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Are second hand clothes actually a problem in Haiti?

Haitian youth wearing pepe.
Haitian youth wearing pepe.
Paolo Woods

I noted an article yesterday that made the case that second hand clothes are flooding Haitian markets and damaging small businesses.

The twist in the story is that the influx of used clothes is in some part linked to the rise of clothing production in Haiti for consumers in the United States and elsewhere. The clothes that some Haitians are producing for people in other countries are hurting local tailors.

The article took a critical view of the sale of secondhand clothes. Another article published earlier this month sees things differently.

Reporter Tate Watkins writes in Medium about his personal journey from being a critic of the trade of used clothes, known as pepe (pè-pè) in Haiti, to a supporter. He argues that Haitians like the clothing, based on his discussions with people in Haiti. Further, the ability to purchase higher quality clothing and brand names at extremely low prices is advantageous to Haitian consumers.

It is a similar to the argument over Walmart. Opponents decry the way that the mega shopping centers can destroy local businesses by undercutting item prices and paying people poor wages. Supporters say that the lower prices are a good thing and are a competitive market working correctly.

The average person benefits from the arrival of a Walmart in his or her community because other businesses have to compete when it comes to selling food, electronics, clothing, etc. That savings for someone living in poverty or the middle class can add up and allow someone to pay for important services like healthcare or a better vacation.

I don’t know how else to describe the trade that permits millions of uber-fashion-conscious Haitians to walk around in Lacoste polos and Converse high-tops in a country where 75 percent of the people live on less than $2.00 per day.

After all, are Haitians, the ones who paid a fraction of the sticker price for their crocodile logos and Chuck Taylor emblems, really the consumers we should be pitying?

The pepe trade in Haiti gives consumers the name brand clothing they want at a cheap price. Yes, tailors are out of jobs because of the trade admits Watkins, but it is because a better option emerged that meets the desires and needs of the majority of Haitians.

Research on the trade of secondhand clothes is scant. The same goes for donated clothing as Dean Karlan noted in Freakonomics two years ago.

The more I read, the more I was struck: lots of rhetoric, but I could not find a simple evaluation that compared the above trade off: hand out t-shirts in Africa, or sell them in the U.S. and hand out the cash equivalent in Africa. Perhaps the outcomes are too diffuse (these shirts are not worth too much, after all, so what would we actually measure? And measuring impact on local prices is a tough nut to crack).

In 2005 Oxfam looked into the secondhand clothing market in West Africa and Senegal. The team found essentially what Watkins argues, secondhand clothing harms local tailors, but it is good for consumers. Furthermore, the trade creates hundreds of thousands of jobs. From the people who manage the shipments of clothing to the sellers, the trade is a job creator.

Secondhand clothing is the likely culprit for a declining textile industry, but it wouldn’t stand up to a flood of cheaper clothes from Asian producers. If secondhand clothes were eliminated, it is likely that clothing would come in from Asia. Textiles would still fail and consumers would end up paying slightly higher prices as compared to secondhand clothes.

Given the lack of research into the pepe market in Haiti, it is hard to come up with any hard conclusions.

Here is a report from Wakins with Jon Bougher for Reason last year on the pepe market that provides more background:

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.