By Gregory Warner and David Kestenbaum
This story is part of the Planet Money T-shirt project.
Jeff Steinberg had a maroon and white lacrosse jersey that he wore for years. It said “Denver Lacrosse” on the front and had his number, 5, on the back.
Then, one day, he cleaned out his closet and took the shirt to a Goodwill store in Miami. He figured that was the end of it. But some months after that, Steinberg found himself in Sierra Leone for work. He was walking down the street, and he saw a guy selling ice cream and cold drinks, wearing a Denver Lacrosse jersey.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty crazy,’ ” Steinberg says. Then he looked at the back of the shirt — and saw the number 5. His number. Steinberg tried to talk to the guy about the shirt, but he didn’t speak much English and they couldn’t really communicate.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about that over the following days,” Steinberg says. “It was just beyond me how it could have gotten there.”
It turns out the epic voyage of Steinberg’s jersey — from a used clothes bin in the U.S. to sub-Saharan Africa — is actually really common. Lots of U.S. shirts (including, it seems safe to say, lots of Planet Money T-shirts) will eventually make the trip.
Charities like Goodwill sell or give away some of the used clothes they get. But a lot of the clothes get sold, packed in bales and sent across the ocean in a container ship. The U.S. exports over a billion pounds of used clothing every year — and much of that winds up in used clothing markets in sub-Saharan Africa.
We recently visited the giant Gikombo Market in central Nairobi. There’s a whole section for denim, and another for bras. We, of course, headed for the street of T-shirts, where vendors lay out their wares on horse carts. The shirts have been washed, ironed and carefully folded. It’s more like Gap than Goodwill — if Gap had a very strange product line.