The Afterlife of American Clothes: Haitian entrepreneurs find value in castoffs

by Dave

Reason Magazine

When thrifty shoppers in Boston and Miami pick through secondhand shirts at local Salvation Army outlets or estate sales, they are as likely to meet Haitians as hipsters. Some of the immigrants will simply be collecting clothes to mail back to family in Port-au-Prince, but others are part of a large global network trading in used American goods. Haiti’s enormous, informal, and largely unregulated market in pepe—used items imported from abroad—plays an important role in the least developed country in the Americas.

In 2002 The New York Times reported that of the approximately 2.5 billion pounds of clothes donated to charity in America each year, as much as 80 percent is shipped globally. The Times article inspired filmmakers Hanna Rose Shell and Vanessa Bertozzi to research the history of recycled clothing. From 2003 to 2007 they visited rag yards in Miami, dug through archives in London and Washington, D.C., and traveled to Haiti to see the international secondhand markets for themselves. The result is the recent documentary Secondhand (Pepe), which explores the global trade in used clothing.

In the United States, demand for secondhand goods spiked during the Great Depression, but after World War II peddlers found themselves with excess supply. So the business went global. Third World countries arranged deals with U.S. thrift shops for items that otherwise would end up in the trash.

Haiti started receiving shipments in the early 1960s. With the benefit of cheap items came the cost of serving as a dumping ground. Shell has described the city of Miragoane, which receives new pepe nearly every day, as “blanketed, literally, by a downy coat of secondhand clothing. It grows out of the ground and into the street, onto every surface, a sartorial network—buildings, barrows, man and machine-made structures, everywhere.”
Secondhand (Pepe) spends a great deal of time documenting the
country’s landscape in more peaceful times: a spectacle of colors, rags
strewn for miles all over the dirt roads like a college dormitory on
laundry day. It is at once beautiful and messy, a reminder that the
country has far worse problems to deal with than litter. Haitians, we
learn, are extremely resourceful, finding new uses for items that might
seem like rags to us but can be refashioned into tents or used as
stuffing for upholstery.

“It’s all pepe, all the time,” one Haitian explains in the film. Almost
everything they wear comes from the north. Pepe is sold on virtually
every street corner in Haiti, yet it isn’t a free-for-all. Some vendors
purchase goods by the bales for resale. Usually they have an agreement
with an American charity shop, which sorts the items before making the
sale. (Coats, for example, go to countries with colder climates.) Other
dealers rely on relatives and friends in the United States and run
off-the-books enterprises. One person combs the thrift stores for
certain items, and another returns to Haiti several times a year to
make the exchange. Some sellers specialize in a certain kinds of
goods—just soccer jerseys, just sneakers, just bikinis.

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