Where Do Goodwill Clothes Really Go?

Scenes from an "Africa B" country.

Liberia 2010

By Laura McClure Houghton

April 04, 2011

Also appeared on PRI's "Mother Jones".

Ah spring, the season of love and major housecleaning. If you donate old t-shirts to Goodwill from time to time, as I do, George Packer's classic New York Times piece on the fate of a stained sweatshirt is the definitive explainer on what happens next. Writes Packer:

"If you've ever left a bag of clothes outside the Salvation Army or given to a local church drive, chances are that you've dressed an African. All over Africa, people are wearing what Americans once wore and no longer want. Visit the continent and you'll find faded remnants of secondhand clothing in the strangest of places. The ''Let's Help Make Philadelphia the Fashion Capital of the World'' T-shirt on a Malawian laborer. The white bathrobe on a Liberian rebel boy with his wig and automatic rifle. And the muddy orange sweatshirt on the skeleton of a small child, lying on its side in a Rwandan classroom that has become a genocide memorial. A long chain of charity and commerce binds the world's richest and poorest people in accidental intimacy. It's a curious feature of the global age that hardly anyone on either end knows it."

The images in this slideshow show the end state of clothes likely labeled "Africa B" by secondhand clothing merchants. All photos were shot in November 2010 as part of an International Reporting Project-funded fact-finding tour of Liberia, West Africa, where former warlords tend rice paddies and American t-shirts are sold in heaps under the hot African sun.

Laura McClure Houghton is new media editor at Mother Jones. She recently traveled to Liberia on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors' trip.