T-shirt Travels is a PBS documentary about the secondhand clothes market in Africa. It’s viewable on Hulu right now, so I thought I’d give it a quick write-up.
This film came out in 2001, and appears to have been shot in the late nineties in Zambia. It profiles the used clothing market in Zambia, but also mentions other sub-Saharan African nations, including Ghana. Overall, I’d say the film is spot on. The basic premise is that Americans donate a lot of clothing to charity, and much of this clothing never ends up in thrift shops, but instead gets sold by the kilogram to exporters, who ship it to Africa, where it’s sold to importers, who then sell it by the bale to entrepreneurs, who setup booths at makeshift shops at markets around the African continent. This paradigm, which came about in the 1990s, had a devastating effect on Zambia’s textile industry. I can verify that 90% of the non-business-professionals I’ve seen in Ghana and Nigeria are wearing what appear to be American secondhand clothes.
The film traces the historical processes of trade liberalization and structural adjustments, and does a pretty good job of explaining why “cheap clothes for poor Africans” isn’t necessarily a good thing. We can replace the word “clothes” with “food” or “housing” or whatever product-of-the-day and the conclusion is still pretty much the same. Another film, Life and Debt, does an even better job at explaining this in detail.
In their tracing of these economic impacts, Jeff Sachs makes an appearance, and actually seems to totally get it. I’ve been somewhat hard on him in the past here, with my review of his latest book, and I feel like maybe I should take a bit of that back, because he comes off as totally aware of the structural violence perpetrated by neoliberal structural adjustment policies.
The film does a pretty good job at tackling what could be a depressing subject, but doing it in an upbeat and interesting way. Anyway, I’ll stop with my review and let you watch the film. The only thing I have to add is that in my experience, Ghanaians know that the secondhand clothes aren’t from dead people — I’d heard this before I went to Ghana, and asked several people about it, and all of them pretty much understood where their clothes were coming from.