Secondhand fashion: Is it really good for Africa?
Used or surplus clothing from Western countries often ends up in Africa. Whether that’s good remains open to question.
Midday in Gikomba, the biggest market in Nairobi, Kenya. One trader urges shoppers to buy his vintage trousers. Others sell t-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, most with Western fashion brand labels. Some clothes have the names of American colleges emblazoned on the front.
Kenya is one of Africa’s biggest importers of secondhand clothing, in 2019 importing some 185,000 tonnes. These clothes called mitumba in Kenya after the Swahili word for “bundles” form the bulk of Kenyans’ fashion choices: an estimated 91.5 percent of households buy secondhand clothing priced at Ksh 1000 (around $9) and below.
Commentators remain divided as to whether this is an encouraging sign of a circular economy at work or a problematic barrier in the way of economic survival of African countries’ own textile industries.
The mitumba industry is an important source of revenue for the Kenyan government: taxes raised from this sector amount to Ksh 12 billion ($107 million) a year. In every African country where secondhand clothes are imported, they bear different names. In Zambia, they are called salaula selected by rummaging. In Ghana, they are called obroni wawu dead white men’s clothes.
In wealthy Western countries, the average individual doesn’t wear clothes for long. It is estimated that a typical American throws away approximately 37 kilograms of clothing a year. Rather than discard clothes, Westerners are encouraged to donate them to charities. However, according to the charity Oxfam, an estimated 70 percent of clothes donated in Europe end up in Africa in 2015.
Supporters of this approach argue that donating clothes in this way is a circular means of dealing with clothing waste. Jackie King, executive director of Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (Smart), representing 40 American used clothes exporters, says that what they do “helps to contribute to a circular economy, where things are being used to their fullest extent”.
However, keeping clothes in use for longer periods of time is not the same as circularity. “Secondhand exporters can rebrand the trade as many times as they want, but unless they work in partnership with markets like Kantamanto, it’s just greenwashing,” says Liz Ricketts, director of The OR Foundation, a Ghana-based nonprofit that has investigated the influx of secondhand clothing in the country. “The trade has been called ‘charity, ‘recycling’, ‘diversion’ and now many people call it ‘circular’. But none of these labels is accurate. Simply moving clothing from one place to another does not make it circular.”
Unless the clothes are collected and recycled into new clothes repeatedly, critics say, what emerges is not a circular model but a linear model with a different endpoint. Where initially these clothes would end up in dumpsites in the West, they now end up in dumpsites in Africa.
Where it goes wrong in Africa
Since the mid-2000s, the number of garments purchased by the average consumer has more than doubled, according to the Global Fashion Agenda’s Pulse Report. While the number of times a garment was worn by Westerners declined by 36 percent, compared to 15 years ago, per the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This has led to rising volumes of clothing ending up in markets such as Gikomba, with Kenya receiving 185,000 tonnes of second-hand clothing in 2019. In West Africa, Accra receives an estimated 15 million used garments every week from Europe, America, and Australia.
Back in March 2016, members of the East African Community (EAC, comprising Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda) announced a plan to halt secondhand clothes imports in order to resurrect textile industries in East Africa that had collapsed partly because it was difficult to compete with the throwaway prices of mitumba clothes. “If an imported t-shirt, acquired by a company as a donation (and therefore costing zero as a product), is sold here for under a dollar, how can a local textiles industry have hopes of competing?” says Nikissi Serumaga, co-host of Vintage and Violence, a podcast examining the impact of secondhand clothes in Uganda. “It can’t. The charity has become commerce but to whose benefit?”
She points out that importation leads to a vicious loop, with the decimation of a once vibrant textile industry limiting employment opportunities: “The only thing we can afford is a shirt under a dollar. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
American lobbyists struck back. At their forefront was Smart, claiming that the move by the EAC would put 40,000 American jobs at risk, such as export roles in sorting and packing clothes. Smart lobbied the Office of the United States Trade Representative, also pointing out that secondhand clothing exports were helpful to the environment, as they would avoid ending up in American landfills. Furthermore, Smart’s Jackie King said that a US secondhand clothing ban would leave the way open for low-priced Chinese clothing “which will annihilate African textile manufacturing, causing generational repercussions and depression”.
That’s an empty accusation for critics, who say textile manufacturing is already in tatters in many African countries specifically because of secondhand imports from the West. It’s that dynamic, they say, that first prompted East African countries to push to limit the import trade.
After Smart’s petition, however, the Office of the US Trade Representative threatened to expel EAC countries from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), an important treaty first enacted in 2000 to provide duty-free access to the US for multiple products from sub-Saharan African countries. By 2019, the countries behind the mooted ban backed out, with the exception of Rwanda, which announced that it would not be bullied by American trade interests.
Good news or landfill for Africa?
By contrast, the OR Foundation, a Ghana-based nonprofit that has investigated the influx of second-hand clothing in the country, estimates that more than 40 percent of clothing in markets in Accra, the capital, is unsellable and heads directly to landfill. Johnson Doe, leader of a group of waste pickers, based in Accra, says more clothing waste goes into landfills directly from ports than it does from markets. A combination of customs, port, metropolitan, and health officials simply bring the clothes direct to landfills and burn them. “They bring the bales from the shipping containers,” he says.
The common rebuttal from exporters such as Smart is that the secondhand clothing industry creates jobs in Africa. However, the quality of these jobs remains open to question. Francis Dionis, a trader in Gikomba, says that the clothing he receives is often of such poor quality, he has to sell them at a loss. If given the chance, he says he would undoubtedly move to another line of work.
Ricketts notes that better condition secondhand clothing from the West is selected and sold in thrift shops in the West and the remaining items shipped to Africa are of lower quality.
Smart’s King counters that the lowest quality clothes are often new rather than secondhand, from fast fashion companies. “I know that there are markets in Kenya and other parts of Africa where you will have new, cheap, fast fashion in a stall, and then you’ll have used clothing in a stall that is probably higher quality than the fast fashion.”
The debate will continue to run. However, certain facts stand out: local news reports suggest that, a few decades ago, some half a million people were employed in Kenya’s textile industry. More recent national statistics, from 2014, put that figure around 38,000, although this is increasing slightly each year.
Still, people in the clothing sector across Africa try to find positives. Sel Kofiga, a multimedia artist based in Ghana, runs Slum Studio, which retrieves clothes that would otherwise end up in landfills and upcycles them into wearable items. The circular concept, he says, is very familiar to Africans. “When it comes to the fashion space, as African people, our approach has always been to look to reuse something.”
Content courtesy of Vogue Business Magazine