Globalization, Colonialism, and the Used Clothing Industry

Authors: Michael Jerowsky & Loch Brown

Teaching Notes:

This 20 year old documentary provides a great focus for discussion of geography, globalization, colonialism, and development through an exploration of how these intersect in the case of the global used clothing industry and its impacts on livelihoods and economy in Zambia.  It traces both the drivers and impacts of this industry on individual lives (and livelihoods) as well as on the economy of the entire nation, and how these are connected to broader historical and geographic processes (colonialism, development, and globalization), sectors (charity, trade/export), and institutions (World Bank and IMF).  It also helps us to draw connections between how seemingly benign behaviours of people in one part of the world can, through the structuring of the global economy, directly impact the lives of distant people and nations.

Class Activity:

The majority of clothing donated to charities, like the Salvation Army, is not sold in their stores but rather sold off in bulk to companies who specialize in sorting, bundling, and shipping the clothes off to domestic retailers or, in most cases, overseas.  In this way, the used clothing sector has grown to become a huge global industry, valued at 28 billion dollars in 2020 in the US alone, where it is expected to rise to 64 billion in the coming five years, passing the “fast fashion” new clothing retail sector in terms of gross sales.  Large companies like Eurotex (see video below) specialize in collecting, sorting, and distributing these clothes globally.  These companies sort enormous volumes of used clothing according to style and quality expectations in order to tailor exports to meet the demands of different clients or markets.  While historically the flow of clothes has been from wealthier industrial countries to middle or low income countries, companies like ThredUp have begun to find ways to overcome the logistical hurdles of moving resale clothing at scale in wealthy economies as well.  In some ways, growth in resale leads to increasing re-use and recycling of textiles, and can help us to transition towards a more circular economy.  However the used clothing industry does not necessarily benefit everyone.

Video: Eurotex – “Used Clothing Solutions”


Globalization, Colonialism, and the Used Clothing Industry in The Zambia

There is a long history of global trade in used clothing, one marked by wealthy industrialized nations dumping surplus used consumer goods onto the markets of low income countries.  The flood of cheap imports has had dramatic impacts on their economies, in particular through undermining local manufacturers and retailers and stalling the development of strong domestic economies.  Today we will take a historical deep dive into the second-hand clothing trade in Zambia, and explore how, in tandem with broader systemic issues surrounding structural adjustment programs and free market reforms, the global trade in used clothing contributed to the continued impoverishment of this African nation.   To this end we will watch the documentary “T-Shirt Travels,” developed by filmmaker Shantha Bloemen in 2001.

Although Zambia emerged from British colonial rule in the mid-1960s while relying on its copper mining industry to expand its manufacturing and agricultural sectors, the country was hit hard by rising oil prices and began to borrow from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Unable to repay these borrowed funds and the high amounts of accumulated interest, the country was forced to amass even higher debt as the structural adjustment programs that these organizations imposed on it gutted manufacturing and diverted capital from health, education, and social services. With manufacturing and agricultural industries failing, many lost their jobs and turned to the second-hand clothing business to feed their families. This is quite literally a hand-to-mouth business, with Zambians having to buy from dealers who are providing second-hand clothes while charging 300-400% mark-ups on goods that were obtained from charitable organizations and donation programs in the West.

At the end of the film, we will discuss the film in more depth as a class, and you will complete a short canvas quiz for your participation assignment.

Some questions that you may want to consider while watching this film are:

  • What is the path through which second-hand clothes travel from the U.S. to Africa?  Who makes the most profit from the second hand clothing indstry?
  • What do those being interviewed mean by a “policy trap” and how did the economic programs being imposed on Zambia result in feedback effects that continued to drive the country into greater poverty?
  • What does the filmmaker mean when they say that Africa is a “dumping ground” for the west?
  • How is a history of slavery and colonial rule intersecting with present-day economic concerns in this documentary?
  • How are uneven power structures between countries of differing economic conditions reflected in organizations like the IMF and World Bank?
  • What contributed to the collapse of the textile industry in Zambia?
  • How has television and the media affected the second-hand clothing industry?


Participation Quiz  These questions are by no means as probing as the discussion questions above, but can be used to help motivate participation, and provide at least some basic direction in regard to their engagement with the documentary.

Question 1:  Which of the following was NOT a suggested consequence of structural adjustment programs in Zambia?

    1. Fees were introduced for health care and educational services as they were privatized.

Question 2:  The fact that the structural adjustment programs initiated by the IMF and World Bank have broadly failed, leading to even more debt for Zambia and further loans from these organizations is an example of:

    1. a progress trap
    2. a poverty trap

Question 3: What was Luka trying to save up $100 for, which would take him an entire year to do

Question 4: Why are so many people entering the second-hand clothing business in Zambia?

    1. Clothing can be easily bartered for food.

Question 5:  The hierarchy of voting at the IMF and World bank privileges those countries with the best economies.   True or False

Question 6:  In a paragraph, describe what caused the collapse of the textile industry in Zambia?



Bloeman, S. (2001). T-Shirt Travels. [online]

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