Monday, July 28, 2008

the market for second-hand clothing in Haiti...very cool!

Another cool article on economics-- by Joanne McNeil in Reason-- this time, on foreign aid, charity, and secondary markets in less-developed countries...

This is the sort of thing that gets economists really excited!

When thrifty shoppers in Boston and Miami pick through secondhand shirts at local Salvation Army outlets or estate sales, they are as likely to meet Haitians as hipsters. Some of the immigrants will simply be collecting clothes to mail back to family in Port-au-Prince, but others are part of a large global network trading in used American goods. Haiti’s enormous, informal, and largely unregulated market in pepe—used items imported from abroad—plays an important role in the least developed country in the Americas.

In 2002 The New York Times reported that of the approximately 2.5 billion pounds of clothes donated to charity in America each year, as much as 80 percent is shipped globally. The Times article inspired filmmakers Hanna Rose Shell and Vanessa Bertozzi to research the history of recycled clothing. From 2003 to 2007 they visited rag yards in Miami, dug through archives in London and Washington, D.C., and traveled to Haiti to see the international secondhand markets for themselves. The result is the recent documentary Secondhand (Pepe), which explores the global trade in used clothing.

In the United States, demand for secondhand goods spiked during the Great Depression, but after World War II peddlers found themselves with excess supply. So the business went global. Third World countries arranged deals with U.S. thrift shops for items that otherwise would end up in the trash.

Haiti started receiving shipments in the early 1960s. With the benefit of cheap items came the cost of serving as a dumping ground. Shell has described the city of Miragoane, which receives new pepe nearly every day, as “blanketed, literally, by a downy coat of secondhand clothing. It grows out of the ground and into the street, onto every surface, a sartorial network—buildings, barrows, man and machine-made structures, everywhere.”

When you see a photo of Haiti, it likely depicts a street riot or some similarly violent situation—the island at its worst. Secondhand (Pepe) spends a great deal of time documenting the country’s landscape in more peaceful times: a spectacle of colors, rags strewn for miles all over the dirt roads like a college dormitory on laundry day. It is at once beautiful and messy, a reminder that the country has far worse problems to deal with than litter. Haitians, we learn, are extremely resourceful, finding new uses for items that might seem like rags to us but can be refashioned into tents or used as stuffing for upholstery.

They’re repurposed in other ways as well. A seamstress laments, “Pepe makes it hard to sell my garments.” But she also proudly displays the alterations she made to her blouse—darts in the front and shorter sleeves. Costing about 13 cents, her shirt looks like something that could be sold in Manhattan for $40.

“It’s all pepe, all the time,” one Haitian explains in the film. Almost everything they wear comes from the north. Pepe is sold on virtually every street corner in Haiti, yet it isn’t a free-for-all. Some vendors purchase goods by the bales for resale. Usually they have an agreement with an American charity shop, which sorts the items before making the sale. (Coats, for example, go to countries with colder climates.) Other dealers rely on relatives and friends in the United States and run off-the-books enterprises. One person combs the thrift stores for certain items, and another returns to Haiti several times a year to make the exchange. Some sellers specialize in a certain kinds of goods—just soccer jerseys, just sneakers, just bikinis....

It’s difficult to be as optimistic for the workers inside Haiti. During the food crisis of last spring, the Associated Press reported that some Haitians were surviving on cookies made of dirt and vegetable shortening. But a little industry is better than none. Those rags for sale on the streets of Port-au-Prince might pave the way for more trade and opportunity.

On March 15, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act of 2008 (HOPE II), relaxing tariffs on Haitian textile exports. The legislation isn’t perfect; it’s bogged down with a provision requiring the amount of Haitian-made fabric to equal the amount of fabric woven in the U.S. But the initiative will create jobs and draw on the island’s great tailoring skills, acquired from years of altering secondhand clothes....


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