Thursday, April 12, 2012

The politics of buying dead white men's clothes in Honduras

I bought a T-shirt yesterday, my first clothing purchase in Honduras. It was overdue. We packed the night before we left, weighed our bags and found we had to shed about 20 pounds worth of stuff to make the 50-pound per-person limit. The skimpy wardrobe got skimpier still.
In Honduras, as in Canada, I shop used. It's cheaper, I can afford better stuff and the clothes are softer and less scratchy. (I have an obsession with avoiding scratchy.)
Fortunately, there are lots of little stores offering 'Ropa Americana,' the stylish term for used clothes. Some are on racks, some in big heaps, and prices are reasonable - maybe $3 or $4 for a short-sleeved shirt.
They aren't really 'Ropa Americana.' Most are made in China or India or even Honduras. The maquiladoras here - special zones with no taxes, low minimum wages and few rules - have spawned a textile and clothing industry. It's odd to think of a shirt making its way from here to Vancouver and back again, like some migrating bird.
Still, it's a nice term, and better than some. When I was considering a Cuso International placement in Ghana, I read that second-hand clothes were called 'obroni wewu' - loosely translated as dead white man's clothes. (Literally, “a white man has died.”)
I had wondered how the clothes got from North America to here, especially the t-shirts for universities, sports teams and fun runs that are so commonly worn. (Often incongruously, like the aged, sun-wrinkled woman wearing a red t-shirt that said "I'm a little princess.")
And, hours after I bought my shirt, I went on Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, apparently using a new algorithm that actually reads minds, arranged for a sponsored link on my page to Ropa al Mayreo. They have a giant warehouse in Miami and will ship 100-pound bales of used clothes - no rips or holes - to your door. They're vague on prices, but $1 to $1.50 a pound seems in the range. That's about $1 per item, but there are shipping costs too.
There's a continuing debate on the used clothing business, particularly in Africa. Some fear the loss of culture, as people dump traditional clothes for Abercombie and Fitch knockoffs. Ghana has promoted traditional dress on Fridays, kind of the opposite of our dress-down day.
And local clothing producers complain they can't compete and want the imports banned. (The issue is summarized nicely here.)
But really, governments better be handling the rest of their responsibilities well before they start dictating what people can wear.
And arguing that poor people - 67 per cent of Hondurans live in poverty, 43 per cent in extreme poverty - should pay more for clothes to prop up a domestic clothing industry is just cruel.
My new t-shirt is on the clothesline now, and I just went and checked. It's Fruit of the Loom brand. And it was made in Honduras.


Debbie said...

It's nice that Mark Zuckerberg is looking out for you even in Honduras.
A friend introduced me to the thriving clothing flea market in Merida. It was surprising to see a lot of of often-new, high-end items, obviously shipped from the U.S. It seems to provide a decent living for some of the vendors and the prices were similar to better thrift stores here in Canada.

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

I too buy most of my clothes used. Buying the same mall crap you will later see your next door neighbour wearing gets a little dull. Some of my buys must have been worn by dead white guys. Cool dead guys I hope.

My underwear, Fruit of the Loom, I buy (new) when I holiday in Mexico. They still make the colurful boxers I can no longer buy at The Bay.

fhb said...

The global used clothing market is something worthy of extended reportage. I used to shop at Value Village almost exclusively. But of late, the prices have skyrocketed and I was curious as to why. It's not at all unusual now to walk over to their shoe section and find a pair of runners that might have cost $10 a year ago now going for $30. The clerks I spoke to didn't really seem to have an explanation for it either and when I half-jokingly asked if they were getting raises, all they did was smile and assure me that no, that wasn't it.
I recall reading a few years ago how some African nations nascent textile industries had been wiped out by the flood of cheap second-hand clothes... really appreciate you making these observances Paul - I think this subject is one I'm going to look into with more depth...

Lee Dove said...

That kind of used clothing business doesn't only happen in Honduras and Ghana, but also in other developing countries in Africa and Asia. Although thrift shops make shopping for clothes more affordable, perhaps we can spend every quarter or every month to patronize the local clothing lines just to keep their markets running.

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