the rapidly growing secondhand apparel industry is a testament to this recognition. Today, we simply need to extend that trajectory farther, to recognize our responsibility as consumers to understand the complex chains of production that govern the fashion industry, the interdependent trade networks the Western World imposes on the Global South, and the options for clothing disposal that are available to us.
We owe it to ourselves, our local community, our less fortunate neighbors who inherit our ‘waste,’ and our environment at large to treasure both the wanted and the unwanted.
Freytas-Tamura, Kimiko De. “For Dignity and Development, East Africa Curbs Used Clothes Imports.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/world/africa/east-africa-rwanda-used-clothing.html.
Kestenbaum, Richard. “Fashion Retailers Have To Adapt To Deal With Secondhand Clothes Sold Online.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 11 Apr. 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/richardkestenbaum/2017/04/11/fashion-retailers-have-to-adapt-todeal-with-secondhand-clothes-sold-online/.
Savers. State of Reuse Report: Give a Sh!Rt About Your Clothing Footprint. Savers, 2017, State of Reuse Report: Give a Sh!Rt About Your Clothing Footprint, www.savers.com/sites/default/files/reuse_report_2017_sav_0.pdf.