Los Tiempos: An end to the second-hand clothing market boom?

10 Dec

This was my first piece for Los Tiempos and remains probably my proudest moment. Looking back I can’t recall how I managed to interview and write a newspaper feature in Spanish.

This was the assignment that introduced me to what is now an all-consuming topic in my mind, and it showed me that I could grasp and accurately analyse the contemporary economic issues of a country I knew nothing about. It’s my feature on the legislation to make Bolivia’s trade in used clothing illegal, looking at what people thought of the ban and what might happen as a result (clue: in Bolivia, bringing a law in doesn’t mean something is going to stop).

Have a read.

The end of used clothing: The middle classes must buy Bolivian to legitimise our economy, manufacturers say

This morning, house-wives from all over Cochabamba – from campesinos, to working class mums, to well-married women of more means with fashion-conscious teenage children to satisfy – have both hands thrust into billowing stalls of imported second hand sweaters and pants up and down La Pampa market. These women have the same mission as mothers all over the world: to see that their families are dressed in as close to the best quality clothing they can afford. As two particularly eager ladies, one in an American-style sun visor, hold a smart blue polo shirt up to the light to inspect the handiwork on the seams, they know they won´t have to part with more than a couple of bolivianos if they want to buy it. But these particular women have made two interesting selections: a Fruit of the Loom sweater, manufactured in Korea under license by a well-known American label, and a pair of Everlast boxing pants, also a famous American brand, most probably manufactured in a third world country.

But this will soon come to an end.

This week sees the deadline for Morales´ 2006 supreme decree, stipulating that all importing of foreign used clothing will become illegal. Those selling these items have another ten months´grace to cease trading. But by next March, twenty years of burgeoning government-sponsored trade in imported used clothing will finish.

Protagonists of the change – Bolivian clothing manufacturers – say it is the responsibility of Bolivia´s middle classes, those who can afford to choose between imported cast-offs and Bolivian-made clothing, to support the creation of a self-sufficient national industry by buying Bolivian from now on.

Cochabamba´s Camara de Pequena Industria (CADEPIA) is the figurehead of this change under the governmment´s “Made In Bolivia” campaign, which aims to legitimize the economy by stamping out contraband and foreign imports in order to strengthen Bolivian companies. “Because of low prices, people from the middle classes and even upper classes have started to buy imported used clothing, which is sometimes unworn, damaged stock too,” says Daniel Santiesteban, CADEPIA´s director. “They like it because they want famous brands, good quality and good design. But these items don´t have a ´real price´ because someone else already paid for the cost of manufacture. How do we compete with that?”

Used clothing from abroad originally entered the country as charitable donations handled by religious groups. Pushed by demand from Bolivia´s poor, it became a business, and importing used clothing from other countries – commonly America – was later mandated by law to quell contraband and illegal imports.

According to data from the Instituto Boliviano De Comercio Exterior, Bolivia suffers around US$30 million in lost trade to the used clothing market each year. If ordinary Bolivians who can afford to buy new Bolivian-made clothing make the switch, there is data to support the idea that they will be party to creating some 60,000 jobs in this industry. CADEPIA´s Santiesteban believes that with this support, his constituents will invest time and money in training Bolivians to work in their factories, and will be able to buy state-of-the-art machinery – so that Bolivia can begin competing inside and outside its own borders, not least with China – currently swamping Bolivian markets like La Pampa with contraband clothing and other items. “Even some Bolivian manufacturers that copy clothing sew fake Chinese labels into their products because this stuff is so popular,” he adds. “It is the same quality as imports and people still buy it. We just need an equal footing to compete legitimately.”

But ordinary Bolivians, rich and poor, and not convinced and many think this trade will simply move underground, not disappear. “I prefer these second hand clothes because Bolivian-made clothing, is not good quality and they all look the same. There isn´t a lot of variety to choose from,” says the La Pampa woman in the Yankee-style sun visor, without taking her eyes off the job. “A lot of the clothes I find here seem new, and even if they are slightly damaged, if you look carefully you can usually find something new with only a small problem that I can easily fix at home.

“I think this trade will go on without the government´s support because Bolivians want it to.”

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