Used Clothes for Africa: Helpful or Hubris?

April 29, 2010 — 11 Comments

There is a hot button issue that is making its way around the African development community on the development community Twit-O-Sphere and blogosphere as I type.

A project called “One Million Shirts”is aiming to collect and send one million used t-shirts to Africa. According to their website, after listing off generalized one size fits all problems faced by the continent, (you know, poverty, disease, lack of nourishment, unfair trade policies ) the rationale is:

“The t-shirts provided by 1MillionShirts will give people part of what they need to survive. Your donation of 1 or several t-shirts will not only help people in poverty-stricken areas, but it will also help the environment!

Most people will throw away old clothing without realizing the impact it can have on the environment. According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), 11.8 million TONS of textiles are discarded in the United States each year! You may not realize it, but your items of clothing take a long time to decompose.”


So basically, I read this argument as follows: “Because by throwing away old stuff to buy new stuff hurts our environment here in the United States, let’s dump our shirts in Africa instead, under the delusion that by doing so, somehow it will contribute to whatever African Malaise -of-the-Day they are going through.”

The shortsightedness of this T-Shirt plan will come out in the wash. The founders of the project are finding themselves in some critical hot water. Here’s my 1.5 cents:

  • So, to avoid domestic environmental degradation at home, it is okay to contribute to environmental degradation in Africa? No. If a sock takes 6 months to decompose here, why would the rate of decomposition change just because of a change of scenery? Environmental degradation has been well chronicled as a contributor to poverty, hunger and warfare due to competition for resources. Many African governments lack both the means and political will to combat environmental pollution.Why not just recycle the materials domestically in the States?
  • Flooding the markets with refuse from the United States can contribute to depressing local cotton industries. Cotton and sugar are two of Africa’s biggest exports According to Dambisa Moyo, author of “Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How there Is a Better Way for Africa”, she states that African farmers, especially in West and Central Africa, cannot compete with the influx of excess Western imports, many of which have been heavily subsidized or Western companies looking to dump excess stock. Roughly 10 million people, or 6 million households depend on revenues from cotton in places like Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Mali and Zimbabwe. Trade ministers lodged a formal complaint to the World Trade Organization, claiming that unfair trade policies cost their countries $1 billion a year. Just two days ago, the BBC reported that for the past five years cotton production in Africa has been on the decline.
  • For the purposes of this blog, that being female economic empowerment, women are affected by depressions on cotton production. According to AFD (Agence Française du Développement) 40% of organic cotton producers in West Africa are women. Potential threats to their sources of income does not tide well for their development. (On a tangentially related note, please stop the madness when it comes to Western organizations donating floods of pre-loved USED UNDERWEAR to women in Africa. Its demeaning and slightly creepy. Plus, I I doubt the claim in the website that women in Zimbabwe are empowered by “sexy, scintillating, designer maternity lingerie” and that wearing such lingerie will “elevate the status of women,” thus decrease the high level of rape and sexual abuse of women and girls there. Correct me if I’m wrong.)

I’m not trying to say that this One Million T-Shirts project has the capacity to bankrupt millions of people around Africa. I’m sure this project was well-intentioned. I’m sure these guys meant to “lint” a hand and don’t wish their good intentions to be ‘stained’. But let me join the chorus of those in the aid community in urging these guys to perhaps stretch their minds and come with a better mode of attack. I also hope that those in the aid community be willing to work with them as well and offer solutions instead of just criticism. Maybe a solution that helps to empower those in the cotton industry to produce locally made shirts. Or what if they contributed to clean drinking water or green coffee in Africa? I also know there is a need for books to be donated to libraries and to schools. What if they found a way to send money to send women and girls in West Africa to sewing school, so that they can produce locally made apparel and support themselves and their families with income, as well as supporting local industries?

Beautiful Ghanaian Kente, Kumasi, Ghana

I would love to hear your feedback, comments, and critiques. If you are on Twitter, follow @mjamme, @meowtree, @katrinskaya and @texasinafrica–these are all individuals who are concerned with the 1MillionShirts project.


11 responses to Used Clothes for Africa: Helpful or Hubris?


    Hey, thanks for the mention, and for the great thoughts. The disproportionate impact on women is something I hadn’t thought about, but of course that’s another major problem with this initiative. I’m hoping Jason will take the criticism seriously, learn from his critics, and use his considerable media reach to do good.


      Hi Laura,

      I’m so humbled you stopped by my blog. I’m a big fan of your blog and your tweets. This is such an interesting case of how social media can be harnessed to facilitate near-instantaneous collaboration, information-sharing, and pressure organizations to be transparent and accountable. I really hope some good comes out of this too!


    Great post and right on. Following Ms. Moyo is good advice.

    T-shirts for Africa makes no sense. My own suggestion would be to participate in but any good organization that involves clean water or waste management would also get my vote.

    Goodwill would be happy to re-cycle your t-shirts.


    whats up karen! im with you 100 percent. what westerners should do, if they want to help Africa re: clothing, is wear African clothing. all of my ghanaian clothes from outlandish tops to tailored slacks have outlasted pretty much all of my american apprl-style cotton t’s so i suppose that would be good for the biodegradable thing too. and it would be nice to go into a village and see cotton cultivators trading threads with tailors instead of fallow fields, unemployed men, and nelly t-shirts from the 1990s. It’s getting hot in here… btw ur blog is my new favorite place on earth. or the internet, whichever.

    Paul amadu bangura January 25, 2013 at 12:36 PM

    There are people in Africa that are seriously in need of clothing. Mainly in sierra leone, people are just from war. And the are homeless, adult and children are out of cloths. As a group in sierra leone catering for the children and needee thought it wise to asks your aid/ help in your group.

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