Fashion's Bad Samaritans: Why You Should NOT Donate Your Clothes This Second-hand September

 The large house in which we live demands that we transform this worldwide neighbourhood into a worldwide brotherhood.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Growing up in SWANA and post-war Kuwait, I could not help but develop a higher sense of awareness from a very young age of the world around me and its evident “power plays.” In my childhood, I lived to witness - albeit from afar, an abundance of wars and misfortunes that took part in my region: the wars that devastated Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen; the Israeli fascist regime that keeps Palestine under ruthless occupation; the destruction of the economy of Lebanon; the impoverishment of countries that were historically prosperous; the damage of post-colonialism on the liberty of the Arab people was evident to see in every part of SWANA. The slogan ‘peace in the middle east’ gets passed around casually – which mistakenly disseminates a belief that the middle east needs ‘peace’ and it is up to ‘us’ (the west) to save it. Misinformation in the media and history books was apparent and western hypocrisy all-pervasive. 

I was fortunate enough to pursue my university studies abroad in the UK, where I learned to what extent the world of politics and economics were intertwined. A veil lifted from my eyes in one strategy class when I chose to read, Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism by Dr. Ha-joon Chang. That was when I learned the terminology for the obvious hypocrisy that was evident in SWANA and from what I could tell, the world at large.

“Keep your eyes open,” warned one professor, “many of you students are coming from developing countries,” – a warning to watch out for the “Bad Samaritans.”

Who are the Samaritans?

Before we can even begin to explain the metaphor of the ‘Bad Samaritans,’ coined by Dr. Chang, we need to go back in time… way back to Biblical times.

In the Bible, the Samaritans were a group of people who were looked upon (by the Jews and Nazareth’s of the time) as shabby, treacherous vagabonds. The tale goes as such: 

‘Love thy neighbor as you love thyself’. – preached Jesus once said

 "And who is my neighbor?" -  a lawyer asked Jesus

To which Jesus replied with the following parable, “a travelling man fell among a group of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and left him in a near state of death. By chance, a priest and a Levite (a priest’s assistant), both passed by at different times, but upon seeing the man, walked right past on the other side. A Samaritan later came to where the man was but instead of walking away, felt compassion and helped the man, bringing him to an inn, and nursed him to health.

Which of these three men, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?" asked Jesus

"The one who showed him mercy," replied the Lawyer

To which Jesus said to him, "You go, and do likewise."

In today’s global neighborhood, divided between the rich, prosperous north and the poor, underdeveloped south, Chang explains that the ‘Bad Samaritans’ are not the rugged, well-intentioned Samaritan neighbors of biblical times; but rather, are the neighbors you look up to because they have a beautiful house with a white picket fence, who extend their arm out to help you rebuild your home only for it to completely fall apart. These Samaritans come to you as friends but are here to intentionally cause harm.

Who exactly are these Bad Samaritans?

The American Dream by Salvadore Dali


According to Chang, The Bad Samaritans are an “alliance of rich country governments led by the USA” and “mediated” by the “Unholy Trinity,” which consists of the following international economic organisations: 

    1. The International Monetary Fund (IMF)
    2. The World Trade Organisation (WTO)
    3. The World Bank

This “Unholy Trinity” is controlled by rich country governments from the global north who treacherously use aid budgets and access to Western home markets as “carrots” or bate to trap poorer countries into adopting neo-liberal policies, which end up serving the interests of the global north at the expense of the global south. Under the guise of ‘development aid,’ these Bad Samaritans lead the global south into even deeper cycles of underdevelopment and poverty.

Huh.. What are Neo-liberal policies?   

from Bruce Willis GIFs via Gfycat

Neoliberalism is a free-trade policy model with a core agenda consisting of privatizing state-run enterprises and deregulating or removing barriers to foreign goods imports and foreign investments in general. Neoliberalism antagonizes protectionism, claiming that for a developing country to compete in the global market, the state should not protect its infant and local industries nor place tariffs on imports. Basically, before a developing country can secure a loan from The IMF and the World Bank, the two governing bodies place a condition that the developing country must first adopt neo-liberal policies.

Now that doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

After all, doesn’t free trade ‘even out the playing field’ for all countries – giving everyone an equal chance to participate and reap the rewards of the Free Market? In theory, it certainly seems that way. In actuality, the story takes quite a different turn. Let’s think about this logically for a minute: how are developing countries, many of whom have been ravished by decades of colonialism, war, disease, famine, and poverty, who lack in a well-equipped work force, world-class educational institutions, and competitive industries able to compete on an “equal playing field” with the rich and advanced global north? The case becomes even more baffling when Chang offers a thorough critique of how the North was only able to achieve its developed status and give its industries a chance to survive and later prosper by doing exactly the opposite of what they now preach. In other words, it was not neo-liberal policies and free market economics that allowed the west to achieve global industry dominance; but rather, protectionist policies!  


What the Bad Samaritans Don’t Want you to Know:

 Gulliver's Travels: did you know that the island of Lilliput stands as a satirical representation of the real-world political climate of 18th century England? 

Adam Smith – the “Father of Capitalism” and reputable free market economist, spoke out vehemently against protectionism, but not for the reasons you may expect... As it turns out, Smith only disagreed with protectionism because he believed that in the 18th century times that he lived in, British industries were “internationally competitive,” and no longer needed protection as they did three centuries prior. Back then, Britain had been “a relatively backward economy,” unable to compete with the manufacturing prowess of the Low Countries (modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands). Chang reveals how the Tudor monarchs of the times “used protectionism, subsidies, distribution of monopoly rights, government-sponsored industrial espionage and other means of government intervention” to lead England on the path to become the center of the global manufacturing trade. Britain eventually ended up abolishing tariffs in the year 1860, but only after securing its spot as the dominant industrial power of its time! 

Another case at point is today’s most vehement promoter of neoliberalism - the USA. At the beginning of its history, the US was nothing short of a recently de-colonized agrarian society. That soon shifted when Alexander Hamilton, ‘the Man Who Made Modern America,’ came into office as Secretary of the Treasury and campaigned fiercely for the young country to adopt protectionist policies to protect its new “infant industries,” a path it continued on for almost 200 years up to the First World War when American import rates reached 40-50% - the highest rates in the world!

Evidently, today’s leading free trade advocates certainly did NOT preach what they practiced; and to add more salt to the wound, these Bad Samaritan continue to “protect” their economic interests under the governance of the ‘Unholy Trinity.’


What does any of this have to do with Sustainable Fashion?

A few years ago, I came across another gem of a book, Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-hand Clothes by Dr. Andrew Brooks (clearly, economic mystery is one of my favourite genres!). Here is where the second veil lifted from my eyes.

Now it was no surprise that the Fashion industry had many elephants in the room, but what could possibly be so bad about second-hand clothes? I had always believed that donating my clothes was a small yet noble act of kindness, the sharing of what you have with those less fortunate. With that came the belief that it was “technically okay” to buy a ridiculous amount of trendy clothes every year because when they went out of style (as they always do), or as we say in Kuwait, when the “habba” passed, I could always donate them to the less fortunate. ‘What a wonderful [circular] world!’ Or so I naively thought.

In truth, Brooks reveals that post-colonisation, African countries (and many other countries in the global south) were encouraged to adopt free trade, neo-liberal policies to secure loans from the ‘Unholy Trinity’ to “kickstart” their economies and invest in the development of their national textile industries. At the same time, implementation of neoliberal policies requires countries to remove tariffs of foreign goods; resulting in the unrestrained arrival of second-hand clothing donations to come in bulk from the West by many missionary organisations and corporations that sold (rather than donated) these second-hand clothes at far more affordable rates than clothing manufactured in Africa, undermining Africa’s “infant” clothing industries, putting them out of business and leaving them in debt when they were no longer able to compete at the same, cheap price point as the second-hand market.

Frankly, I was shocked….

Evidently, the donation of second-hand clothing was not the circular solution it promised itself to be but rather, is a big ethical elephant that you can certainly bet is now in the room! Dig in a little deeper and who do we find is behind this catastrophe? You guessed it - the Bad Samaritans.

The Impact of the Second-Hand Clothing Trade on the Economy of Africa:

There is insurmountable evidence indicating that since the implementation of these economic “liberalization” policies in the 1980s and 1990s, the predominant trend within the African clothing industry has been decline; and by decline, we mean that textile and clothing employment fell by 80 percent from 1975 to 2000 in Ghana; going down from 25,000 to below 10,000 in 2002 in Zambia; and Nigeria’s 200,000-person workforce all but disappearing!

By promoting the free and unrestrained trade of second-hand clothing, the policies of the Bad Samaritans have created a “captive market” in the continent of Africa, resulting in the loss of jobs, industries, and hope for the development of a thriving textile and clothing industry able compete in the global “free market.”

Which deems the question: Is Neo-liberalism just another term for Neo-colonialism? Let’s take a crash course in colonialism, shall we? 

Colonialism is oppressive by design; it is a system that directly aims to reverse the social, political, and economic progress of the country it colonises – leaving it perpetually underdeveloped and dependant on its colonial power for practically everything.

In other words, the colonists are going to come to your country, uninvited, pillage your land, steal your resources, take them back to the factories in their home countries, turn your raw materials into sellable stuff, produce way more stuff than their home population could ever consume, then sell the excess stuff back to you at a price you can barely afford but have no other choice but to buy because they’ve crushed your home markets. Oh, and you can’t sell what they’re selling because they called dibs (aka monopoly)!

And sadly, this model is no different today…

In today’s inherently expansionist global system of capitalism, consumers in the global north are encouraged to consume more and more and consume fast. In the case of fast-fashion, consumption in the global north generates a surplus of unwanted used-clothing, which consumers are then encouraged to donate or recycle. These second-hand clothes are then exported back to the global south, where they were once manufactured (in countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Philippines, parts of SWANA and even Eastern European countries, amongst many others). These developing countries have been encouraged to adopt neo-liberal policies; in effect, causing ownership of many of their national industries to be transferred to western corporations who make millions and billions in profits every year, who unsustainably extract the developing countries’ raw materials while degrading the native countries’ earth and waters. At the same time, they overwork the locals in these overseas factories, often in conditions that are neither safe nor offer salaries that can cover the basic costs of their living, let alone provide a living wage. And when western customers have finished consuming the products that these native workers have laboriously made but can never afford to buy themselves, they get “donated” or sold back to them for a fraction of the price, at hindrance to their countries’ industries and economic development, leaving them with no other choice but to buy second-hand and inadvertently foster a system of provision put in place for them by the Bad Samaritans which just like colonialism, has locked their country into a relationship of dependency on their Northern counterparts. It’s as the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah once said,

“neo-colonialism is an instrument of imperialism, which like colonialism, is an attempt to export the social conflicts of the capitalist countries. The result of neo-colonialism is that foreign capital is used for the exploitation rather than for the development of the less-developed parts of the world. Investment, under neo-colonialism, increases, rather than decreases, the gap between the rich and the poor countries of the world.”

In 2022 - after seeing the evidence, we cannot agree more.

Martin Luther King (to the left) with first Ghanian President Kwame Nkrumah

What about the WTO’s International Trade Center’s (ITC) Ethical Production Model?

The WTO Sponsors the International Trade Center’s (ITC) Ethical Fashion Africa Initiative, connecting international fashion designers to African producers and organizes manufacturing activity, which “enables some of the world’s poorest people to enter fashion’s value chain as producers, while also allowing designers, who want to source ethically, to do so.”

Brooks explains that where workers were previously paid a meek 3 USD a day, the WTO secured a salary for artisans worth 6 USD a day – a salary increase of 100%. Although this may seem like quite a significant increase, when we take into consideration that even with this increase, African artisans are left with a humble 180 USD a month (or about 55 KWD a month – and that’s assuming that workers are working every day of the week – including weekends). This amount is just a premium above the minimum wage and remains to be one of the lowest wages in the world (and that is with a 100% increase!). Let’s take into account that even with this increase, people are only able to afford their most basic life needs, school and basic healthcare at best, but nothing that can promote any real development or alleviation of poverty at a large scale, regardless of the fact that profits being made on the backs of their labor equate to millions and even billions of US dollars every year for world-renowned brands and multinational corporations.


Ok we've been duped.. what do we do now?

The evidence is clear, buying unsustainably only to “selflessly” donate your clothing to the less fortunate afterwards is a sustainable fashion myth; it is an ethical elephant in the room. It is a system of provision put in place in Africa and other parts of the global south by the Bad Samaritans that has kept the developing world perpetually poor and dependent on the global north for sustenance. It’s the “kicking of the ladder” to make sure that no one can climb it and ultimately, surpass the ones standing at the top.  

In this second-hand September, we encourage you to take the time to do your research - read, learn, and re-educate yourself - so you can become a more aware and informed citizen. If you’re not sure where to start, then check out our suggested reading guide in our ethical elephant booklist; or have a read through our guide on how to shop sustainably; and if you haven’t already, check out our article where we debunk the top myths about the second-hand clothing trade. Remember that a lot of your unwanted clothes can be worn by others and not just by people in developing countries. Only donate your clothes if you absolutely must and if you do, try to donate to your local community first to give other countries a chance for their industries to survive and ultimately, thrive!

We want to be clear that we are NOT against the idea of donating your clothes - we just believe it can be done in a more conscious, sustainable, and ethical manner. At SANDE, we want to make sure that you are aware of what your actions can mean for others. Our actions can have grave consequences, so when you are about to make the decision of whether to buy something now that you don’t really need only to ‘donate it later’ as second-hand, remember to be a good neighbor - remember to be a Good Samaritan.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published