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How I Learned to Stop Pitying Haitians and Love the Pepe

“I’M IN VIRGINIA BITCH,” proclaims the psychedelic scrawl across the front of a black tee worn by a young Haitian male. The image is part of a photo series by Paolo Woods and Ben Depp that features Haitians wearing kitschy secondhand t-shirts imported from the United States, some of which may have originally been sewn together in the textile factories of Port-au-Prince. American viewers can’t help but be drawn in by the incongruity of the images.

The secondhand clothing, known locally as “pepe” (pè-pè), is ubiquitous in roadside markets across Haiti. It’s also a supposedly sad example of the ills of globalization, free trade, and the textile industry, as explained in the text that accompanies the photo set. “A t-shirt produced for Wal-Mart in the sweatshops of Port au Prince will be sported by a Texan and then returned to the sender, who, at last, will be able to wear it,” writes Arnaud Robert, a Swiss journalist who’s reported extensively from Haiti. “This back and forth gives us a peek into the workings of the globalization of the textile industry.”

It’s meant as a “funny look at our sad global economy, not another poor sad Haiti story,” according to Depp, one of the photographers and a friend of mine. But once a BuzzFeed editor gets a hold of it, the story becomes “Poor Haitians Wearing Racy T-Shirts Donated By Americans.” Jenna Sauers picks up the thread at Jezebel with what she thinks is an explainer: “Why Poor Haitians End Up Wearing Obnoxious American T-Shirts”; she actually fails to comprehend the complexity of the trade.

Sauers writes that “donating clothes feels like a good solution to overconsumption, but it often has unforeseen consequences. Most clothing is not needed or wanted in the community where it is donated, and recipient organizations become responsible for its storage and transportation … when donated clothing ends up dumped in developing nations – like all aid – it can have unforeseen negative effects on the local economy.”

Last year, I co-produced a video story on pepe. I thought I knew the topic front- and back-wards going in: The hand-me-down clothing you see all over Haiti comes by way of rich-country donors who think they’re helping, but the donations actually stifle local producers, may be completely unwanted, and create significant transport and sorting costs. And all of those things can be effects of donations to the developing world.

But as people like Haitian professor of sociology Renol Elie, who has watched the market for decades, told me, donations dumped in Haiti by religious and aid organizations are negligible. They’re a drop in the ocean of pepe, which is a massive trade with all the signals of a well-functioning market. Demand for all the same brands that are favored in the States – from mainstays like Ralph Lauren, to athletic-chic marks like Puma, to Italian names like Dolce & Gabbana – drive the market here. Buyers in U.S. thrift stores sort through donations to find the best apparel for the Haitian market, they send it to wholesalers in Haiti’s port cities, and it eventually winds up in every urban street market and the most rural regions of the country. Inevitably, many kitschy t-shirts make it through, perhaps to serve lower end of the local market, which is how you wind up with a dark-skinned Haitian woman in a “Kiss me i’m a blonde” aqua tee.

Economists talk a lot about the difference between stated preferences – what you claim to like – and “revealed” ones – what your actions say about what you truly like. There are 10 million Haitians in Haiti today, and nearly 10 million of them wear pepe.

There are, however, two groups of Haitians who are vocally and vociferously anti-pepe. The first is straightforward enough: the thousands of tailors who used to sew garments for locals but were undercut by low prices when secondhand clothing flooded the market decades ago. Today, few of them remain, and about the only work they can get is sewing school uniforms for Haitian kids and vests worn by guys who sell phone credit on the side of the road. Pepe stamped out thousands of tailors’ jobs, which was crushing for them, but well worth it for millions of ordinary Haitians who now have access to inexpensive, high-quality apparel from abroad.

The other contigent is Haitians who are well-off enough not to have to wear pepe. They watch the shipping containers of hand-me-down American clothes imported each year and fear that the world sees their country as a “trash can,” as one woman in the video story put it to me. It’s easy to criticize pepe, or even hope for its ban, when you can afford to shop at Pétion-Ville boutiques and Miami malls.

For many foreign onlookers, pepe is also simply a blight. “The solution to the guilt that comes with our over-reliance on cheap, unsustainable clothing,” Sauers thinks, “isn’t to donate it once we tire of a garment, but to consume less and own less in the first place.” In reality, if you want to help Haitians, choosing to buy fewer Made-in-Haiti products is one of the most counterproductive things you can do as an American consumer.

“[T]he worst T-shirts,” writes Robert, “those that would barely be sold in the cheap gift shops of Times Square, those with the dumbest slogans, reappear, thanks to a free-market miracle, in remote provinces of Haiti where nobody has taken the effort of translating such poetry into Creole.”

It doesn’t take a Columbo to figure out that Robert doesn’t actually find much about this “free-market” miraculous. He may not find it supernatural, but I don’t know how else to describe the trade that permits millions of uber-fashion-conscious Haitians to walk around in Lacoste polos and Converse high-tops in a country where 75 percent of the people live on less than $2.00 per day.

After all, are Haitians, the ones who paid a fraction of the sticker price for their crocodile logos and Chuck Taylor emblems, really the consumers we should be pitying?