“Global value chains”: Where do the second-hand clothes come from?

The omnipresence of the second-hand clothes (SHC) trade that I discussed in the previous blog post is confirmed in estimates of consumption of clothing in Tanzania. A recent report by the Overseas Development Institute estimated that out of 720 million pieces of clothing consumed in Tanzania annually, 540 million pieces are second-hand. These clothes are imported from countries such as the USA, Germany and Australia but – perhaps more unexpectedly – also from China, India and the United Arab Emirates. The Tanzanian traders and consumers are also aware of these diverse origins. I for instance once was given a bill of 10.000 South Korean Won that a trader on Ilala Market had found in the pocket of a second-hand trousers. The local banks would not exchange this currency and I was told to exchange it for euros back home.

A German note, on the back dated with the year 1999 and found in the pocket of a second-hand trousers, purchased in Lindi in March 2020.

The so-called “global value chain” of the second-hand clothes arriving in African countries has received quite some attention. A number of social science studies on the topic have appeared since the early 2000s. Such studies aim to describe all parties involved in the trade and analyse power relations between actors in different locations, such as sorting companies in exporting countries and small-scale traders and consumers in importing countries. These studies show that on a global level, it are mainly the exporting companies that set the conditions for the trade and that make the larger profits.

On a symbolic level, the SHC-trade is often perceived as symptomatic for the dependency relations between the exporting and importing countries. More specifically, the involvement of charities is increasingly criticized. Europe- and US-based charities initially donated clothes as emergency relief, but this distribution since the 1970s and 1980s developed into a commercial trade that provides a substantial source of income to these charities. Critics state that these practices perpetuate existing dependency relations, as developing countries rely on imported second-hand clothes instead of on domestically-produced new clothing.

Banknotes from an unidentified Asian country, found in the pockets of second-hand clothing purchased in Lindi.

However, global interdependencies are not that clear-cut. For one, as discussed above, some countries in the Global South have also started to export second-hand clothes. Moreover, some countries that import second-hand clothes, such as India and Kenya, are simultaneously manufacturing new clothes for export.

The most well-known anthropological study on the SHC-trade is the book Salaula by Karin Tranberg Hansen (2000) on Zambia. She showed that the decline of national textile manufacturing industries was complex and not caused by an increase in imports in SHC alone. Moreover, she described the long history of the SHC-trade, which started long before the manufacturing industries were in decline – or had even been established, for that matter. Hansen describes its origins as a trade internal to Europe that transformed into an export trade in the nineteenth century after new clothes had become cheaper. When I visited the UK National Archives, I found documents that confirm this long history, such as a report on the second-hand clothing trade in the UK in the 1920s, which describes exports to South Africa and India.

The global value chain of the second-hand clothes sold in African countries is an interesting topic but has already been well-researched. I therefore aim to look at more local trading and consumption practices instead. I plan to follow the clothes from the port of arrival in Dar es Salaam to rural towns and villages in southern Tanzania. In short, my research focuses less on the global dimensions of the trade and looks at translocal connections instead. I will introduce the specific region that I focus on in a future post.


Calabrese, Linda, Neil Balchin, and Maximiliano Mendez-Parra. 2017. “The Phase-out of Second-Hand Clothing Imports: What Impact for Tanzania?” MPRA 82175. Munich: Overseas Development Institute.

Hansen, Karen. 2000. Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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