While studying abroad in Tanzania last year, Michelle Einstein ’14 (Seal Beach, Calif.) was surprised by what people were wearing. She saw the local people sporting American T-shirts with slogans like “I’m With Stupid” and “Michigan State Moms,” as well as other clothes she recognized from home. “At first it was kind of funny,” says Einstein, “but when I thought about it more, I found I wanted to know how the Tanzanians understood those clothes differently than I did.”
Thus was launched Einstein's major research project—which ultimately became her senior capstone—into the global secondhand clothing trade.
It turns out to be a $3 billion industry, an increasingly profitable one. Unfortunately, there are middlemen making a lot of money off the trade, with less going to charity than most people assume. The best bet for ensuring that your cast-off clothes benefit actual charities? Donate to Goodwill and Salvation Army, Einstein advises.
As for the reasons behind the popularity of Western clothes in Africa, well, those are simple. One, they are cheaper than traditional apparel, and two, young people consider them more fashionable. “They get teased for wearing Maasai clothes,” says Einstein. “Their peers consider them less educated and sophisticated when they wear traditional garb.” Maasai and other traditional clothing, it seems, is most often worn today in private settings.
If she had more time, says Einstein, she’d love to ask people in the Twin Cities where they think their donated clothes end up. “Neither donators nor the ultimate buyers know what goes on in the middle of the process,” she says.
That lack of transparency, she says, can actually be somewhat positive for the African wearers. “Since they don’t know what the shirt says or where it came from,” says Einstein, “it’s more neutral and can be absorbed more easily into their current wardrobe and identity.”
Einstein calls her adviser, geography professor Bill Moseley, “kind of my hero.” Classes with him, along with her experience in Tanzania, inspired Einstein to change her major at the end of her junior year from English to geography. Although that change came very late in the game, she concedes, it has “worked out very well.”
Now Einstein has applied to the Peace Corps and is interested in pursuing a career in development work. Meanwhile, she’s convinced that telling everyone along the global clothing trade chain more about it would be a good thing. “Having more knowledge can only empower people, so instead of just thinking about price and availability, they can make a real decision about wearing American clothes.”