I’ve always wondered about our obsession with sending old clothes overseas. No matter how many times the idea is debunked by experts and people who rant a lot, the idea doesn’t die. Why? What about giving away our clothes –and other stuff – is so emotionally important to us that we can’t let go of it?
I have come up with two theories.
Theory #1: In small communities, nothing goes to waste. You know who is wealthy and who’s in need. You can give old but still useful things directly to the people who can use them, because you know those people. They are your friends, neighbors, or family. You give a worn baby quilt to a family with new infant and no money for supplies. You give your broken bicycle to your neighbor with a workshop and he makes it into a handcart. It’s easy to identify the people who can use your things, because you know them. When you know names, faces, and histories, you can match your old stuff to the people who need it.
We miss that community, and we want to pretend it still exists. We convince ourselves we know our global neighbors well enough that we can give the personal (and painless) donation of an old pair of shoes instead of the formal (and more expensive) transfer of cash. We don’t want to give up our dream of a small world, so we act like we still live in one.
Theory #2: At some fundamental level, we understand that the American life of work/spend is bad for us. Being a consumer, and only a consumer, feels bad in some way we hardly notice and can’t articulate. Discarding our old stuff – especially when it still seems usable – makes that discomfort almost unbearable. Maybe we shouldn’t have bought that pair of uncomfortable shoes or the phone that went obsolete in two years. Maybe our lives shouldn’t revolve around buying things.
But we can’t, or won’t process that. And there’s no easy way to step off the work-buy-discard hamster wheel. So we send our old phone to Haiti and convince ourselves we’re philanthropists.