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Africa vs the USA: A Secondhand Clothing Showdown

Several East African nations have curbed used clothing imports from the US to support the growth of the local industry, but the move could come at a cost.
Shops at the Serrekunda market in Gambia, West Africa | Source: Shutterstock
  • Kati Chitrakorn

NAIROBI, Kenya — In Rwanda, it's chagua. In Kenya, mitumba. In Zambia, salaula — most African languages have a word for the piles of discarded garments that end up for sale across the African continent. Millions of people around the world donate clothes annually with the understanding that they will go to the needy or will be resold in secondhand stores.

However, while charities do financially benefit from some of the donated garments, many more enter a secondary marketplace governed by free market principles. A thriving and lucrative industry has emerged out of clothing outcasts that provide work for armies of resellers, distributors and market stall holders in developing markets like India or East Africa. But like any other business sector, there are winners and losers in this complex and booming trade.

The average American throws away 70 pounds of textile waste every year, according to the Council for Textile Recycling, so diverting clothing away from landfills and giving it a new life may seem like a good idea. But the mass influx of cheap hand-me-downs from Western countries has had a negative impact on local apparel industries and production in low-income countries.

Used clothing in good condition, which entered the supply chain as a donation, undercut new clothes produced locally. To this point, the governments of the East African Community (EAC) — the regional organisation that comprises of Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Burundi and Uganda — plans to outlaw all secondhand clothing imports by 2019, in a bid to boost domestic manufacturing.

Donating your used garments might be well-intentioned but they may be doing more harm than good.

“Donating your used garments might be well-intentioned but the situation on the ground means they may be doing more harm than good,” Dr Andrew Brooks, a lecturer in development geography at King’s College London, wrote in his book “Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-Hand Clothes.” While exact continent-wide figures are hard to come by, global used clothing exports from OECD countries stood at $1.9 billion in 2009, according to 2011 UN Comtrade data. Recent figures from the UN show that an estimated 80 percent of Africans wear secondhand clothing.

Interestingly, the US has recently hit back at the East African Community's proposal to ban secondhand imports. Claiming that it would impose "significant hardship" on the US clothing industry and put 40,000 jobs in jeopardy, the US Trade Representative (USTR) has threatened to impose trade sanctions on African nations and launched a review of AGOA, a trade agreement that allows tariff-free access for thousands of goods from 38 African nations to the US.

Trump's 'America First' agenda has already seen him withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), threaten to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and seek to renegotiate the US-South Korea free trade deal. It's currently not clear whether the US will withdraw, suspend or limit AGOA before it expires in 2025 — all of which would have a significant impact on the EAC.

The trade deficit for many African countries is already stark. Imports from Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda to the US totalled $43 million in 2016, while US exports to the same countries amounted to $281 million, according to figures from the USTR. Currently, more than 66,000 jobs in Kenya are linked to AGOA, which earned the country 35.2 billion Kenyan Shillings (about $341 million) in textiles and apparel exports in 2016.

While they are popular with value-conscious consumers who get branded garments at low prices, discarded clothes are also a huge problem for India — the world’s biggest importer of secondhand clothing, according to 2013 UN Comtrade data — as well as countries such as Poland, Pakistan, Ukraine, Chile and Guatemala.

Tracking the Journey

So, how exactly does discarded clothing end up in a Polish thrift store or a night market in Mumbai?

The journey begins when clothing is discarded and cannot be sold in a charity shop, such as Salvation Army or Oxfam, both which could not be reached for comment. Currently, only 20 percent of the clothing donated to charities actually get sold there, according to the Council of Textile Recycling. The rest goes into landfills — despite the fact that most textiles aren't biodegradable, which means they can sit around for more than 200 years. Others are sold to textile merchants, who sort, grade and export the garments, converting what began as donations into tradable goods.

What clothing goes where depends on the type of garments. KCL’s Brooks found that white shirts frequently ended up in Pakistan, where there is a great demand among young professionals, while warmer coats often headed to Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, t-shirts and shorts go to India or Africa, where they can be sold for as little as $1.50 in street markets at Kanda, a seaport in the Gujarat state of India, or Gikomba in Nairobi, the biggest secondhand clothing market in East Africa.

Used clothing comes under two categories: wearable and mutilated. A government license is required for companies that want to import 'wearable clothes.' It also comes with the condition that they can be re-exported, as a precaution, so that undesired clothes don't flood the market and hurt local businesses. But this is where the problem lies, says Bandana Tewari, editor-at-large at Vogue India.

“In India there is a massive business of smuggling. The real bulk of imports — about 60 percent — are mutilated clothes. But when the Indian government planned to increase the number of licenses, The Clothing Manufacturers Association Of India went up in arms saying that the market would be flooded with used clothes and put domestic manufacturers out of business.”

The Winners and Losers

While the secondhand clothing sector poses a major problem for those who work in conventional apparel industries, it is a lifeline for others. The Textile Recyling Association, which manages secondhand clothing recyclers and distributors in Kandla, employs some 3,000 people every year.

Meanwhile, Frip Thique, an Oxfam-run social enterprise in Senegal, enables workers — most of whom are women — to earn a decent living by sorting and selling clothes to local market traders. According to the charity, all profits go towards fighting poverty in the West African country. “Not only am I able to take care of more people, but also my parents and my sister who are in the village,” writes Dieynaba Coly, a staff association representative and clothes sorter, in a testimonial on Oxfam’s website.

Some used clothing can be recycled for good. "The influx of secondhand clothes has turned Panipat — a town about 90km from New Delhi — into Asia's biggest textile recycling hub. One of the biggest companies in Panipat is Pal Woollen Industries, which creates 10,000 kilograms of yarn a day from 20 tonnes of used clothes. The yarn is then used for making blankets, school blazers and red-and-black check fabric that is popular among the Masai population of Tanzania and Kenya," says Tewari. Goonj, a non-profit organisation in India, reuses cloth to make reusable sanitary pads for rural women. "In many parts of India, women still use newspapers, mud and ash during menstruation," she adds.

Clothes are an essential item and if they become more costly, poor families will suffer the most.

But those benefitting the most are “the exporters in the US and UK, along with others involved in the trade, such as the wholesalers. This applies to [some of the] importing countries. It also includes consumers in developing countries, who can purchase good quality clothes for a fraction of their original price,” says Linda Calabrese, senior research officer of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), an independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues.

Calabrese argues that halting the trade of secondhand clothing isn’t the right approach and won’t enable the development of textile industries in developing countries alone. “The garment sector [in developing nations] needs more investment to expand production capacity. The sector is currently not receiving a lot of new investment to expand production capacity, and costs are outweighing profits. Transport is expensive, getting skilled workers is expensive, the energy supply is unreliable and costly compared to other regions, such as Southeast Asia.”

It could also have undesirable effects, like promoting illegal trade and smuggling in banned imports, if the population has to choose between buying new imported garments, or buying domestically produced second-rate goods. “Clothes are an essential item and if they become more costly, poor families will suffer the most,” says Calabrese, but adds: “To be fair, I think that East African governments already have a very good understanding of the existing challenges and are trying to address them.”

It’s possible that the proposed ban won’t pass. The thousands involved in the secondhand clothes trade in Africa will know their fate once EAC leaders meet for the November summit, during which the issue is expected to surface. Kenya is among the countries that have since withdrawn the ban, while governments in Uganda and Rwanda have raised taxes on used clothing by 12 percent and shoes by 15 percent.

But it remains to be seen if Africa can create or revive local manufacturing industries — which collectively could double from $500 billion in 2016 to $930 billion by 2025, while spending by African consumers and businesses could reach $5.6 trillion over the next decade, according to McKinsey & Co.

“I’m worried that the phase-out will send the wrong signal, encouraging investors to focus on the domestic market,” says Calabrese. “What is needed in East Africa is an increased focus on the export market [so that] more goods can be sold internationally. This is what much larger countries have done, including China and Bangladesh, who are global leaders in garment production.”

“At the end of the day, this is a big volume, low margin business. [Middlemen] are making millions of dollars for their own organisations or social projects, but not much impact is being made to help the really poor in third world countries, [especially] as the business is so unregulated and opaque,” says Tewari. “Once worn and torn by the poor, millions of clothes go into third world landfills, far from the affluent countries. Where is the accountability of first world countries dumping used goods on third world grounds?”

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