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Empire of Cotton: Clothes of the Dead White Man

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Last week, when I reviewed Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, one of the key points I hoped I made was how Beckert connects the exploitation of cotton upon the peoples of the world as not only central to the development of capitalism but also closely connected to how the growth and production of cotton continues to exploit people today. When I read this very interesting essay on the problem of used clothing donations, I thought that this represents a number of other facets of this problem. In recent decades, our clothing purchases have skyrocketed on the backs on Bangladesh laborers. The low cost and low quality means that we are also donating clothing at record rates. But Goodwill and others can’t keep up, because we don’t actually buy that used clothing, because there is so much of it, and because so much of it is already falling apart. What does that mean? Two major things. First, a lot of gets sent to landfills. Second, they dump it on poor nations. That in turns undermines local clothing production, which in turn gets to a point Beckert makes repeatedly, which is that the West forced local producers out of production through all sorts of means, including making clothing so cheap that locals could not compete. That’s essentially what we are doing today.

It turns out that this market, born entirely of our unwanted duds, is thriving. Robert Goode is the owner of Mac Recycling, a company that ships enormous bales of used clothing purchased from charities to buyers all across the globe every week. “Pretty much you can pick any country and there’s a market for these items,” he says. The international roster ranges from Central and South America to Asia, Africa, and Europe. Though textile recyclers have endured their share of misunderstanding, they provide an inarguably valuable service to charities. To put it in numbers, the U.S. currently exports a billion pounds of worn clothing per year. Without the intervention of textile recyclers, our enormous surplus of charitable donations would be rendered useless and sent to landfills.

Still, this model is far from perfect. Dr. Andrew Brooks, the author of Clothing Poverty, argues that the flow of Western clothing to developing countries negatively affects them by disrupting local economies and putting textile workers out of jobs. For example, the market for used clothing has expanded so dramatically in Uganda that it now accounts for 81 percent of all clothing purchases. Brooks also points to Ghana, where textile and clothing employment fell by 80 percent between 1975 and 2000. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the constant flood of used clothing is so pervasive that it’s even part of the language. In his book, Brooks translates the colloquial Ghanaian phrase “obroni wawu” to “clothes of the dead white man.”

Very interesting and challenging piece about our consumption in a globalized industry.

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