What Happens to Our Clothes After They Are Donated

Jeff Steinberg had a maroon and white lacrosse jersey that he wore for years. It said “Denver Lacrosse” on the front and had his number, 5, on the back.

Then, one day, he cleaned out his closet and took the shirt to a Goodwill store in Miami. He figured that was the end of it. But some months after that, Steinberg found himself in Sierra Leone for work. He was walking down the street, and he saw a guy selling ice cream and cold drinks, wearing a Denver Lacrosse jersey.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty crazy,’ ” Steinberg says. Then he looked at the back of the shirt — and saw the number 5. His number. Steinberg tried to talk to the guy about the shirt, but he didn’t speak much English and they couldn’t really communicate.

Planet Money is done making their T-shirt (mine is in the mail somewhere!), and is continuing its reporting about the lifecycle of the clothes we wear, including what happens to them when they get donated. Charities like Goodwill receive a lot of clothes, and some of it gets sold and shipped off to used clothing markets in sub-Saharan Africa. Some of the XL shirts are cutup and sewn into smaller items and then resold:

One recent day he bought an extra-large Motorhead shirt and, in a few minutes, turned it into a slim, custom shirt with a blue collar and canary-yellow sleeves. The Motorhead shirt was imported to Kenya for 15 cents. It was resold and sold again for 45 cents. Then someone got 12 cents to cut it up, 18 cents to tailor it and 14 cents to wash and iron the shirt. Then a vendor bought it for $1.20, with plans to sell it for $2 to $3.


Also amazing: Planet Money saw this shirt with a specific Bat Mitzvah date on it in Africa and asked their readers to track down the former owner, which they were able to do!

Photo: youngthousands


6 Comments / Post A Comment

Beans (#1,111)

This was actually one of my favorite parts about living in East Africa as an American- trolling the markets for secondhand clothes from the West. I loved seeing where they came from and how people repurposed/wore them. (I did keep an eye out for shirts from my home state, but only saw a few). It was interesting to see how people in the slums wore them because they were affordable, and the rich kids at my university wore them because they were western aka cool.

ceereelyo (#3,552)

On one of my visits to the Philippines during college, I was really into the used/vintage/old tee shirt trend, and went to a secondhand shop in my mom’s childhood town. As I looked through the shirts I found several from towns in NJ so I bought them and wore them, and I thought it was funny that they had been sent to the Philippines via balikbayan (goods sent from the States or other countries back to relatives in the Philippines) and I was bringing them back to NJ to wear at all the emo and hardcore shows.

Ellie (#62)

I got my shirt last week! I love Planet Money. I’ve read a couple stories like that about finding your donated t-shirt somewhere else. The improbability of this seems beyond the imagination, but maybe not when you think that every single person this has happened to (three to five maybe?) has written about it on the internet.

sheistolerable (#2,382)

There’s an entire book about this called Travels of a T-Shirt, by Ellen Ruppel Shell. It’s very good.

elefante (#3,286)

This summer I was doing some work with a youth program in the Dominican Republic, and one of the participants, a high school teacher in Brooklyn, noticed one of the kids was wearing gym shorts from his school. A lot of clothes that are sold in the DR come from US donations, which makes sense given their proximity.

sarrible (#1,545)

I just donated a bag of clothes yesterday (if the New Jersey cystic fibrosis charity is willing to come to my block, they can have my stuff), and in it was the cocktail dress I was wearing when I met George Clooney in 2005. I hope he sees it on some girl on his next visit to Sudan and remembers me.

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