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Thrift Shops

[Ancient Faith Radio; October 10, 2007]


I’m a big fan of thrift shops. I started going decades ago when somebody told me you can get books there; you can get hardback books for just a couple of dollars. So I went in, I checked it out and it was true. And I found that there were books that I could only afford in paperback, but here were these nice hardback copies with dust jackets, and so I started going regularly. And then my eye wandered a bit and I saw, well, there’s some interesting furniture and even some semi-antique pieces. I discovered in a bin of drapes there was something sticking out and it looked like embroidery. And in fact, it was. It was this giant three-foot by four-foot embroidered piece of folk art that I’ve got framed right here in my office.

But eventually I took a look at the shelves, the racks of clothes. And I felt kind of reluctant to think about buying somebody else’s used clothes, but when I looked through the racks that convinced me, because the prices were phenomenal and the quality was so good. I had been buying pretty cheap clothing, and here were labels I could never afford, and yet the price was even cheaper.

So I overcame my reluctance and began acquiring clothes at thrift stores and now I know if I go on Monday to the Value Village it’s half price, if I go on Wednesday to Salvation Army it’s half price, and kind of have the routing down pat. It means that I actually buy a lot more clothes; you can take a chance on something for a dollar, you know: bring it home, alter it, decide I don’t like the color; buy a skirt, turn it into a scarf. You can have fun with clothing and with altering and remaking things into different forms. If they’re this cheap, there’s really nothing to lose.

But I read an article a couple of years ago, I wish I knew where it came from; I read it in The Week magazine, which has, as its last two pages, it reprints a longer essay from elsewhere. So I don’t know where it was originally published or who the author was. Apparently I didn’t save a copy. But the author had decided he was going to follow one particular piece of donated clothing, and it was a paint-stained University of Pennsylvania sweatshirt that a friend of his had donated to a thrift shop.

And what he found out, what surprised me very much, was that 80% of the clothes donated to thrift shops go overseas, they are sold. Which he points out raises some questions because you get a tax break for donating this clothing but then the people who receive them turn around and sell it somewhere else. That top 20%, the best clothes or those that are least likely to be stained or damaged or worn out, those stay in the US; those are the ones that you’ll find at the Salvation Army or the Value Village. But the remaining 80% are graded into three different levels, depending on their condition. And they end up - the lowest, which is what this sweatshirt ended up going into - the lowest ends up going to the poor of Africa.

Well, this explained something that I didn’t know. I’d often wondered when you’re looking at a news story, something taking place far on the other side of the globe or in very poor communities or people who are pretty much unreached by modern society and modern culture, there will be people there who are wearing recognizably American clothing. Who are wearing a University of Pennsylvania sweatshirt. And you know that nobody in this village has ever been to Pennsylvania. You just wonder where it came from. Well, that’s the reason. It’s that people collect these clothes and they sell them overseas and they go from hand to hand with a price going up and down, finally ending up at this person on the brink of a riverbank somewhere in Africa. So that explained that puzzle to me.

But I have a concern about it, which is that if you go through a thrift shop and you look at all the labels, looking at all these lovely clothes: where are they made? They’re made in Asia, and as people say, often they’re being made in sweatshops. It’s women who are sewing hundreds and hundreds of garments every hour for a very small amount of pay. And the thought occurred to me that basically the time is coming when the clothing that is worn by everybody in the world will be made by women in China. What a strange idea that is, and what a loss it is and what a weird thing it is that we would be clothed by a group of women in China, hired by Wal-Mart, for example.

I think it’s a strange thing; I don’t know if it’s entirely a bad thing. I watched that documentary titled “Wal-Mart: The High Price of Low Cost.” When I put it in the DVD player I was quite sympathetic to the attitude, to the position of the people making this DVD. When I took it out again I was so annoyed with them, because it was so overstated. It was lurid, the way they were trying to make Wal-Mart look like it was the cause of all evil, and halfway through I just started arguing with them about it.

One of the things they showed us is the women in China who are making clothing for Wal-Mart, and depicting what a terrible life this is for them. They live in this dormitory, they have to pay rent, they’re not allowed this and they’re forced to do that. But what I kept thinking was, well, why do they want these jobs? These are women who have left their villages and come to the city because they desire these jobs.

Perhaps the attitude behind a movie like this is ignorant of how really hard life is, if you have to actually make a living from the land. And how much more attractive it is, even to live in a crowded dormitory, if you have heat and air-conditioning and safety and light and a steady paycheck coming in. To be able to work hard for most of the day, but to be able to do it indoors and in comparative comfort, is really worth it for some people.

So I was left undecided on this point. When I go to the thrift shop and I’m buying clothes and I check the label and I see it was made in Sri Lanka or Indonesia or Pakistan or wherever it was made, I think about these women who work these long hours, running cloth through sewing machines over and over again. And it seems to me that by not buying clothes, maybe we’d make them lose their jobs. It’s a kind of a net that the whole world is tangled in now because everybody in the world is wearing these clothes second hand or third hand.

The one good thing I would say about my participation in this cycle is that I don’t really buy clothes at thrift shops, I just rent them. Because a couple of years later I’m going to take them back and they’ll go back into this cycle again. So it’s a strange thing, that image that bit by bit everybody is going to be wearing clothes that’s made by women in China. It’s a strange thing to think about, isn’t it?


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