What I Learned About Second-hand Clothing in Costa Rica

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I recently went on a trip to Costa Rica with two of my friends in the Ethical Influencer Network. Sumak Travel organized it and planned an eco-centric agenda for us. 

This is the second in a series of three posts where I share what I learned about sustainability and ethical living on the trip. My first piece is about slow food and just appeared on the Sumak blog. Next month, I’ll write about urbanization.

I’ve been a sustainability nerd forever, but this is my first time covering the topic in a way that doesn’t strictly relate to fashion. I hope you dig it! If you’re interested in eco tourism, you can get a play-by-play of our trip on Instagram at #EthicalInfluencersxSumakTravel. Sumak is a boutique travel agency that plans individualized fair trade and community-based trips. Oh, and they rock.


I have to start with a disclaimer: Our trip did not focus on fashion.

Actually, we didn’t shop at all. The three of us – myself, Hannah and Simone – are each passionate ethical fashion advocates. However, we came to a silent pact on this trip: unplug from our working world. We decided to enjoy nature, learn and embrace the culture.

I stood by this with one exception. Before leaving I read about the phenomenon of ‘second-hand clothing dumping’ [i.e. the stuff not good enough for our charity and thrift shops that’s shipped to developing and underdeveloped countries]. As a result, I wanted to see if this was happening in Costa Rica.

I investigated when we visited the capital city of San Jose. Admittedly, we were only there two days but I saw a few things that were concerning – not only for Costa Rica’s textile industry – but for the entire global fashion industry.

The Ropa Americana Issue

second-hand-clothing-imports

The first thing I noticed on our walking tour was an unexpected number of second-hand clothing stores. In Costa Rica they’re known colloquially as ‘ropa americanas‘ and they peppered the neighborhood blocks of a district our tour guide cheekily called ‘hipster heaven.’ This was Barrio Escalante.

Taken at face value, this type of urbanization is a wonderful thing. Hip district, budding arts scene, second-hand clothing instead of fast fashion. All good stuff. But if we isolate the the emergence of second-hand stores and examine it alongside headlines that hint at a decline of Costa Rica’s homegrown textile industry [here and here], something smells fishy.

The stores, as their name indicates, are mostly filled with cast-off clothes from America, Canada or western Europe. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, outposts like LOU  have some genuine second-hand and vintage pieces. It’s unclear, however, if they’re sourced within Costa Rica or they originate in other countries. As a result of what I saw, I believe that second-hand dumping is happening in Costa Rica, albeit on a smaller-scale than in other developing countries.

lou-vintage-second-hand-clothing
The inside of LOU vintage

The Information Issue 

Second-hand clothing dumping is a documented issue in countries like India, Poland, Ghana, Tanzania Pakistan and Ukraine. This chart [US excerpt below] illustrates the top 10 developed exporters and their second-hand clothing trade relationships with other nations. Aside from US exports to Guatemala, I couldn’t find data about this trend in Central America.

us-second-hand-clothing-exports

 

The numbers are quite dated so I searched for more recent news about the textile industry in Costa Rica. However, all the headlines I found [as cited above from centralamericandata.com] come from 2008-2013 and then mysteriously stop. Trust me, I dug hard. It’s weird.

In this situation, my conclusion has to be taken with a grain of salt because I couldn’t find enough information to back it up. Normally I don’t write based on a hunch, but in this case I felt it important to illustrate a point:

A seemingly innocuous consumer choice – like donating your clothes to charity –  can have unknown impacts across the globe.

To stop the second-hand clothing dumping trend, East African counties are calling for a ban clothing imports [HuffPo]. Furthermore, more government support and better labeling could also be solutions. For instance, the president of the Costa Rican Textile Chamber attributes the decline of local manufacturing to his country’s lax labeling laws [they don’t require place of origin or manufacture] and the unfair market conditions they created [Costa Rican Star]. Similarly, other developing countries should follow suit and implement their own local solutions before their textile industries are squelched

What You Can Do  

Two things are very apparent:

  1.  Downcycling our clothing is causing a harmful fault in global trade.
  2.  Second-hand fashion is not always an ethical option.

Seeing both of these things first-hand gave me new energy to advocate for ethical fashion.  But what can be done when things are so complicated?

First, consider a these actionable things:

Then, learn to think holistically about fashion. The thing is vintage and second-hand fashion is fun. And if it’s local, it’s a great way to cut down on impact. Yet the global second-hand system, as it stands, is doing more harm than good. As ethical consumers we have to be thoughtful not just about the brands we buy, but about the longevity of our clothes and how they carry into their next life.

What do you think? Please tell me if you discover anything that supports or contradicts my conclusion.

 


A special thanks to Sumak Travel. If you’re interested in planning a trip (hey, the UN just called 2017 THE year for sustainable tourism) check them out. They go all over Central and South America.

Read other posts in this series:

3 Comments

  1. Alden says:

    It is indeed an extremely complicated issue! I checked out the two articles you linked to about the textile factories closing, and they don’t cite decreased demand, but labor costs relative to elsewhere in Latin America and Asia, and the rising cost of materials and the failure to come to a trade agreement with neighboring countries. It sounds like they’re closing for the same reason we have very few textile mills in the U.S.: fashion designers can get cheaper textiles elsewhere, and import duties punish them more for importing textiles than for importing finished clothing. Costa Rica is doing wonderfully with its economy, but that comes with a downside of making labor more expensive. My research for my Newsweek article on secondhand clothing (http://www.newsweek.com/2016/09/09/old-clothes-fashion-waste-crisis-494824.html) indicated that in East African countries, textile factories are not making the type of material that East Africans wear on a daily basis, but textiles that they export, or for more expensive, ceremonial/traditional garb. If you took away the secondhand clothing market, they would turn to cheap Asian imports, instead of deciding to buy traditional clothing again to wear everyday. It might be the same in Costa Rica. In Haiti, secondhand clothing really does hurt the textile industry, because they manufacture inexpensive clothing like t-shirts, which is the kind of thing we donate back to them in spades. So my next question would be what kind of textiles are they manufacturing in Latin America? My guess would be nice cotton fabrics like the kind I saw a lot of on the Yucatan peninsula and in Peru. In any case, we consumers have little control over where our donated clothing ends up. Most of it doesn’t sell, and it gets shuttled through the same system and sorted by quality, then shipped to its final destination. You are absolutely correct, though, that we should buy less and buy better, because fast fashion will murder this whole system.

    1. Kasi says:

      I’m glad you shared this byline, Alden. I always enjoy keeping up with you writing. It’s an interesting point you make about what’s happening in E. Africa. I just read an article about how China is now outsourcing shoe labor to countries in E. Africa because wages in their own country are going up. I bet that’s creating even more layers in the supply chain! It’s enough to make my head spin. Anyhow, I really don’t think the consumer has a ton of control over this other than to realize it’s complicated and the best thing they can do is to take care of their clothes and maintain them for as long as possible. Then advocate and be a voice if they get to the next level. Thanks for stopping by and contributing to the dialogue!

  2. What I Learned About Urbanization in Costa Rica – Sumak Sustainable Travel | Tailor-made Latin America Tours and Adventures says:

    […] was charming and distinctive. This is where the street art began and vintage shops abounded (read: What I learned about secondhand clothing in Costa Rica). The only thing that seemed a little fuzzy were the railways that passed through sections of the […]

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