This Is How the Secondhand Clothing Trade Turned Africa Into a Dumping Ground for the West’s Waste

Murad Jandali | 7 months ago

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Several African countries have declared a fierce war on the used clothing imports from the West, which some sources say provides elegance to about 80% of Africans.

The latest stop in this conflict was Uganda in East Africa, whose president, Yoweri Museveni, announced last month a ban on used clothing imports.

Observers confirmed that the used clothing trade undermines the promising textile industry in a number of African countries and suppresses future development or revival of supporting local industries.

Economists, however, believed that adapting to abandoning the culture of buying used clothes may take some time, and that ban decisions alone are not enough. This requires the introduction of economic policies that encourage increased local production and make locally produced clothing accessible to everyone, in addition to educating consumers about the dangers of using used clothing.

Africa is the largest importing continent, taking in around three-quarters of all waste textiles.

It is noteworthy that only 20% of post-consumer clothes are collected for reuse or recycling, and 40% of them reach the used clothing market.

Used clothing sales, estimated at about $5 billion, constitute a small percentage of the new clothing market, which amounts to about $1.3 trillion annually.

The Philippines has prohibited imports of used clothing since 1966, while more countries, from Indonesia to Rwanda, have followed suit in the last decade.

 

War on Used Clothes

In the midst of a campaign led by his government to stop the import of thousands of tons of used clothes annually, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni announced a ban on used clothing imports into the East African country.

He explained, “These clothes are for dead people; when a person dies in Europe, they collect his clothes and send them to Africa.”

Museveni stressed that flooding the local market with these clothes undermines the country’s ability to benefit from the cotton and textile industry.

“We have people here who produce new clothes, but they cannot access the market,” Museveni said at the opening ceremony of nine factories in an industrial park in the city of Mbale.

According to the Uganda Dealers in Used Clothing and Shoes Association, there are more than 4 million Ugandans directly and indirectly active in the used-clothing and textiles supply chain.

Like most African countries, Uganda traditionally imports large quantities of used clothing, but local manufacturers complain that flooding the market with used clothes undermines the country’s ability to benefit from the cotton and textile industry.

Though cotton is one of the country’s key export crops, Uganda’s textile industry has been in decline since the 1970s.

In this context, economists say that banning used clothes provides broader opportunities for local textile industries, which suffer from weak local sales due to the increasing demand for used clothes imported from Europe, known for their quality and cheap price.

They also pointed out that African countries produce thousands of tons of cotton annually, but much of it is exported in raw form, which reduces its revenues and enthusiasm for its cultivation.

According to Oxfam, a British charity, at least 70% of the clothes donated to charities in Europe and the United States end up in Africa.

It is noteworthy that non-profit organizations such as Oxfam and the Salvation Army do not give away used clothes for free; when the donors get rid of what they don’t need, these organizations send the items to developing countries and sell them to traders there, who then in turn sell the goods on local markets, The Guardian reports.

African and Asian markets receive about 4 million tons annually of secondhand clothes, valued at about $5 billion, which are disposed of in the U.S. and European countries.

 

Environmental and Health Concerns

The trade of used clothes also raises environmental concerns. Plastic waste and oil are not the only contributors to the problem of worrying global waste, as used clothes also constitute an environmental burden in African countries.

Bloomberg quoted Environmental expert Janet Ogundepo as saying: “The emergence of rapid fashion led to the accumulation of mountains of waste in most developing countries.

“Because less than 1% of used clothes are recycled and converted into new clothes, the used clothes from Europe and America are disposed of in most African countries,” she added.

On the other side, Europe’s efforts to protect the environment benefit from the advantage of the demand for used clothes in Africa. In light of the expectations of the high clothing share in the global fashion market from 3.5% currently to 23% by 2030, this would ensure a reduction of 340 million tons of carbon dioxide in the West.

On the health aspect, the COVID-19 pandemic sheds light on the danger that the clothing trade can be caused by the transmission of infectious diseases, which prompted the local authorities in many countries of the African continent to close the markets and stores used during the spread of the pandemic.

While health, environmental, and economic concerns are increasing from the used clothing trade, it seems the only possible option for the poor who make up more than 40% of the population of Africa, which number about 1.4 billion, and is a popular market to work for thousands of residents.

Exports from the EU tripled between 2000 and 2019 to hit nearly 1.7 million tons a year, according to the European Environment Agency. Nearly half ended up in Africa.

In turn, the journalist Mahmoud Suleiman said in a statement to Al-Estiklal that “the excessive western consumption and export of clothes is not without problems, as the popularity of the used clothing trade has negatively affected the local clothing and fabric industries.

“It has become clear that the rich countries have become the problem of waste on the African continent. With the cheap costumes that drown the world, the waste of the fabric has become a huge global problem, especially in Africa,” he added.

Mr. Suleiman also noted that “there is a huge amount of used clothes that people donate to charitable organizations in Europe and America, so that they are later sold to merchants and companies in African countries.”

 

Profitable Trade

This isn’t the first time Uganda has made moves to control the controversial trade.

In 2016, the East African Community, a regional economic grouping that includes Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda, agreed to complete a prohibition on used clothing imports by 2019, a decision that has been met with great pressure, especially from the U.S. and many European countries.

As a result, the U.S. threatened to expel these countries from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade agreement, which gives several African countries exempt from customs duties to the American market, which stood as an obstacle to its application.

While the rest of the countries retreated, Rwanda withstood its position, so the U.S. responded strongly by punishing it and suspending its right to export clothes exempt from customs duties to them.

Roughly 40% of everything that passes through Ghana’s Kantamanto market, one of the world’s largest secondhand clothing hubs, is not fit to sell and ends up in landfill, according to The Or Foundation, a non-profit that works with the Kantamanto community.

Sammy Oteng, the project manager at the OR Foundation in the capital, Accra, who works for more sustainability in the fashion industry — says the West’s mentality that tends to get rid of old clothes led to an environmental disaster in Ghana, adding, “We have become the Western waste dump.”

With 100 tons of clothing from the West discarded every day in Accra, fast fashion brands must be forced to help pay for the choking textile waste they create, environmentalists say

Last May, a group of secondhand clothes dealers from Ghana visited Brussels to lobby for Europe-wide legislation to compel the fashion industry to help address the environmental catastrophe of dumping vast amounts of textiles in the West African country.

It is noteworthy that African countries have, since the early 1980s, opened their markets as a condition for foreign loans.

Accordingly, Ghana lost about four-fifths of its functions in the textile and clothing sector, while the number of large-size clothing companies in Kenya decreased by half.