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Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

CounterPunch: 2015  


Clothing is nice. Clothing is hip. Clothing is peaceful. The ritual of new clothes for school.  Clothes sitting neatly in a drawer or hanging in a closet, smiling back at you. “That’s a nice dress.” “That suit is sharp.”


Clothing is also blood-stained, dangerous. Clothing is death. Textile factories were the driving force of the Industrial Revolution and it was the slaves who picked cotton who made the textile industry possible. The textile industry made other crimes inevitable: child labor, factory fires, brown lung and strikers murdered at picket lines.


At the heart of it all was and is cotton. Despite the end of slavery and sharecropping and the rise of synthetic fabrics, cotton is still king. As Andrew Brooks writes in Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-hand Clothes (Zed, $21.95), “After food crops, cotton is easily the world’s most farmed plant.”


King Cotton is still very cruel to its subjects. Today, cotton-growing accounts for nearly a quarter of all agricultural insecticides used. The result is poisoned water, land, and people.  Cotton is very thirsty, requiring, according to Brooks, “1,320 gallons of water per pound grown.   Water extraction from the Amur Darya and Syr Darya rivers in Central Asia for cotton irrigation has led to the near-disappearance of the Aral Sea.”


Once cotton becomes clothing and that clothing is sold, that’s only the beginning. Hundreds of thousands of tons of used clothing are collected and re-sold each year—nearly one in four garments produced finds new life in the used-clothing market. One reason for the heavy turnover is that new clothes are often designed to quickly become old clothes. “In the 1990s,” Brooks writes, “the Spanish chain Zara pioneered a production approach based on short batch orders with a two-week turnaround from design to retail. Zara launches 11,000 new items a year.”


Used clothing is exported from the West back to the global South, sometimes to the very countries that manufacture new clothes for export, where those who make the clothing can’t afford to buy it.


The used-clothing industry has become inseparable from big time charities which collectively are now so large they constitute a charity industrial complex. Over half of used clothing sold is donated to charities by the average citizen and, while it may then be given away as a further act of charity, there’s a good chance it will be sold instead. In any event, as Brooks notes, “The lines between charity and commerce are becoming blurred.” 


Charities and NGOs operate at the very heart of the used-clothing business. For instance, Oxfam, which feeds poor people in 94 countries, is the second largest used-clothing collector in its home base of Great Britain and retails clothes through 700 shops. Oxfam has its own processing plant in northern England called Wastesaver. “The plant has the appearance of a factory; there are conveyer belts dictating the tempo of work, time cards, and gantries for managers overseeing the work. Wages are paid but some workers are volunteers. “


“Many other charities operate in partnership with commercial operators,” writes Brooks, “who pay a royalty fee to use the name of the charity and collect second-hand clothing directly from the public.” 


Every year a mountain of apparel is produced for the two teams playing in the National Football League’s Super Bowl. According to NFL rules, the apparel of the losing team cannot be sold in the U.S. Rather than destroy it, the League donates 100,000 tons  a year of this obsolete merchandise each year to World Vision, an evangelical Christian charity. World Vision distributes it for free and claims that its work is key to breaking the cycle of poverty. However, billions of people are poor because a few people are billionaires and, in order to break the cycle of poverty, we need to break the cycle of wealth.


While workers around the world who make clothing are paid as little as a dollar day, the heads of clothing empires are multi-billionaires. Amancio Ortega, former chairman of Inditex, which owns the Zara brand, is the third richest person in the world with a fortune of $57 billion. Christy Walton is the eleventh richest with a fortune of $35.4 billion. The twelfth richest is Stefan Persson, chairman of the Swedish multinational clothing chain H&M, with a fortune of $28 billion. These individuals each have personal wealth which exceeds the annual GDP of many of the countries where the clothing they sell is produced. Meanwhile, the NFL’s cozy deal with World Vision nets the League a sizeable tax deduction, perhaps enough to cover NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s $44 million annual salary. World Vision head Richard Stearns is a former CEO of Parker Brothers Games and Lenox, Inc.


Why do we even have charities? Charities exist because there is so much need in the world. We are aware of it and our first instinct is to respond, to help another human being. We do so for all the right reasons, but also because the response to donate time or money is so ingrained in us. We don’t see other possibilities so we choose the one that’s always and immediately offered. At the same time, many of us participate in organizing the giving. There are thousands of benefits every week in America to help people facing everything from a health care crisis to foreclosure. We organize or participate in crowdfunding efforts for similar purposes. Despite the limits of the charity approach, the fact that so many of us come together for essentially similar causes may ultimately turn out to initiate or expand important social movements.


On the other hand, charity as an institution serves as a buffer which protects a neoliberal system while it dismantles the social safety net.  Charity can also be just a hustle. It provides six-figure incomes for a growing class of charity executives who never, ever allow the recipients of charity to say anything beyond “Thank you, give more.” Bono, an avid hustler for his own charity, has gone to meetings in Africa and told Africans who disagree with him to sit down and shut up. Those who control the discussion want to keep their stuff and continue to ride high in a system of winners and losers where the game is fixed. 


Regardless of motivation or cause, those who promote charitable efforts want to touch us where our hearts are pure, where to be informed about suffering causes us to reach for our wallets. But that  emotional process can also be filled with contradictions, as rap star Kendrick Lamar explores on “How Much a Dollar Cost” on his new album To Pimp A Butterfly.


The song is set in a gas station where a homeless man not only asks for a donation but tells the rapper that he expects him to give it. The first response is one of resentment. Why am I this brother’s keeper? Then comes anger, guilt, and embrace. Kendrick Lamar provides no answers because, in a world where governments deliberately keep people from what they need, there aren’t any, at least not in the short run. All responses are understandable, if not downright inevitable. Bubbling underneath it all is the reality that even in the rare case where enough money is exchanged to solve a problem, two more problems take its place almost immediately. 


Charity as the concept of one outstretched hand grasping another gives hope to humanity. Charity as an institution is, in a modern world of unlimited abundance, an outdated relic. Charity as a means to give a moment’s solace to the poor sets the bar far too low. We need to set the bar high—the elimination of poverty. That will be the greatest gift of all.


Lee Ballinger:

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