Type: Documentary Film (54 Minutes).
Director/producer: Shantha Bloemen
Production company: Grassroots Pictures, New York.
Availablility: online video (free access on istosovideo, geographyzone [USA only],YouTube trailer here), DVD and VHS (available through Filmakers Library DVD and VHS Price $350.00, Classroom Rental Price $75.00).
Page reference: Mann, H-R. & McGoldrick, R. (2011) T-shirt travels. followthethings.com (www.followthethings.com/tshirttravels.shtml last accessed <insert date here>)
The story of how secondhand clothing, given away as charity in the west, ends up in Zambia, Africa. (Source: PBS 2009 link).
Shantha Bloemen looks at the T-shirts worn by people in Zambia and comes up with a sobering view of the long tentacles of globalization and its missionaries at the World Bank and IMF (Source: Monk 2001).
When she was in Zambia, filmmaker Shantha Bloemen saw villagers wearing AC/DC T-shirts and Adidas sneakers. Her investigation led to reports of how American’s donations to charity wind up crippling Zambian manufacturers. A fascinating look at how charity has helped hurt a society (Source: Hughes 2004).
Bloemen heads to Zambia, where we’re introduced to Luka Mafo, a 19-year-old used-clothing merchant. Mafo takes viewers through the ins and outs of the second-hand garment trade in a small village in that country, where the practice is so popular it’s become an almost parallel, if primitive, secondary economy. Using that as a launching pad, the film then expands into an examination of how Third World countries like Zambia, buckling under the weight of staggering foreign debt, find themselves increasingly beholden to such international economic organizations as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, a phenomenon experts in the field interviewed in the film liken to a new “economic colonialism” that’s the by-product of increasingly globalized trade (Source: Boshra 2003).
“T-Shirt Travels” … examines how castoff Western items can have a profound effect on developing countries. While filmmaker Shantha Bloemen worked in Zambia for an international aid organization, she was struck by how many of the villagers wore secondhand clothes from America and the West. It was odd to see village elders in Chanel knockoffs and AC/DC T-shirts. Many people in the village made their living selling used clothes. Curious, Bloemen studied the trade in secondhand clothes from Salvation Army bins to container ships bound for Africa. She learned that these items are America’s biggest export to Africa. Her film also explores the devastating effects this trade has had on indigenous garment manufacturers, as well as the trade and banking policies that have brought poverty to former Western colonies like Zambia (Source: Anon 2004).
You think you’re doing a world of good by donating used clothing to charity, but did you ever wonder what happens next to your worn-out wardrobe? Filmmaker Shantha Bloemen traced the journey of second-hand apparel, discovering that much of what gets given away in the United States ends up being sold to poorer nations, such as Zambia. People then trade and resell the items, often to their detriment. Teachers and civil servants who lose their jobs, for example, end up selling the cast-offs, never to return to their original careers (Source: Chow 2002).
…the T-shirt trade is a multimillion-dollar operation that has put Mickey Mouse and X-Men and Kurt Cobain tees on the backs of the African people. And it has almost single-handedly crippled the economy of countries like Zambia, where Shantha Bloemen’s documentary sets up shop and pleads its case. It’s a strong one: The influx of “dead white man’s clothes” (as they’re known to some of the secondhand shop owners) has killed Zambia’s own textile business, the industry upon which many African countries once based their economy (Source: Wilonsky 2002).
What happens to all those old clothes you bring to the Salvation Army or Goodwill Industries? This comprehensive program is about Third World debt and secondhand clothes. The filmmaker travelled to Zambia and was amazed to find almost everyone wearing Calvin Klein, MTV and James Dean t-shirts! Huge bales of American secondhand clothing are sold to African importers, putting African manufacturers out of business. We see a secondhand clothing dealer in Zambia carefully select a bale among dozens, bundled and shipped from abroad. He pays for the used clothing and then transports it by bus ten hours to a market. His meager profits support his entire extended family that subsists in shanty towns miles from the market. Their lives exemplify the poverty plaguing Africa today. They have virtually no possibility of advancing themselves and their children. Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, Harvard University Center for International Studies and other experts discuss the history of colonialism, slavery and the depletion of Africa’s natural resources. They draw the connection between this shameful legacy and the current huge debt. As the African governments service their debts according to an IMF/World Bank policy known as “structural adjustment lending,” people’s benefits are slashed drastically, resulting in terrible suffering from malnutrition, poor healthcare, inadequate schools and a crumbling infra-structure. Our old t-shirts come with a high price-tag (Source: Anon nda link).
This documentary investigates the secondhand clothes business and seeks to understand and illuminate the growing inequalities between the North and the South. The film explores how a continent rich with natural resources and human potential has become the dumping ground for our old clothes and other discarded goods, and uncovers an enduring spirit and resilience to survive…The film gives voice to Africans and allows them to explain the challenges they face in a global economy, while also exploring the underlying reasons why so many Africans remain in poverty (Source: Anon ndb link).
Mark O’Donnell, spokesperson for Zambian Manufacturers, explains that in 1991, when the country’s markets were opened to free trade, container load after container load of used clothing began to arrive in Zambia, undercutting the cost of the domestic manufacturers and putting them out of business. The skills, the infrastructure and the capital of an entire industry are now virtually extinct, with not a single clothing manufacturer left in the country today. Many Zambians feel that the stringent economic policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, or the IMF, are to blame for their country’s insurmountable debt (Source: Anon ndc link).
The film was in many ways the result of this initial stay in Zambia. For my first few weeks I was in culture shock and I quickly became dependent on Agnes, a Zambian woman who became not just my good friend, but my guide, translator and close advisor. Agnes, and her husband Paul were from a generation of Zambians who had benefited from good education. While I lived in Kopa, Paul got sick. He had malaria, not uncommon in this part of the world. By the time we got back to Mpika, we found Paul on his deathbed. Barely three months after I met Paul, a young energetic and clever father, he was dead, leaving behind a young widow with two young children. It was only a year later that Agnes lost her youngest son Simon from the disease. The experience had a profound impact on me. Although I realize we live in a world of double standards, it didn’t make it any easier to accept. Paul’s death made me rethink the value of my own life. I knew if I had been sick, I most likely would have been in the best hospital or evacuated from the country. The division seemed so great, yet so unnecessary. Witnessing and experiencing Paul’s death made the issues of development, debt and AIDS seem much more real. His death was no longer some academic debate in some book or part of an abstract statistic but someone’s reality. This was about circumstance, situation and lack of access to resources. … The biggest challenge was getting an interview with the commercial dealers in the United States. Many of them are based in the New York City area where I live, but many of the companies are family owned and refused to let us shoot in their warehouses or to do an interview on record. It took us months to track down Barney Lehrer, who works as more of a middleman between exporters and importers in poor countries. Although the secondhand clothes industry defends its business, I think they also realize that the less people know about how much it is actually a business—versus a charity—the better it serves in their interest. … The greatest challenge was getting back to Zambia to shoot. It took a year and half before I had raised enough money to go back with a small crew that included my best friend Anna. Since transport in Zambia was difficult, I decided to buy a car in South Africa and drive up through Botswana. … I believe every story is told from one perspective or another, so I believe that documentary has a huge potential to inform but also to present different versions of what we consider the “truth” and challenge us to rethink our assumptions…by combining the visual with ideas and interpretation, an audience can be forced to look at the larger picture though a different lens…use the personal to connect with the universal, but also force us to revalue the big picture that we often hold as absolute. We live in a time where it can be unsettling, even potentially dangerous, to question too much, but to me that is where filmmaking can play a crucial role. I want to come out of a film forced to question or think. That to me is the potency of this art form. … Thank god for public television. Life is always about compromises but I think that ultimately as a producer you have to decide whether you want your project to be commercially viable or you make the film you want to make, and then take the risk it may never be seen. Public television, and in particular Independent Lens, allows films that don’t necessarily confirm to a formula or tell stories that may question the status quo to be seen. If it were not for public television, I don’t think T-SHIRT TRAVELS would have made it on to television. (Source: Bloemen nda link).
This documentary really opened my eyes to the implications of the World Bank policies, their impact on the daily lives (and the whole LIFE) on the common people. I encourage you to follow with these very human, personal and “eyes opening” kind of programs. This is the kind of programs TV is lacking nowadays. Great work! (Source: Sanchez 2007 link).
A very educational film. Definitely an eye-opener. No mention is made about the narrator/person who made the documentary. I think it is great that she did this. But it created more questions than answers. What is the government doing to help the situation? What are the big and wealthy Multi-National companies doing to help? What is the United Nations doing to help. Are there any foundations such as the Bill and Linda Gates Foundation helping? (Source: Wendt 2009 link).
A very provocative documentary. I plan to use it in my high school American Lit and Wold Lit classes. It is not, of course, completely balanced. For instance, if we all quit donating our clothes tomorrow, these small business owners would have no way to make a living and they and their families would starve. Is it a crime that their own native textile and garment industries have been made obsolete? Absolutely, yes. The same has happened in the United States where many industries have failed due to outsourcing and moving factories to Mexico, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, etc, or where cheaper products (such as steel) can be purchased elsewhere. (And please don’t misunderstand that I am saying we are on the same playing field.) Also, the narrator / filmmaker is Australian. I did not hear any nation being named as responsible for the economic woes of many countries in Africa other than the United States. In addition, no mention was made of Zambia’s leaders–where have they been? Are they, too, reaping the benefits of terribly flawed economic and social policies and essentially abandoning their people? And if anyone thinks that an attitude of some people being considered “throw-away” people is confined to those in Africa, re-think–the United States health care industry is already there in our own country regarding our own citizens. This I have seen with my own eyes, and it will only get worse. That the IMF and World Bank have done irreparable harm is an established fact backed up by plenty of evidence all over the world. However, they could not have done so without the complicit support, in this case, of Zambia’s leaders. I also wonder–why not forgive the debt which will never be paid back without the demise of Zambia? Therein lies the answer. And by the way, what is being done with Zambia’s copper? Who controls/owns it? Something for me to research next (Source: barbara 2009 link).
Bloemen provides the nuts and bolts to back up Bono’s passionate speeches, and while it’s difficult to grasp all the facts and figures and charts and graphs she tosses out, it’s no less gripping for it. (Source: Wilonsky 2002).
A very biased piece. Have you read Karen Tranberg Hansen’s scholarly research regarding used clothing? You list her book as a resource but don’t seem to have digested the content which explains how used clothing benefits the people of Zambia. The film makers could also better understand the impact of used clothing by reading a study conducted by the Swiss Academy for development “Secondhand clothing: Export, Social Compatibility and social acceptance. (Source: Warshaw 2005 link).
Tongue in cheek I must say that I think your t shirt story painted too hopeless a picture. I suspect that more is going on in Zambian villages than you showed although what you did display is bleak indeed when all the cash reserves – life blood of a country are owed to W. banks. But I admire your young Mr. Luca, a bright young energetic trader. I would have liked it better if you had run a parallel Grameen Bank story I have long thought that natural resources extractors should be encouraged to invest in manufacturing and services in these countries. Thus stock holders would have additional profit centers in growing local economies. (Source: Pope nd link).
I would LOVE to see this film coupled with a film documenting the production of cloth, the design of t-shirts, the production of the shirts themselves, and the “first” consumer sale – further informing us about the “social life” as well as the economic life of one object. (Source: Korn 2006 link).
Good, informative story, “T-Shirt Travels.” A little input regarding the two questions. 1. The charitable organizations have the right to sell the clothing to poorer countries. This is the first undeniable fact opponents of such refuse to “truly” admit and accept. Also, I believe said clothing should be sold or given to the poorest Americans first. 2. Basically-realistically, nothing can be done to eradicate Third World debt. Because, said countries are incompetent, corrupt, poor managers, cognitive-ability deficient, etc. Wealthier nations, based on the preceding and more, don’t have a moral obligation to help said debt relief. There is a new emerging philosophy (nanoscule at present) even among a few American blacks regarding such and Africa. Briefly: 1) Basically, stop all such aid, especially to those countries who are in default of current loans; 2) Stop supporting said countries that are dictatorships, corrupt, don’t support us in the UN, etc; 3) Leave such countries to “sink or swim;” 4) America and Americans first. I conclude saying and as the story-film show-doing good (donating clothing) can have negative, worse effects and results, be counter-productive, etc. Facts the “do-gooders” fail to see, heed, accept, etc. “Sic transit gloria Africanus.” (Source: Dinkins 2004 link).
People here keep talking about helping africans. i don’t think its about helping from the outside. look at how clothing donations destroyed their textile industry. rice donations destroyed Ghana’s rice farming industry. they could take care of themselves if they weren’t being sabotaged by the IMF and the World Bank. It’s economic colonialism. Africa is not Free. I visited Ghana and the videos on my page are from a recording I took there. Its one groups opinion on how to move forward. (Source: lovetruthliberation 2009 link).
This film is so important at this time as the United States looks for ways to deal with “illegal aliens”. What the film really pointed out for me were the reasons why people must leave their homes, their families and friends, and everything they hold dear and risk their lives crossing a border only to find menial jobs as dishwashers, janitors and construction workers. I teach ESL and have been seeing more and more professionals entering my classes – nurses, doctors and lawyers, who are now working the same jobs as everyone else. The practices of the World Bank and IMF and ramifications of free trade agreements are unknown to most Americans who live comfortable lives of ignorance. This is not just about second hand clothing, though that is an important piece of it – it is about how the things which make our lives comfortable, are devastating economies around the world and forcing people to find alternatives. I was thinking about the huge debt the US has racked up in the past few years. Our government, I guess because we have big armies, can just raise the debt ceiling, and I guess because we control the IMF and WB, we don’t have any pressure to make structural adjustments and repay our debts, but what if we did? What if suddenly we could not afford to send our children to schools? What if all of the Wal-Marts and Costcos suddenly closed down and people were forced to pay prices they could not afford for clothing and food? Would we be able to survive? (Source: Anon 2006 link).
The re-sale of donated clothes may have been the central focus of your piece but the most important aspect was the light it shed on the globalization process…Globalization as it is practiced today is probably the single most destructive force in the world. In Professor of International Relations at Leeds University, Mark Duffield’s brilliant analysis of globalization, “Global Governance and the New Wars,” he cites a number of studies that suggest we are entering a future in which a neo-feudalist world order will be the norm. From my own studies of globalization over the last 10 years or so, I’m inclined to agree with him. (Source: Harman 2004 link).
One “See, Hear, Do” we developed was specific to globalization and the textile industry. We asked students to choose from a variety of related options, such as to watch the documentary T-shirt Travels, read the article “How Suzie Bayer’s T-shirt Ended Up on Yusuf Mama’s Back” (Packer 2002), and pick an item of clothing from their wardrobe and note what country it was made in. Using these materials, plus course readings, students were asked to write about the likely economic conditions of women in that country and reflect upon their consumer practices. Much like Kayann Short’s service learning project Why Shop?, our students ultimately were able to place themselves in the global economy as both consumers and producers of goods and services and question their own practices. (Source: Radeloff & Bergman 2009, p.170).
We can wonder … whether it is possible for contemporary cinema to produce in us a filmic concept if not of globalization then, more precisely, of global flows—of new, intensified, heterogenous kinds of material movement.1 That contemporary cinema is capable of producing representations of globalization that are positive in the sense that they thematize some aspect of our global condition and inform us about the nature of the social change we are living through, no one can doubt. For example, the recent film T-Shirt Travels (2001) by the Australian documentarian Shantha Bloemen is able to use its story of a secondhand clothing vendor in the proliferating secondhand markets of Zambia to provide a compelling account (especially for the classroom) of structural adjustment, the resulting destruction of the Zambian textile industry, and the consequent personal devastation this has brought to the Zambian proletarianized peasantry. Although this film is very informative, the unavoidable limitations of its positive or thematic representation of globalization manifest themselves in its use of voiceovers and expert talking heads to draw the connections between Structural Adjustment Programs, economic collapse, and immiseration. It is as if the film’s compelling portraits of people making a precarious and meager living by selling secondhand clothes themselves cannot include in- side their frame those political and economic connections we are asked to grasp (Source: Mookerjei 2004, p.104).
In a couple of recent media accounts that focus on Zambia for example, second-hand clothing imports become a window on the neo-liberal market ills that are argued to be ‘killing’ the local industry (Washington Post 2002), or a metaphor for the adverse economic development effects that the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and ‘America’ generally are having on the lives of local people (Bloemen 2001). The single most striking observation about such accounts is their total lack of curiosity about the clothes themselves and how consumers deal with them. In effect, the clothes have become entirely incidental. Aside from their utilitarian value for money, what in fact accounts for the attraction of imported second-hand clothing? (Source: Tranberg Hansen 2005 107-8)
I always wanted to see a documentary such as Zambia (luka) really is educating and splendid though a sad story. This story reminded me about myself some years back … (Source: Nnwosu 2009 link).
Luka is doing well and may even be getting married sometime this year. Anna Backer, the film’s director of photography, and other viewers have helped to support the family. At the moment, the family is working on finishing a house they have build with brick and glass windows. It has taken a couple of years, but they have used the support we have sent to build as well as ensure that the kids stay in school. The sad news is that Maureen, Luka’s younger sister who appears in the documentary, tragically died in 2002. I am still not completely sure about the circumstances surrounding her death. On a more positive note though, Chiwesa, Luka’s brother is planning to complete his high school diploma next year.” (Source: Bloeman 2004 link).
Here are some ways you can help:
Thank you very much for T-Shirt Travels, it has made a profound impression on me. I regularly donate used clothing to a charity in Brooklyn. I have spent the greater part of today thinking about how I can put my practice of donating used clothing to good work. After reading your response to some of the emails submitted to TALKBACK I am planning to sell my used clothing and other wares from now on to consignment shops and then to donate the money to people like Luka. I plan on contacting you via email directly about this. Thank you so very much for giving me another reason to be grateful for what I have and the need to give to others. I have wanted to do this for a long time but just didn’t know where to start. (Source: Reeve 2004 link).
Anon (nda) Film info: T-shirt travels. Filmmakers library (www.filmakers.com/index.php?a=filmDetail&filmID=1064last accessed 7 March 2011)
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Compiled by Hannah-Rose Mann and Rebecca McGoldrick, edited by Jeff Bauer and Ian Cook (last updated April 2011). Page created for followthethings.com as part of the ‘Anthropologies of global connection’ course, Brown University.