Image by Recho Omondi
East Africa imported $151 million of second-hand clothing last year, most of which was collected by charities and recyclers in the UK, Europe and North America. According to Oxfam, more than 70% of the clothes donated globally end up in Africa. In 2015 Kenya for example imported about 18,000 tonnes of clothing from Britain valued at around $42 million. Today in Uganda, second-hand garments account for over 80% of all clothing purchases.
If you’ve ever donated clothing to charities, there’s a good chance you haven’t thought about the men and women in countries like Kenya and Uganda who are browsing through those clothes in bustling, vibrant, colourful markets like Gikomba and Toi in Nairobi. Or the reasons that governments in East Africa are now pushing for a ban on imports of those clothes.
Death of a vibrant industry
According to Andrew Brooks (Kings College, London) * a debt crisis hit many African economies in the 1980s and 1990s following economic reforms recommended by the World Bank and the IMF. The reforms, amongst other things, opened up local economies to second-hand clothes.
The abbreviated version of the complex story is: declining incomes in subsequent years made locally produced clothes harder to afford. Imported secondhand clothing started flooding into African markets to provide an affordable option that was considered to be at least as good quality as locally produced garments.
Local manufacturing struggled to compete with international competition and factories were forced to close. Prior to this, the East African Community (Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi) boasted a vibrant clothing manufacturing sector which employed hundreds of thousands of people.
In Kenya for example, a garment industry that employed 500,000 people was reduced to only about 20,000 garment workers today.* It’s led some academics to argue that old clothing from the U.K. and U.S. was creating a post-colonial economic mess. Andrew Brooks has commented "Exporting low-quality clothing that has no value in our own society forges a relationship of dependency… (it) maintains the status quo, it doesn't help the poor get richer, it just keeps things as they are at the moment."
Fast fashion’s impact
East Africa’s secondhand clothing story is inextricably linked to changing patterns of production and consumption in the west. The largest exporters of used clothing are the USA, followed by the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. Clothes are being exported because they are being discarded by the western consumer at a mind bending rate.
Over 11 MILLION tonnes of textile waste is produced every year in the US alone. I just googled things that weigh 11 million tonnes to try to picture it. Turns out it’s equivalent to 22 Burj Khalifa towers in Dubai of discarded clothes every single year, just in the States!
Where previously designers would release new designs once a season, major retailers like Zara are now stocking new designs twice per week. The quick version of the story is: those clothes are made cheaper, at a lower quality, with mini-trends that we soon tire of. So either we get sick of looking like last months trend, or the clothes wear out – and we get rid of them.
Over 80 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator. Only about 20% of donated clothes in the US are actually sold at retail outlets like Good Will. For the remainder, charities call for-profit textile recycling companies who buy up the leftover clothes by the kilo and process them.
The best quality clothes donated to charities (“Grade A”) are sold in the same country they were donated in. Japan gets the second best vintage items (“Grade B”), South American countries get the mid-grade stuff, Eastern European countries get the cold-weather clothes, and African countries get the low-grade stuff no one else will take.
An Oxfam report as far back as 2005 found that imported clothing in Kenya that was once high quality, was now poorer quality and up to a quarter was actually unsalable. As fast fashion’s stake has grown in the market over time, more and more poor quality garments have been turning up in clothing bales in East Africa.
So not only is the West sending the lowest quality second hand clothing to African countries, those clothes are now reaping dimishing returns. And as Andrew Brooks notes* the irony is that the clothes are often sent in return shipping containers that originally took high quality products like coffee, tea or hardwood timber from Africa to western nations in the first place.
The proposed ban
Earlier this year, the East African Community (EAC) - an intergovernmental organisation with heads of state from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda - proposed a ban on imported used clothes and shoes. The purpose of the ban is to encourage local production of clothing and textiles within member countries, with a view to phasing out imports by 2019.
The ban won’t be without it’s challenges. Countries like Nigeria and South Africa introduced similar import restrictions to protect domestic industries. Although it’s had some success in South Africa, local industries still struggle due to competition from imported new Asian produced clothing, and ‘illicit’ secondhand cothing markets can still be found in Johannesburg, Durban and Nelspruit near the Mozambique border.* South Africa does however boast a substantial textile industry today (not to mention some of the sickest design talent in the world imho!).
Another challenge will be ensuring that the hundreds of thousands of secondhand clothing workers – like the 65,000 mitumba traders in Kenya – largely in the informal sector, are not left without work. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has argued that new, better jobs will be created in the textile industry through government interventions that will accompany the ban. Training programmes have already started in Tanzania in preparation for the policy changes.
It’s going to be so fascinating to see how East African heads of states and policy experts navigate this transition. It will also be interesting to see if Western countries will need to adjust the way these tidal waves of discarded fast fashion are conveniently disposed of in developing nations if such policies are voted through. Either way - if it means we get to see more East African design badassery, bring it on please!
* Brooks, Andrew. Clothing Poverty: The HiddenWorld Of Fast Fashion And Secondhand Clothes. Zed Books. 2015.