The story of WOVIN begins at Kenyatta International Airport in January 2008. Darius Golkar was visiting Africa for the first time with a close friend, Garang Akau, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. The two were traveling to Kenya to kickstart New Scholars, a non-profit empowering young African entrepreneurs.
Little did Darius know how huge of an impact Africa would have on his life, forever.
This is Africa
The poorest continent on Earth. So large that the U.S. can fit into it three times. As diverse as it is intense, as corrupt as it is complex. For Darius, a seasoned traveler, visiting Africa was unlike anything he'd ever experienced before.
While in Kenya, Darius observed something strange. Not only was everyone wearing secondhand clothes, but they were all brands from the developed world. Shirts, pants, jackets, suits, shoes… everything.
“At first I didn't think anything of it,” says Darius. “Like most people, I figured NGOs and religious organizations were handing out clothes to those in need—and they do in some cases. But when you see familiar brands at the scale I saw in places you'd never expect, you start to reconsider. There's no way all these people are getting clothing handouts.”
Secondhand Clothing Trade
That’s when Darius began noticing roadside markets, like outdoor flea markets, specializing in secondhand clothes. It wasn’t hard to miss, especially in Nairobi, where one of the main markets can be found downtown on the way to the Kenyatta International Airport.
"Probably 90% of the clothing people are buying in the whole country are secondhand clothes,” says Sylvia Owori, Ugandan fashion designer, in a recent CNN article.
Everyday before sunrise, Darius would see vendors line up in front of these massive trucks to get first dibs on huge pallets of compressed clothes. Without knowing the contents, these vendors would bid on what little they could see from outside. The vendors hope for items inside the bundles that they can resell: name brand designers, clothing branded with famous western celebrities, flashy details like rhinestones. And they pay a premium for it.
Buying Themselves Poor
In Africa, where over 80% of people make less than $2 a day, the average price for a pair of secondhand jeans ranges from $5 to $7. In other words, up to three times what they earn in a day.
This is because the secondhand clothing vendors purchase their mystery clothing bundles from international clothing recyclers, who buy 97% of the clothes donated to charities like Goodwill, The Salvation Army and The Cancer Society.
While consumers in the states can buy the exact same clothes from the local Goodwill for a few dollars (or less than $0.50 in bulk), clothing recyclers buy for closer to $0.10. Unfortunately, those cost savings are not passed down to the vendors, who may pay a 1,000% markup for these bundled clothes.
Surprise! These international clothing recyclers pocket the profits, and that money (an estimated $3 billion a year) is not supporting any of the causes the donations were originally meant for.
The Problem (And It’s Not Non-Profits)
This isn’t to blame the American charities. In all honesty, they do their best and if they could sell more donated clothes locally they would (they’d make more money that way). But the problem is that the domestic supply exceeds the domestic demand. There aren’t enough people buying secondhand clothes in the developed world, so those charities have no choice but to turn over the clothes they can’t sell locally to international clothing recyclers.
But abroad, the poor get poorer. Textile and clothing employment, along with other support work, offer valuable entry-level jobs in fledgling economies. Africa's appetite for Western hand-me-downs, the huge profits these clothing recyclers make, and the widespread political corruption have driven investments in these factories elsewhere.
The impact is devastating: a 50% loss in jobs and a 40% decline in industry over two decades. Ghana and Nigeria are among the hardest hit, losing 80% and over 95% of their textile employment, respectively.
With a decline in the textile and clothing industry also comes a loss in tax revenue, and thus an increase in the dependency on foreign aid. In the secondhand clothing trade, precious dollars are pulled out of fragile African economies for items that the typical American discards every day.
Weaving It All Together
While most people in the U.S. are aware of the injustices on the production side of the textile industry (i.e. sweatshops), few realize what happens to their clothes at the end of their lifecycle when those clothes become charitable donations. The clothing that Americans donate to local charities (thinking they are doing good) are actually making it harder for impoverished families abroad to break the cycle of poverty.
“Before I started looking into this, I thought that the clothes I donated were helping people in my local community by providing affordable clothes to less fortunate families,” says Darius. “I was shocked to learn that only 3% of the clothes donated are ever resold locally.”
That's three items for every hundred donated.
“I was even more shocked to hear that the nonprofit I donate my clothes to only earns between $0.05 and $0.10 per pound,” he says. “That’s about $0.10 to $0.20 for a pair of jeans.”
Darius was outraged to learn that for-profit companies buying his donated clothes from charities were not only earning huge profits (80%-90% of the money earned at the end of the clothing’s life) but also throwing clothes away, directly and indirectly.
“In some cases clothes they can't do anything with end up in landfill,” says Darius. “The others are sent to the developing world, where chances are that they also end up in landfill.”
Fed up with indirectly contributing to making the poor poorer and not supporting the causes he thought he was, Darius started WOVIN, a for-profit company whose mission is to create profitable alternatives to the secondhand clothing trade. This means:
- Helping local non-profit organizations earn revenue through clothing donations. WOVIN has the infrastructure in place to help non-profits receive the highest return on their donations; so these organizations are able to focus on what really matters and do more good. The profits that WOVIN makes from facilitating clothing drives is split evenly (50/50) with the non-profit partner.
- Making donating easier, more sensible & impactful than ever before. WOVIN eliminates the steps that deter people from donating clothes by meeting donors where they’re at - whether at home, work, or elsewhere. By providing an alternative to traditional ways to donate clothes, WOVIN challenges secondhand clothing donors to be intentional and consider the impact of their donations, both abroad and at home. Simply put, it makes better sense to donate the WOVIN way.
- Creating innovative ways to reuse secondhand clothes. WOVIN partners with other industries and companies, artists and makers of all kinds, in order to cultivate a thriving marketplace for "new" used products.
Take action now! Join WOVIN's movement here.