Alas, it’s true. The Patriots lost Super Bowl XLVI in yet another gut-wrenching finish. But perhaps we can find some silver lining in the fact that our friends in lower income countries just inherited brand new Patriots Super Bowl Champions t-shirts, right? Well, not quite. It’s time we learned the t-shirt story of the world.
What few people understand is that there are two systems by which clothing is sent to Africa. Most leagues (including the NFL) donate their unwanted clothing to World Vision, a non-profit organization designed to help the world’s poorest of the poor (hooray, we’re world champions somewhere on the planet!). There are other relief organizations that are donating clothing as well, and then there are companies like TOMS shoes, that just give shoes away (which has also worked wonders for them as a marketing ploy). And then there’s the idiot who tried to run a “One Million T-Shirts for Africa” campaign. Bottom line: millions of dollars are spent every year just to dump free clothing and apparel on Africa.
But “free” aid is just a miniscule portion of the second-hand clothing business. Buffalo Exchange did more than $75 million in revenue last year alone. Non-profits like Goodwill and Salvation Army are major players in the import-export business of used American clothing. We buy more than we need, we are addicted to retail, and all that excess has to wind up somewhere. In the story of the t-shirt, there is always a middleman who buys clothes from the American distributors and ultimately puts those products up for sale in massive secondhand markets in Africa. When you see a rural Kenyan farmer wearing your “I Danced My Ass Off at Josh’s Bar Mitzvah” shirt from 7th grade, there is a high probability that your old shirt was sold off by whichever charitable organization you donated it to and purchased by the very same Kenyan who was wearing it.
So, not only did my donated shirt end up in rural Kenya, but it had to be purchased again by someone earning far less income than most of the poorest Americans?
Ready to jump on Goodwill and Salvation Army? Think again.
Organizations like Goodwill and Salvation Army are simply taking clothing and apparel that is no longer in demand in the United States and selling it into a system that can create new demand for it. In some ways, they are the ultimate recyclers, but with the added benefit of funding their programs at the same time. And here’s the kicker (no pun intended) – contrary to popular belief, even the poorest of Africans are participating in markets every day. The used clothing industry is one of the largest providers of jobs in Africa, with millions of Africans buying and selling our used clothes on a daily basis. While many of our old clothes find their way into landfills, others are given new life and create thousands of employment opportunities where a majority of the potential workforce is underutilized.
So, why not just give away clothing to Africans rather than making them buy it? First off, it is incredibly patronizing to assume that Africans need us to be giving them our unwanted items (aka crap) all the time. To assume that poor people cannot participate in markets is offensive, especially when millions of them are doing so every day. Imagine you’re a salesman in Nairobi, Kenya, who relies on selling used American shoes to support yourself and your family. But one day TOMS Shoes moves into the market. Only instead of competing in that market, they are giving away shoes for free. The outlook isn’t so great for you or the other used shoe salesmen, because nobody can compete with free.
In 2010, 30 percent of Africans were paying for cell phones. That is more than 306 million paying customers, all without the help of donated phones or subscriptions from America. Giving away clothes for free undercuts local markets and the ability for African markets to fully develop (even if they are based on our used clothing donations in the United States!). Let’s be clear, food aid is vital during times of political unrest or famine, but it is important to understand the markets that already exist in the developing world.
A good day for the African countries receiving our losing Super Bowl gear? Probably not in the long run. Maybe the Patriots will think twice about losing the Super Bowl next year.
Editor’s Note: Ross Lohr is the founder of Project Repat, a Boston-based social enterprise partnering with artisans in Nairobi, Kenya to make their “No More New” line of scarves, bags, and other products out of secondhand t-shirts in Africa. Lohr will speak at TEDxSomerville on Sunday, March 4th at the Armory. Follow Ross on Twitter @ProjectRepat and @RossLohr.