Why Donating Clothes Isn’t Eco-Friendly
By: Iman Taouil
The devastating effects of the fast fashion industry on the environment are well known, as well as sweatshops and the many human rights controversies that stemmed from its system.
As awareness grows, the second-hand industry is expected to surpass the fast fashion market in the next ten years, and people are encouraged to donate their old clothes instead of throwing them away. However, donating clothes might not be the perfect alternative we think it is.
The organizations that collect donations to redistribute them to people in need are faced with a problem: the poor state of the donated items. According to the 1 Million Women Movement, disposing of poor quality items costs these charities tens of thousands of dollars each year. Disposing of them also often means destroying them, which defeats the purpose of donating clothes to lessen the environmental impact of throwing them away.
Another big issue is that the number of donated clothes is often so big that charities end up sending them abroad. In Haiti, second-hand clothes from the USA are referred to as “pèpè,” a Creole term. The import of “pèpè” began in the 1960s during the Kennedy administration, leading to the nickname “Kennedy clothes.”
Under the Kennedy administration, America sent large amounts of clothes to Haiti as humanitarian aid. Today, and with the fashion industry’s fast production cycle, the quantity of clothes sent to Haiti keeps growing. It is so big that the local clothing industry is practically extinct.
In Africa, the same phenomenon occurs. According to an Oxfam report, 90% of Ghanaians were buying second-hand clothing in 2005. In 2018, Kenya received 100 000 tons of it. Francophone magazine Jeune Afrique reports that while West Africa had 45 cotton processing factories 15 years ago, only ten are left today. To make matters worse, a lot of these clothes, coming from western and northern countries, don’t fit the local traditions, cultures, and styles.
It would be hard to condemn and indefinitely put an end to pèpè. Second-hand clothes from America are worn by a lot of Haitians and allow them to save a lot of money on clothing. For the poor classes, these savings are essential.
In 2018, Rwanda increased custom taxes on second-hand clothes, shoes, and accessories from America, in an attempt to reduce imports and to grow its local textile industry. The Trump administration retaliated by temporarily suspending Rwanda’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) duty-free privileges on clothing – which makes it harder for Rwanda to export its clothes to the USA.
In 2013, reporter Tom Murphy argued that second-hand wasn’t the root of the problem in Haiti and that if it were to disappear, it would be replaced by cheap clothing from Asia.
In the end, it seems the problem still lies in overconsumption and fast production cycles. Donating our clothes isn’t a sustainable solution to lessen the impact of fast fashion if the amount of new clothes we buy is still increasing.