Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Kathleen, just give the clothes to Goodwill!!

ABC News Nightline tonight is featuring an attorney from Gulfport, Mississippi, named Kathleen Smiley, who arranged a clothing drive for victims of the recent hurricanes. The government of Harrison County, Mississippi, wants to take the clothes — at least the excess that is overflowing the donation stations into warehouses — and turn them over to Goodwill Industries. Goodwill would then sell the clothes in the Third World. Yes, I did say "sell," not "distribute." Many people, Ms. Smiley among them, are upset, insisting that these clothes were given specifically to the Victims of Hurricane Katrina, not to be sold in some banana-republic Banana Republic™.

I say that her shortsighted attitude is emblematic of exactly the shift that America as a nation needs to make.

Are we so selfish as a nation that we would deny the impoverished masses of the world the use of our discarded clothing?

This is a rare moment where idealistic intention really does align with capitalist money-grubbing. We live in a primarily capitalist world. Even the supposedly communist countries interact on a capitalist basis with other nations. It is an article of faith that the profit incentive will make an enterprise more efficient, and in this case, it is true. The guy in Dar-es-Salaam selling your discarded t-shirt, can find the match for that t-shirt to a person who will get some use of it only if the vendor gets paid for his effort, so he can buy used clothes and food and shelter. The most efficient way to sort the donated clothing to determine what is usable versus what is only fit for use as rags, is to evaluate what will sell on the open market. If it isn't worth selling in Tanzania, it isn't worth shipping to Tanzania.

What that means in this case is fairly simple to map out.

While there are still volunteers and folks in need in the Biloxi/Gulfport area, we let Ms. Smiley continue to distribute the clothing locally for free. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, some people are still shell-shocked, people are still unemployed, people are still living in shelters. We need to just get the donated clothes to the people in need. At the same time, we should estimate the maximum amount of the donated clothes that will actually be needed in the Gulf Coast. Anything above that gets shipped off to Goodwill. Also, we have to seriously make sure that the donated clothes really aren't going to be spoiled by mold. By "make sure," I mean with scientific and engineering assurance, not faith-based reassurances.

As soon as either the volunteers or the clients taper off, we let Goodwill take over. Goodwill will continue to sell the remaining clothes at the lowest sustainable price in the Gulf Coast area, but they will also continue to process the excess donations, including selling off some of it to Nebraska or Africa or South America or wherever — not just Mississippi and Alabama.

When colder weather comes, Goodwill will make sure that they bring in more than their usual allotment of winter clothes to the areas most affected by the hurricane. You won't get a winter coat for free, but you might get a winter coat for ten bucks.

I, for one, am glad to know that my discarded used clothes will have the greatest possible chance of being useful to someone somewhere in the world, instead of winding up rotting in a landfill.

If you donate clothing to the hurricane victims, or if you donate clothing in your own community, let the charity know that you want the clothes to find a new home with whoever needs it, by whatever means is most efficient. Your older brother or sister didn't get to throw away a perfectly good shirt that still fit one of the other kids; neither should America throw into landfills clothing that people in the "Third World" would happily wear. If it goes through the 21st-century global flea market on the way, that's just fine.

Fareed Zakaria, one of the wisest human beings on the planet, in my judgment, made an observation about the shift in "globalization" protests at meetings such as the G8 summits. The protests now focus on the Iraq war, rather than trying to block free trade and globalization. Fareed's distillation: the protesters have begun to realize that the best way forward is with free markets and free trade, but with measures taken to give the poorer countries a fair and balanced deal. We shouldn't block free trade, we should just make it more equitable.

You see, for the average poor person, his greatest concern about globalization, markets, and trade, is not that these forces will succeed, but that they will fail and not reach him. — [Foreign Exchange with] Fareed Zakaria, 2005-10-02