Secondhand Syndicate: That concert T-shirt you “donated” was more valuable than you thought

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About a mile from my parents’ house in Cleveland, there’s a yellow “donation center” that could easily be mistaken for a Dumpster. This particular drop box belongs to Planet Aid, which sells donated clothes “to support education, community development, and HIV/AIDS programs in Africa and Asia.”

When I was growing up, I never knew how Planet Aid accomplished these things; I just knew that my dad’s Velcro lawn-mowing shoes would reach a noble destiny.

Drop box anonymity has its benefits: Donors avoid the shame of watching someone paw through “gently used” MC Hammer T-shirts and velvet track suits, while recipients avoid answering questions about what exactly happens on the other end of the steel repository.

The two big names in American textile philanthropy–Salvation Army and Goodwill–moved away from donation bins in the 1970s as the oil crisis tripled transportation costs. The two charities focused on in-store donations, which put the burden on donors to transport their used goods. As Goodwill and Salvation Army bowed out, nonprofits like Planet Aid and for-profit organizations moved in.

“There is a huge latent market,” says Planet Aid spokesperson Doug Bailey. Since its inception 12 years ago, Planet Aid has grown from a tiny nonprofit to one that earns $20 million in annual revenue. The organization sells goods to secondhand clothing companies and to salvagers, which resell textiles to underdeveloped markets or refashion them into products like furniture stuffing. All Planet Aid’s revenue is funneled back into operating costs or international development programs, Bailey says.

The company doesn’t operate without criticism. In 2007 the American Institute of Philanthropy gave it a failing grade because it devotes a lower percentage of its revenue to philanthropy than other clothing charities do. Planet Aid says it needs to devote more money to operating costs because it deals exclusively with donation dumps–86 million pounds annually.

Even though unattended bins conceal the murkier aspects of the used clothing trade, people still use them. They’re the easiest way to clear consumer consciences by proffering last year’s fashions to organizations that claim ethical responsibility.

But a large portion of clothing donation boxes are the property of organizations that have nothing to do with charitable programs (opaque or otherwise). Over the past five years, for-profit salvage companies have proliferated. Although donors might assume that a drop box serves some philanthropic function, the highest purpose many textile recyclers claim is that they handle goods that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

For a nominal fee, for-profit companies can lease the name of a local church or charity and plaster it all over their bins, even if they devote only a small portion of their sales to those organizations. Although there are some local ordinances designed to combat deceptive practices, for the most part, any company can slap a benevolent-sounding name–like Holy Spirit Salvage–on its bins and collect used clothing.

They’re looking to capitalize on the lucrative “latent market” described by Planet Aid’s spokesman. This market is often found in the developing world, where items that can’t make it in Western thrift stores still turn a profit. The United Nations estimates that $2.3 billion worth of secondhand clothes–nearly half from North America–were exported throughout the world in 2006. Sub-Saharan Africa is the top recipient, although Asian, Latin American, and Middle Eastern countries also import tons of used textiles annually.

In her book Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia, Northwestern University professor Karen Hansen details the process of shipping used clothing across oceans for sale. Individual items–women’s skirts, for example–are collected and packaged in standard 50-kilogram bales. Local merchants purchase bales wholesale and sell individual items in bustling salaula markets, where consumers look for folds from the bale as a sign of freshness.

While Zambians’ preference for cheap, high-quality Western clothing has virtually eliminated Zambia’s domestic textile industry, Hansen cautions against seeing this as another example of Westernization.

“Clothing is not just any commodity,” she writes; it’s a medium through which we represent identity. Much in the way Western consumers alter and reimagine inherited apparel, the availability of cheap jewelry and women’s clothing allows Zambian men to display status through ostentatious cross-dressing. The trade also has created a new population of professional tailors who conform Western clothing to the traditions of Zambian society.

Even in developing countries with more robust textile markets, entire economic sectors have flourished around the breakdown and rebirth of used clothes.

While the Indian government outlaws secondhand clothing imports, it permits “mutilated” (deliberately shredded) used wools, which are used to produce new textile products that are distributed around the globe, writes University College London professor Lucy Norris in Anthropology Today. Like Hansen, Norris argues that the secondhand clothing trade goes two ways–a process of cultural sampling, not imperialism.

The sheer growth of the used clothing trade indicates that most countries have embraced it, with or without official blessings–for profit or not for profit. And as long as the supply side of the Western fashion industry is tethered to a cycle of frequent obsolescence, it’s likely those MC Hammer T-shirts will keep on coming.

Excerpted from Polite(Autumn 2008), a journal of arcana, deadpannery, and cultural criticism;

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