Mama says
by Laura Fratus

(Plain Press, December 2004) When I stopped in to see my mother, she was removing the zipper from a threadbare jacket because she thought it might come in handy.

Such a woman makes an unlikely perpetrator of capitalist colonialism. But according to recent news stories, that is just what she is.

It works like this. She sews a quilt or a stuffed animal from salvaged fabric, and gives it away. The grateful recipients reciprocate her generosity by supplying her with more raw material in the form of used clothes. My mother doesn’t have the heart to tell these good people that at least 85 percent of what they leave stacked on her porch is totally inappropriate for her specialized craft. So she asks me to help her pass on this bounty to “someone who needs it.” I haul the excess to a clothing donation box.

And this is where the neocolonialism comes in.

According to sources ranging from PBS on the left to the Washington Times on the right, the generosity of good-hearted Americans like my mother is killing the textile industries in developing nations.

Only a small quantity of clothes donated in the U.S. are sold in domestic thrift stores or given away to people in need. Some of it gets recycled, but up to 80 percent of the average donation is sold to salvage dealers for shipment to countries where the garments will be sold by people in village market stalls.

In a way, my mother’s desire to find someone who could get some good out of the clothes is being met. A charity may have made a few dollars by selling its excess to the dealer. Someone, somewhere may have found something they like to wear for a little less than it would cost new. And certainly, the salvage dealers stand to “get some good” from the donation, since an industry in which the product starts out as free would seem to allow for a nice profit margin.

But I’m pretty sure this was not the good that my mother was imagining. She was a girl during the Great Depression and raised eight children on what my father earned as a laborer in a chemical factory. I doubt she’d like to have anything to do with the stillbirth of a manufacturing economy in a country like Uganda or Zambia, both of which have experienced huge losses in textile jobs since international agreements opened their markets a few years ago.

So, what to do? Clearly, throwing away good clothing in the trash is not an acceptable option.

Some local organizations, like the West Side Catholic Center, attempt to screen used clothing donations as they come in, to make sure that they end up with only clean, seasonally-appropriate, needed items that can be immediately handed out, free of charge, directly to local people who can use them. Donors should call ahead to inquire about an organization’s guidelines for giving, and give only items that are clean and in good repair.

Holding a rummage sale and donating the proceeds to charity is another possibility. We could even cut some of the more interesting old clothes into squares and sell them in batches on eBay. I recently found more than 2,500 listings for such fabric sets.

In the long run, though, many of these options sound like a prohibitive amount of work for people who just wanted to do a simple good deed, and are exasperated that even this seemingly small gesture of charity can be seen as harmful in any way.

For these people the best way to do the right thing is simply to consume less: to buy fewer new clothes, to buy the best quality we can afford so that it lasts a long time, and, whenever possible, to try to find sources that pay fair wages to their employees, so that the clothes we buy don’t become part of a global trade that actually accomplishes the opposite of our intention, by further weakening already-vulnerable economies.


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