Madagascar is covered in your discarded t‑shirts. As is most of the rest of Africa. The shirts that you dump on consignment stores and charities like Goodwill end up bundled tight and dumped again on the world’s poorest countries.
When you drop off your good-as-new shirts at Salvation Army, you don’t end up helping people who have no access to shirts (as you might hope).
Rather, the effects are (1) that local textile companies are undercut, (2) you become complicit in a clothing production system that helps trap people in poverty (Sorry), and (3) people sometimes walk around looking stupid.
Don’t worry too much about that third one: people walking around looking stupid.
They look stupid to us. By us I mean those of us who think a t‑shirt is more than a t‑shirt; we who imagine the shirts we wear as projections of our edgy personal brands. I mean pretty much all of us who are the products of an affluent you-are-what-you-buy culture.
Myself included, in case I wasn’t clear. I have “controversial” shirts that I wear, while imagining how daring I am. Like the one that says “Sorry about our president” in 14 languages.
Ooh… This t‑shirt is going to cause such a stir!— Me, when I wear my edgy t‑shirts
But to many Africans wearing these discarded t‑shirts, I suspect that they found the shirt in a local market stall, and made this evaluation:
- It’s affordable
- It fits
- It’s still in pretty good shape (possibly brand new)
- End of evaluation
Later — or even on the spot — if they understand or are told what the shirt says, I suspect most of them would just shrug. A shirt is a shirt. See the evaluation criteria above.
Challenge: Spot a T‑shirt with Malagasy Writing
Here’s an idea of the extent to which dumping secondhand clothes affects local production.
I was recently on a road trip in Madagascar and I proposed a game: Who can spot the most clothing printed with Malagasy language?
We were not out in the boonies. There were plenty of people around. We played for an hour. We saw lots of shirts and jackets with English, French, and other non-Malagasy languages, but only one t‑shirt with actual Malagasy.
I’m not sure if this one counts counts, because this was kind of a two-week-long fad a few months ago. These ZA GASY t‑shirts were everywhere. After that there were knock-offs and spin-offs — proving there are local t‑shirt companies ready to seize an opportunity and compete for customers when there is a demand. And then suddenly all these t‑shirts nearly vanished. I found a guy at the grocery story still wearing one.
Since then, I’ve kept up the search. Other than the occasional ZA GASY stragglers (I see one every couple of days) I have not seen a single t‑shirt printed in Malagasy.
What should you do with your old t‑shirts, then?
I swear to God I didn’t start this off intending to write a preachy post about responsible consumption. I just wanted to show some photos and give a little context and insight. But here I am.
I’m no expert on this. There are books about this issue that I might read, like this one and this one. But I haven’t read either yet. So I’ll shoot from the hip here: Go ahead and donate your old t‑shirts to Goodwill and Salvation Army, or wherever as usual. Just don’t throw them in the trash, for chrissakes. And don’t buy clothes you’re only going to wear a few times. (More preachy advice in this video from Grist.)
It appears that the best strategy to reduce the impact of donated clothing on African economies is not entirely in our hands. It’s for African countries and regional organizations such as the East African Community (EAC) to adopt policies that support the local textile industry to produce clothes for local consumption — ban or tax your stupid discarded t‑shirts.
I kind of let you off the hook there, didn’t I?
The photos in the first gallery above were poached from this Facebook post. Translation from Malagasy: It’s good to send your children to school. Don’t skip English class.