As I wrote in the first part of my review of “The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy”, one thing that never occurred to me was what happens to clothes after I donate them to charity.
Chapter 13 starts with an anecdote about the women of Bethesda, MD, who line up bright and early each Saturday morning behind a Salvation Army truck. The early bird gets the worm, or in this case gets rid of the worm! The juxtaposition of expensive SUVs lining up to donate bags of barely worn clothing to charity, only to then head to the mall to purchase more clothing, outlines how silly the American consumerism culture must appear in developing countries. And yet, without these rampant “excesses” in the U.S. and other Western cultures, an entire marketplace and means of survival would not be available on the African continent.
Mitumba, meaning “bale” or “bundle” in Swahili, is the designated term for clothing imported into Tanzania. Since the 1980’s, when the textile industry there collapsed, mitumba has provided a means for ordinary citizens to purchase clothing for dramatically less than new clothes would cost to make or buy. What’s interesting about this phenomenon is that these “used” clothes aren’t looked down upon like they would be in Western culture; rather, mitumba is quite celebrated culturally! To be a savvy mitumba shopper is to be educated on fashion trends, as well as a good treasure hunter. Mitumba markets serve not only as sources of clothing, but entertainment as well.
The idea that second-hand clothing is worn in developing countries isn’t that hard to understand. Certainly, wearing clothes that were previously unwanted but still in good condition makes more sense than wearing a burlap sack (or nothing at all). What struck me as so hard to believe is that charities in the U.S. are the source of all these clothes. Are U.S. charities exploiting Africa for monetary gain? Thankfully, the answer is no.
As an economist, the entire mitumba process astounds me. In every step of the process, there’s such a free market “purity” that you would think this is a hypothetical example from a text book:
- Charities receive so much clothing that supply greatly exceeds demand, pushing market prices to near zero. Charities can’t just redistribute the clothing to other charities or countries, the cost is too great (both to the charity with the clothes, and to the potential recipient) and not all donations have value for an eventual “second-life”.
- After selectively picking from the donations, charities sell the excess clothing in bulk to mitumba wholesalers for pennies per pound. The charities eliminate the cost of storage and the manpower necessary to maintain the inventory, mitumba wholesalers now have inventory.
- Mitumba buyers must keep a sharp eye on fashion trends in different markets; competition is near-perfect, as anyone can buy clothes from the charities. To have the wrong styles means to be stuck with clothes that no one wants. There are no returns back to the charities!
- Once in the marketplace, supply and demand again takes over. Fashionable items sell for more than unfashionable items. Mens clothing generally costs 4-5x that of women’s clothing. Not only is there a lower supply of men’s clothing (Western men wear clothes longer), the women in mitumba markets are more particular. Not all Western styles are desired, leaving a supply glut with the mitumba sellers.
- Mitumba sellers must adjust prices throughout the day in order to balance demand. Mitumba buyers know that towards the end of the day, sellers would rather sell a few more items than pack up their wares. ”By the end of the day, clothing on the clearance table that sold for a dime at Noon might go for two for a penny.” (pg. 234)
The one thing that I’m still on the fence about is whether mitumba is good or bad for Tanzania. Several arguments are made in the book, most of them ending up as chicken-egg circular references. Mitumba came about because the textile industry failed. People have no money, so they buy mitumba. By purchasing mitumba, the textile industry can’t re-develop, so people have no money. And they purchase mitumba. The argument is also made that purchasing mitumba destroys textile jobs, yet for entrepreneurs it is creating jobs in supplying mitumba.
As I’m not an expert in the African economies (remember, just learned all of this from this book!), I’m going to default to my free market economist side and say that the mitumba markets are a good thing. It provides a service that people want, at a cost they can afford. Yes, it would be great to develop African industries to alleviate the need for mitumba, but that’s not a flaw in the mitumba market as much as it is a economic development issue. When it comes down to it, humans will naturally try to fulfill their needs for food, clothing, and shelter. To blame mitumba is to blame the citizens themselves, which is a leap that I just can’t make.
Sources: ”Travels” book, Link