Secondhand Clothing • Charity and Commerce • From Thrift to Fashion, from Waste to Recycling • Global Contexts • African Secondhand Clothing Markets • Conclusion: When Old Turns New • Snapshot: Banning Secondhand Clothing Imports • Snapshot: Naming Secondhand Clothing S econdhand clothing constitutes a global market of commerce and consumption that has a long but changing history with complex links to garment production, tailoring, and couture. In Europe and North America, secondhand clothing was an important source of clothing well into the nineteenth century, until mass production and growing prosperity enabled more and more people to purchase brand-new rather than previously worn garments. During Europe’s imperial expansion, the trade in secondhand clothing reached the colonies. When mass-produced garments became readily available at aﬀordable prices, the secondhand-clothing trade became export oriented, while charity shops responded to the clothing needs of the local poor. In the post–World War II period in the West, the secondhand-clothing trade expanded and grew in scope globally with patronage from all segments of society save in countries that ban these imports. Because most country boundaries are porous and customs regulations diﬃcult to enforce, there is extensive illegal importation of this commodity. At the same time as the global scope of the secondhand-clothing trade has increased, growing concerns about the environment have improved the image of clothing recycling in the West. What is more, since the early 1990s, the popularity of period fashion has given rise to a diversity of consignment stores, boutiques, and high-street concessions that resell previously worn garments. When Internet-based online clothing trade is added to these processes, the entire world is connected interactively through secondhand clothing. CHARITY AND COMMERCE Established charitable organizations are the single largest source of the twenty-ﬁrst-century global trade in secondhand clothing, supplying both domestic and foreign secondhand-clothing markets through their collection eﬀorts. Since the end of the nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States, philanthropic groups have been involved in collecting and donating clothes to the poor. In the late 1950s, many charitable organizations introduced store sales, among them the Salvation Army, whose income in the United States primarily came from the sale of used clothing. The major charitable organizations in the twentyﬁrst century include, in the United States, the Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries, St. Vincent de Paul, and Amvets and, in Europe, Humana, Oxfam, Terre, and Abbey Pierre, among many others. When post–World War II shifts in income distribution and growing purchasing power enabled more consumers than ever before to buy not only new but also more clothes, speciﬁc garment niches emerged, including fashions and styles oriented toward, for example, teenage clothing, corporate and career dressing, and sports and leisure wear. Such dress practices produced an enormous yield of used but still wearable clothes, some of which ended up as donations to charity. Charitable organizations dominated the domestic secondhand-clothing retail scene in the 1960s and 1970s. They were joined during the 1980s by a variety of specialist stores operating on a for-proﬁt basis with names that rarely feature words like used, secondhand, or thrift. Most of these specialty stores cater to women, yet some stock garments for both sexes; there are children’s apparel shops, and men’s boutiques have appeared as well. Menswear and children’s wear take up far less space in secondhand-clothing retailing than women’s apparel. The clientele also includes far more women than men. Some of these stores target speciﬁc consumers, among them young professionals who want high-quality clothing at modest prices or young people keen on retro (revival of past styles) and period fashion, punk, and rave styles. Some customers collect garments with investment in view. Some of these stores operate on a consignment basis; others source in bulk from secondhand-clothing vendors; and some do both. And some of these businesses donate garments that do not sell well to “charity,” while others dispose of their surplus at bulk prices to commercial secondhandclothing dealers. The relationship between charitable organizations and textile recyclers and graders adds a business angle; concerning its profitability there is considerable anecdotal but little substantive information. Because consumers in the West donate much more clothing than the charitable organizations can possibly sell in their retail shops, they in turn dispose of their massive overstock at bulk prices to commercial secondhand-clothing dealers. The media routinely fault the charitable organizations for making money from the sale of donated clothing and criticize the textile graders for turning surplus donated clothing into a proﬁtable economic niche. At the same time, growing environmental concerns in the West have enhanced both the proﬁtability and respectability of this trade, giving its practitioners a new cachet as textile salvagers and waste recyclers. As the last but not the least ironic twist in this process, used clothing has become the latest “new” trend as consumers across the globe eagerly purchase secondhand garments in local market stalls, stores, boutiques, and online. The trade universe for the sourcing of secondhand clothing includes informal sites like garage sales and ﬂea markets as well as estate sales and high-end auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s. The textile-recycling industry is made up of salvagers and graders, ﬁber recyclers, and used-clothing dealers, brokers, and exporters. “Used clothing” comprises not only garments but also shoes, handbags, hats, belts, draperies, and linens. Soft toys—for example, teddy bears—have found their way into this export. The textile recyclers sort and grade clothing and apparel into many categories, some for the domestic retro or upscale market and others SECONDHAND CLOTHING for export; some for industrial use as rags, and others for ﬁber. In the twenty-ﬁrst century, wool garments that used to be exported to Italy for the wool-regeneration industry in Prato near Florence are shipped in bulk to northern India for reprocessing. Blue jeans, especially Levi Strauss 501, the original button-ﬂy jeans created in 1853 for miners and cowboys in the American West, are popular in Japan. Intermediaries called “pickers” and expert buyers, among them foreign nationals, lessen the hard work of sourcing by traveling between the large textile-recycling warehouses and selecting garments with particular appeal to, for example, domestic youth markets, special period markets such as retro and vintage, and niche markets in Japan. Once sorted, the better grades of secondhand clothing are exported to Central American countries such as Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala and also to Chile in South America. The lowest grade goes to African and Asian countries. Most recyclers compress sorted garments into bales of ﬁfty kilograms (110 pounds), while some press unsorted bulk clothing into bales weighing ﬁve hundred or even one thousand kilograms (1,100 or 2,200 pounds). The bales are wrapped in waterproof plastic, tied with metal or plastic straps, placed in containers, and shipped. Most of the large textile recyclers in the United States that are involved in buying and reselling for export are located near port cities along the Atlantic and Paciﬁc coasts and on the Great Lakes. Many of the large ﬁrms are family owned. Since the turn of the millennium, the focus of the trade has shifted to Canada, where many now consider Toronto to be the world’s used-clothing capital. Several of the new operators originate from South Asia, some of them coming from families with experience living in Africa, and they know the overseas markets 233 through personal connections. In Europe, for historical and geographic reasons, the hubs of commercial sorting were the Netherlands and Belgium, with easy access to the world’s major ports. In eﬀorts to save labor costs, some of these ﬁrms have moved their sorting operations to countries in eastern Europe, among them Hungary. Because secondhand clothing is a potentially proﬁtable commodity, its charitable collection is challenged by fraudulent practices. Many parking lots and strip malls are dotted with gaily colored collection bins, put up by established charities as well as by for-proﬁt groups with the permission of adjacent business owners or, in some states in the United States, after receiving permission from the local authorities. The logos on some of these bins advocate third-world relief, while others focus on environmental protection. Collection bins appealing for urgently needed clothing sometimes feature names of nonexistent charities, and ﬂyers inviting householders to ﬁll bags with unwanted clothing have been known to give the impression that the collected garments would be donated to the poor in third-world countries. The mostly voluntary workforce of charitable organizations makes it diﬃcult to supervise activities related to collection bins; therefore, some of them have phased out collection bins entirely. The items that are collected through fraudulent advertising or outright theft may enter the export circuit through brokers. Truckloads of used clothing collected as a result of such scams eventually reach markets in eastern Europe, Africa, South America, and the Indian subcontinent. In Great Britain and Ireland, for example, leading charitable organizations have experienced massive losses to organized gangs from Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland who battle with groups from Northern Ireland, Scotland, A high-street Humana resale store selling secondhand clothing, Cologne, Germany, 1996. Humana is a nongovernmental agency (NGO) with headquarters in Denmark. Photograph by Karen Tranberg Hansen. 234 FASHION WORLDWIDE and England for control of the market in secondhand clothes stolen from charity bins. FROM THRIFT TO FASHION, FROM WASTE TO RECYCLING Toward the end of the twentieth century, growing consumer concerns with self-styled uniqueness and rising preoccupations with recycling in the West have complicated the longstanding association between secondhand clothing and thrift. The world of secondhand clothing has become a ﬂourishing fashion scene. In fact, since the turn of the millennium, used clothing has drawn a bigger spotlight than ever—not as secondhand but as vintage, thanks in part to rich and famous people who have worn vintage garments at celebrity events. At the Oscar Awards ceremony in 2001, Julia Roberts wore a vintage Valentino dress. Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Kirsten Dunst, and many others have been spotted in vintage couture at red-carpet events that draw both media and widespread public attention to dress. The range of previously used dress options has expanded as thrift has become associated with charity and period clothing with an assortment of apparel in which “real” vintage dates to before the 1970s. These developments have been accompanied by the emergence of specialized points of purchase. The quality of the merchandise varies with the selling environment and the ambience. And the clientele tends to diﬀer. Many thrift stores have a warehouse feel and are crowded with clothing, accessories, and garments hung on racks loosely classiﬁed by type. Teenage shoppers who do not actually need clothing search such racks for garments that make a fashion statement. In twenty-ﬁrstcentury Germany, for example, the 1960s-style scene of movies, music, and material culture is popular with young people, who dress in garments from the 1960s or make their own clothes constructed from old patterns. This retro style attributes history and authenticity to garments that wearers experience as unique and personal. Style-conscious shoppers rummage, browse, and look for clothes in various places with dedication and zeal. Secondhand-clothing shopping oﬀers the thrill of the chase, the bargain, and the pleasure of making a ﬁnd or discovery. The interiors of many consignment stores and upscale resale boutiques are strategically designed with visual stimulation and dazzling displays to create a fun and eclectic ambience. Oﬀering a mixture of old and new, many of these stores combine vintage and modern garments with retro appliances, memorabilia, and furniture. Such stores are both about the shopping experience and about ﬁnding unusual pre-owned apparel. Vintage has diﬀerent meanings for everyone, and the clientele varies widely in the twenty-ﬁrst century. For a baby boomer, vintage means clothes from the 1930s and 1940s, whereas for the twenty-ﬁrst-century high-school cohort, vintage garments are from the 1970s and 1980s. Teenage shoppers are attracted to vintage because it adds glamour to their everyday wardrobe and shopping at vintage stores oﬀers an experience of playing dress-up. Other customers search for period dress or costumes for decade-speciﬁc parties; college students purchase items for themed events, among them, dance marathons. Top celebrities wear vintage, high-street shops are copying it, and upwardly mobile consumers are purchasing it as an investment as the auctions of garments owned by Princess Diana and Jacqueline Kennedy Women choosing garments from a pile at Soweto Market in Lusaka, Zambia, 1992. The Bemba term salaula means “selecting from a pile by rummaging,” and the quality of these secondhand imports surpasses garments imported from China. Photograph by Karen Tranberg Hansen. SECONDHAND CLOTHING demonstrate. The blending of fashion with celebrity obsession is evident also at VIP events that raise money to support selected charities through the sale of tickets and designer clothes donated by socialites. Whatever the occasion, people who are keen on style purchase used designer labels as they do all secondhand garments, because they follow their own tastes and like to purchase something that is unique. The development of the World Wide Web has enhanced the secondhand-clothing market, especially its designer-trading aspect. In eﬀect, the Internet, auction sites, and speciﬁc Web-based sites have expanded the previously worn clothing business vastly. Hard-to-come-by, limited-edition branded items appear on auction sites, which makes high-end clothing aﬀordable. On eBay, the global online marketplace, consumers are able to buy just about anything at auction or through ﬁxed-price arrangements. In fact, sellers receive a larger part of the proﬁt from eBay transactions than they do in most consignment stores. And because most garments oﬀered for sale at eBay end up being purchased, concerns about the disposal of excess clothing are limited. Shopping from home for gently used or pre-owned quality garments, eBay customers have access to designer items that may not even be available where they live. Several trends converge in contemporary preoccupations with clothing recycling. For one, the secondhand-clothing trade keeps garments out of landﬁlls, reducing or temporarily postponing environmental degradation. What is more, alteration personalizes garments, customizing makes them ﬁt, and repair extends the life span of used clothing whereas a variety of transformations give it new leases on life. Quality- and style-savvy consumers recognize the potential that may not be immediately apparent in garments, and some possess skills to eﬀect transformations by taking apart, reshaping, and turning used clothing into something else by means of embellishment, patchwork, buttons, and trim, among many other practices. Last but not least, since the early 1990s, established designers such as Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons in Paris and Dolce & Gabbana in Milan have featured garments that look recycled on the fashion runway, while in Paris, Roland Simmons incorporated what the French colloquially call fripes (from friperie, meaning “used clothing”) among the designer labels in his boutique. Also in Paris, Mali-born avant-garde designer Lamine Kouyaté has taken a couture-like approach to recovered clothes in his designer label Xuly-Bët, deconstructing them into reconﬁgured one-of-a-kind garments. Then there is Martin Margiela, known as “fashion’s founding father of recycling, the 1970s revival and thrift-shop style” (Menkes 1993), who in his Paris studio showcased the recycling of clothes by giving them new life. While the recycling of clothing constitutes a creative component of the work of some fashion designers, some consumer groups have returned to thrifting but with a twist. Changing from pursuing bargain hunting to a “green” position, some consumers concerned with sustainability focus on the recycling aspect of the trade. Eco-conscious parents, for example, may seek out secondhand items made from conventionally grown cotton for their infants because frequent washing has removed the pesticides. Infants outgrow their clothes quickly, most certainly before they wear them out, so returning such garments to consignment shops reduces their environmental impact even further. Such positions may be enmeshed with other forms of provisioning practices, 235 including the purchase of fair trade products, that, when taken together, represent an ethical rather than merely a prorecycling consumption position. GLOBAL CONTEXTS The secondhand clothing trade has expanded hugely in both its economic power and global scope, more than doubling worldwide between 1991 and 2004, in the wake of the liberalization of many third-world economies and following the sudden rise in demand from former Eastern Bloc countries in the early 1990s. In the twenty-ﬁrst century, secondhand clothing makes up a specialty or niche market in much of the West, whereas in many thirdworld countries, secondhand clothing imported from the West is an important clothing source. The United States is the world’s largest exporter in terms of both volume and value, followed in 2004 by the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands (United Nations 1996, 20; 2006, 120–121). The countries of sub-Saharan Africa are the world’s largest secondhand-clothing destination, receiving close to 26 percent of total world exports in 2004. Close to 20 percent of world exports in 2004 went to Asia, where Japan, Malaysia, India, Cambodia, Singapore, and Pakistan (in this order) are large net importers. Other large importers include Tunisia in North Africa and Guatemala in Central America. The export does not target the third world exclusively. Sizable exports are destined for Japan, BelgiumLuxembourg, and the Netherlands, which all import and reexport this commodity. In fact, in 2004, Europe, including eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, imported about 25 percent of the total of secondhand clothing traded, almost the same amount as Africa (United Nations 1996, 20; 2006, 120–121). The global secondhand-clothing trade shows some striking trends. Many large importers of secondhand clothing in South Asia, such as India and Pakistan, are themselves textile and garment exporters, which puts an interesting spin on arguments about the negative eﬀects of used-clothing imports on domestic textile and garment industries. This is also the case for some African countries, for example, Kenya and Uganda: Both are large importers of secondhand clothing but have textile- and garmentmanufacturing ﬁrms that export to the United States under the duty- and quota-free provisions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Although the Philippines bans the import of secondhand clothing, trade in it has grown in the wake of the opening up of the economy in the mid-1980s. Secondhand clothing only recently became readily available, illegally shipped to Philippine ports or arriving via Hong Kong. In Ifugao, a town in northern Luzon, this trade circulates through channels that are rooted in local cultural traditions and guided by notions of personalized contacts that women traders make use of in their business activities. When retailers, vendors, and consumers talk about secondhand clothing, they draw connections between people and clothes that constantly change. Such accounts domesticate the logic of the market and the meaning of this global commodity in terms of local norms of status and value; in the process, they transform them. Combining secondhand garments into styles that display knowledge of wider clothing practices or subvert their received meaning, traders and consumers refashion this imported commodity to serve their personal and community identities. 236 FASHION WORLDWIDE A vendor selling secondhand men’s shirts at Main Masala Market in Ndola, Zambia, 1993. Photograph by Karen Tranberg Hansen. India prohibits the import of secondhand clothing yet permits the import of woolen ﬁbers called mutilated hosiery, a trade term for wool garments shredded by machines in the West prior to export. Imported “mutilated” fabrics are sorted into color ranges, then shredded, carded, and spun, to reappear as threads used for blankets, knitting yarn, and wool fabrics for local consumption and export in the Indian shoddy industry (the reclamation of fabric ﬁbers). Domestic recycling of Indian clothing also occurs through barter, hand-me-downs, donations, and resale. Some Indian consumers donate their still-wearable clothing to the poor or barter it for household goods. Other practices involve saris with intricate borders that are transformed into new garments and household items for niche markets in the West, while the remains of cotton cloth are shipped abroad as industrial wiping rags. This recycling of imported and domestic secondhand clothing creates employment at many levels of the Indian economy. In the process, an export supply chain formalizes what began as an informal trade. AFRICAN SECONDHAND CLOTHING MARKETS Secondhand-clothing consumption practices in Africa are shaped by the politics that regulate these imports and by distinct regional conventions concerning bodies and dress. Some African countries have at one point or another banned the import of secondhand clothing—for instance, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Kenya, and Malawi. Some countries have restrictive policies—for example, South Africa, which allows import of secondhand clothing only for charitable purposes and not for resale. African secondhand- clothing markets undergo changes not only because of the legal rules that guide or prohibit secondhand-clothing imports but also because of civil strife and war. Some small countries like Benin, Togo, and Rwanda before its civil wars have been large importers and active in transshipment and reexport. Although secondhand-clothing imports are banned in some countries, a brisk trade moves this popular commodity across Africa’s highly penetrable borders. There is considerable regional variation in Africa’s clothing markets. In Muslim-dominated North Africa, for example, secondhand clothing constitutes a much smaller percentage of total garment imports than in sub-Saharan Africa. The North African imports consist largely of men’s work and everyday garments like trousers, jackets, and shirts and of children’s clothes. Dress conventions diﬀer throughout the continent, not only in terms of religious norms (for instance, whether people are Muslim or Christian), but also by gender, age, class, and region or ethnicity. Taken together, these factors inform the cultural norms of dress practice, inﬂuencing what types of garments which people will wear and when. In several countries in West Africa, distinct regional dress styles that are the products of long-standing textile crafts in weaving, dyeing, and printing coexist in the twenty-ﬁrst century with dress styles that were introduced during the Colonial period and after. In Nigeria and Senegal, for example, secondhand clothing has entered a speciﬁc niche. Although people from diﬀerent socioeconomic groups, not only the very poor, purchase imported secondhand clothing and use it widely for everyday wear, Senegalese and Nigerians commonly follow long-established style SECONDHAND CLOTHING 237 A tailor making sweatshirts by sewing unmatched used sweatpants together at a secondhand clothing market, Soweto, Lusaka, Zambia, 1997. This way of recycling textiles means that clothes are tailored to fit local bodies and style preferences. Photograph by Karen Tranberg Hansen. conventions, dressing with pride for purposes of displaying specialty cloth in “African” styles, some of it locally produced; since the late 1990s, however, much of the printed fabrics are manufactured in China. This stands in contrast to Zambia, where such textile crafts hardly existed in the pre-Colonial period and where in the twenty-ﬁrst century people across the socioeconomic spectrum, except those at the top, are dressing in the West’s used clothing. Secondhand clothing ﬂows from the point of donation in the West through sorting centers for export from where it is shipped by container and arrives by overland transport in Zambia. There, distribution and consumption practices incorporate secondhand clothes as desirable apparel into a gendered dress universe that is informed by a local cultural economy of judgment and style. Far from emulating the West’s fashions, secondhandclothing practices in Africa involve clothing-conscious consumers in eﬀorts to reconstruct these garments culturally and materially and in the process change their lives for the better. Last but not least, dress, both new and used, is a dynamic resource in young people’s identity constructions in Africa’s rapidly growing urban areas. Young male street vendors in Zambia buy oversized secondhand garments, while secondary school students search for items that create a suitable look to signal their upwardly mobile status. Youth in Dakar, Senegal, a city rich in historical exchanges with the rest of the world, search for feggy jaay garments (a Wolof term meaning “shake and sell,” or secondhand clothing), brand-name imports, and Chinese knockoﬀs to represent their aspired status: as “Boy Town,” someone who is indigenous to Dakar; “Coming Town,” the rural migrant; or the “Venant,” a returned transnational migrant. Engaging with local views of fashion trends, the rich knowledge youth possess about the speciﬁcs of style enables them to read clothing and to identify the position of others, in this way navigating their way in the city, shaping both themselves and the urban scene. CONCLUSION: WHEN OLD TURNS NEW The process of recycling clothing never rests. Because every piece of garment has many potential future lives, the trade in secondhand clothing and textile recycling is lucrative. Garments that sit on the rack unsold for too long in the consignment store are either retrieved by their owners or donated to charity—for example, a shelter for the homeless, where in fact they may wear out their life. Alternatively, unsold garments are disposed of in bulk to textile recyclers who sort and grade them, some for the industrial cleaning-rag market and more for the secondhand-clothing export market. Once they have arrived abroad, the West’s discarded clothing in turn assumes new life as such garments become part of the biographies of their next owners; for example, in Africa, they not only cover basic clothing needs but also fulﬁll desires about bodies dressed in “the latest” as locally deﬁned. Secondhand clothing provides a dress practice through which people construct gender, appearance, and identity. In secondhand-clothing consumption, desire confronts emulation. What goes around in this global process does indeed come around locally, yet with creatively changed meanings. Finally, the online secondhand-clothing market on the World Wide Web has redrawn the global map of clothing by opening access to it to all.
© Copyright 2019