Let's go to the bale? The woes and gains in the global secondhand clothes trade
Author’s Photograph (Amman, Jordan in December 2018)
by Asha Athman
There is always a potential go-to-plan on Thursday nights in Amman and it’s shopping for whatever you may, or may not, need from Souq al-Jummah. Going to the outdoor market to buy second-hand items between sunset Thursday and Friday evening became a regular part of my life during my year studying in Jordan. A mix of consumerism and communalism, I entered this space eagerly, with different groups of people who became my closest friends in Amman. After 11 months of visiting the Souq and its counterparts, I realized that my understanding of clothing had changed in unprecedented ways.
Before getting into my personal reflections, it’s important to lay out what the bale (البالة) and Souq al-Jummah are and how they operate. Bale is a term used to describe large, thrift shopping outlets found in most Jordanian cities and in Amman you’ll find it downtown. These areas sell clothing, shoes, personal accessories, household items and come adjacent to food markets occasionally as well. The bale is semi-permanent and for this reason vendors often times have storefronts and designated stalls - there are also sellers who create makeshift kiosks to sell their goods, especially for smaller accessories and easily distributable items like misbaha, phone chargers, soaps, and more. Alternatively, Souq al-Jummah is a weekly market that only opens for 24 hours Thursday afternoon through Friday afternoon in the Ras al-3ain neighborhood in Amman. Vendors arrive every week on Thursday mornings to set-up the multi-tent operation that stretches a kilometer. At the Souq, the small kiosks you might find in the streets of the bale are traded out for stands selling spicy, cooked corn or your everyday electronic accessories.
Another unifying aspect of these markets is the abundance of secondhand clothing, shoes and accessories they stock. Both markets carry new items, but a vast majority of the clothing and shoes are worn in. I remember sorting through shirts on several occasions and always finding myself surprised by what turned up. Israeli Defense Forces training tees, ‘Virginia is for Lovers’ state paraphernalia, and volunteer uniforms from South Korean labor unions to local American 5Ks. Sifting through clothes and shoes at the bale and Souq al-Jummah can lead the average curious person to a new understanding of the scale of the global used-clothing trade
Global Secondhand Clothing Supply Trade
When we conceptualize international trade there is a tendency to imagine global supply chains that produce new items for branded clothing, household plasticware, cars, portable electronics and the like. In reality, supply chains do not only carry raw materials and newly manufactured-goods in channels that flow neatly from South to North.
Andrew Brooks describes the global trade of secondhand clothing as the “back-end of the global economy...where profit is accumulated from the trade in low-value commodities from the Global North to the Global South” (2013). The international trade of secondhand goods is a multibillion-dollar industry that showed steady growth between the 80s and early 2000s. The recent decline in secondhand clothing trade has been an area of speculation by international business analysts, but the trade still remains influential in Africa and Asia (Postrel and Minter, 2018; Gittleson, 2018). The highest earning exporter of secondhand garments is the United States - whose export trade value for secondhand goods was 575.5 million dollars in 2016 (Gittleson, 2018). Global secondhand clothing exports are managed by two major parties in Western countries: Clothing donation charities and textile recyclers. Charitable organizations sell significant portions (40-75% in the early 2000s) of donations to intermediaries, textile recyclers, who resell large bulks of the used clothing provided by charities and surpluses from secondary retailers for export (Hansen, 2004). Secondhand clothes are also exported by countries in the Global South.
The secondhand clothing trade has had a complex, diversified impact on importing countries. Several countries - mostly Southeast Asian and African states who used to and still do have the highest net imports of secondhand clothes - have banned these imports in an effort to protect domestic textile and garment industries. Rwanda once served as an example of how secondhand imports can contribute to growth in “developing” economies (Hansen, 2004), but recently banned secondhand imports under the premise that the country deserves the opportunity to develop a domestic textile industry that employs and profits Rwandans (Industriall-Union.org, 2018). To provide some counterbalance to the federal-level trade policy intended to benefit the masses, insight into the everyday mechanics behind secondhand clothes traders’ work is also needed. Anthropologists, researchers and scholars in different settings have worked to elaborate on some of these experiences.
For example, Anthropologist Lynne Milgram (2008) interviewed Filipina tradeswomen managing the secondhand clothing trade between Hong Kong and the Philippines. This case is interesting because it shows both the complexity involved in federal bans on secondhand clothing imports and the global mechanisms in place that perpetuate the trade. Furthermore, the question of how labor in the country considered is affected by global trade mechanisms is both addressed and left open to further inquiry. The stereotype attached to the Filipino laborer, especially Filipina women, in the international labor migration imaginary is associated with domestic work and manual labor. Milgram’s study emphasizes that these Filipinas are trade managers and also part of a global Filipino labor force that retains an intimate relationship to the Philippines and its domestic economy. Filipinas also play a central role in the domestic secondhand clothing trade (ukay-ukay) in the Philippines. Milgram (2004) challenges us to suspend the preconceived notion that actors in the Global South are passive recipients of goods from the Global North. In reality, the success of ukay-ukay in the Philippines is defined by a sophisticated interplay between 1) the integration of Western goods, 2) changing consumer preferences related to design, and 3) the continuation of local social practices that embrace collectivity and support women in the trade.
Where Does Demand (“We”) Play a Part?
Given this complicated picture on the supply-side of the secondhand clothing trade, where do we fit in? I was motivated to develop a better grasp of the global secondhand clothing trade because of my own attraction to the bale in Jordan and the positive ethical frameworks I built around buying used clothes over new commercially manufactured goods. Since the clothes I bought weren’t fresh off of a rack from H&M or Zara, I found myself attaching moral value to my preference for shopping in the bale. In reality, I knew very little about where my clothes were coming from and what trading in used clothes means for Jordanians. Furthermore, mostly likely out of self-gratification and complacency, I lived comfortably with my ignorance and avoided wandering into the ethical grey area I now find myself in.
My current understanding of how secondhand clothing imports affect local economies, consumers’ conceptions about design, and the discourse between vendors and the state in Global South at a domestic level and the Global South and the Global North at an international level, pushed me to reconsider the ethical considerations around buying secondhand clothes and how we even come to those conclusions as consumers. It is my belief that this ethical quandary is negotiated at the local level where ideas about the trade are socially, culturally, and politically constructed by vendors and consumers. I hope that opening conversations like this, in all their complexity, will allow us to actively investigate the clothing and commercial systems in our everyday lives and confront the psychologies we build around them.
Brooks, A. (2013). Stretching global production networks: The international second‐hand clothing trade. Geoforum. DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2012.06.004
Gittleson, K. (2018 January 31). Used clothes: Why is worldwide demand declining? BBC News.
Hansen, K. (2004). Helping or hindering? Controversies around the international second‐hand clothing trade. Anthropology Today, 20(4), 3‐9.
Industriall‐Union.org. (2018 July 6). African unions condemn global trade in used clothes as it suffocates textile sector. Industriall Global Union.
Milgram, B. (2008). Activating frontier livelihoods: Women And the transnational secondhand clothing trade between Hong Kong And the Philippines. Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development, 37(1), 5‐47.
Postrel, V. and Minter, A. (2018 March 31st). The Future of clothing isn't in tatters. Bloomberg.