I have always been amused and amazed at the televisual sight, of a well know commercial / promotional branded T shirt, scampering through a South American jungle or sub Saharan bush.
How did that T shirt that started life in a cotton field in India, produced at the end of a long supply chain for a western conglomerate, find its way to such a remote and commercially devoid location on Earth?
It is amusing and a little bit sad.
The ‘sadness’ is the feeling that nothing is sacred. The untouched jungle, the happy unmolested lives
of indigenous hunters who never needed to know who that cola brand was, finally giving in. The truth is that it is often you and I that have sent these garments to these locations.
These garments are desirable to the people in these remote locations and there is a 2.8 billion
pound industry servicing this growing market, sending our unwanted clothes to regions of the world where someone is prepared to pay for them.
When you donate your unwanted clothes to the charity shop of your choice, you probably expect it to be sold on at knockdown price in the UK somewhere. Estimates, however, put the actual amount of donated clothing sold in this way at between 10% and 30% at best.
The remaining mass of charity garments are destined to be sold in market stalls in the 3rd world. Sent to a small town in Hungary called Szekesfehervar, the monumental task of sorting through the
100 tons of daily deliveries begins, sifting and segmenting the clothes into those that will stay and be
sold in Hungary or those that will be shipped to one of the top 5 five destinations of Poland, Ghana, Pakistan, Ukraine and Benin.
The waste, those garments which are torn or no-one wants, are converted into little briquettes and burned in the local cement factory in Beremend.
On first consideration, it is a great example of sustainability and recycling. It is a clever way to extract long term value from a product, sustaining ‘filter down’ business models, creating opportunities for retailers in market stall economies in the developing world.
However, like many things in life, this is not a black and white issue; this does not represent a concept that is just ‘doing good’. There is the flip side, there is that grey zone.
In this case the ‘grey zone’ is the negative effect on local garment producers in those regions who
were able to make a living, creating small businesses and surviving in difficult economies.
They are now competing with the influx of our unwanted clothing and it is putting them under pressure and often, out of business.
In a peculiar reversal, their industries are succumbing to the impact of foreign imports. Something that used to be the destroyer of industrial domestic producers in developed economies.
This circular peculiarity has created exports from imports, sometimes back to the region of origin, sometimes back to regions of bloody conflict where the banality of a commercial message on the torso of a child soldier adds a little ‘comic grotesque’.
This is the grey zone and perhaps in our efforts to reduce waste, it is the lesser of two evils. It is a practical mind that is able to make a choice from a set of less than perfect propositions. It is a practical national psyche that can coin a phrase like Kafa Ulaya. But what have we achieved here? It is true that this ‘hand me down’ model has created cash and employment value from previously unwanted products. It is true that shipping these items, that were would previously have ended up in domestic landfill, means they finds a useful home in another country. But consider this……what happens when they are really at the end of their useful life but they are in a country that has zero recycling infrastructure? The truth is that they become trash. Not just clothing…………our phones, computers, our unwanted electrical items often find their way to these regions……….ultimately to end up being discarded…..eventually as toxic ‘E-waste’. 41 million tonnes of it in 2014, containing lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury and lithium, shipped to Ghana.
We have created a clever way to turn the 3rd world into our landfill and they are all willing accomplices. So, the short term gain will create some long term pain…….for someone…..somewhere. It is sad and not at all amusing for someone……..somewhere………eventually……….in Africa no doubt.
Author: Arron Harnden