Americans bury 21 billion pounds of clothing in landfills each year. That’s sick. Soil and water are used to grow cotton, which gets treated with poisonous herbicides and pesticides, only to bury it back in the ground? For Racked, Eileen Guo reports from Southern California about Mexico’s secondhand clothing economy that has developed around American excess.

A large portion of Goodwill clothing ends up in discount bins in a warehouse a mile north of the US-Mexico border, at what Guo calls “the end of the nonprofit’s supply chain.” There, Mexican citizens buy them at low prices to sell back in Mexico, sometimes at specialized resale stores, often at open-air markets and online. This system is certainly better than burying clothes in a landfill; people can use them and make a living. Unfortunately, the practice is illegal, because Mexico’s textile industry and manufacturing interests say the used clothing trade competes with their legitimate business. In response, enterprising people have created an elaborate system for smuggling the contraband that should not be contraband and making what is truly an honest living.

This is because Mexico’s protectionism of its clothing makers isn’t just targeted at the used clothing trade. When China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, the Mexican government imposed tariffs of up to 1,000 percent on Chinese goods, which ultimately decreased to 20 percent by 2011. And it wasn’t until 2012 that “affordable” fast fashion brands like H&M, Forever 21, and Gap arrived in the country. Even then, they were still out of reach of most shoppers both because of their location (only in Mexico City) and prices (for example, 69 pesos or $5.30 for a pair of boxer briefs, far too expensive for 2012’s annual household per capita income of $3,358.29.)

So along with American guns (much easier to buy in the US given its lax gun laws), California weed (higher-quality than Mexican marijuana, following legalization), and auto parts (legal, but often undeclared to avoid paying high customs duties), secondhand clothing cannot just cross the border; it must be smuggled.

Forced underground, the used clothing trade thrives as one of the “weapons of the weak,” as anthropologist Gauthier describes “the things that people do to just survive under conditions of economic exploitation.”

All along the border, this is done through ant trading, a process by which small volumes of contraband are brought over the border to avoid suspicion or, at the very least, mitigate the risk of confiscation if caught.

Read the story