The Journey Of Our Donated Clothes

Picture of Duombasie landfill in Ghana / On Flickr by Linda Strande

The display of endless racks with an unimaginable amount of differently coloured clothing is symbolic to the fast fashion of the West today. However, this dreamy image yield endless hills of dirty and torn clothing in many African countries. A cute pair of jeans for three dollars may be tempting to consumers but many tend to forget what happens to them after they are given away. The clothing we donate often end up on dumpsites in Africa where they are burned or they are retailed on a local market impacting the development of the receiving countries. The question arises about whether this import system is sustainable for the local populations? 

The issue of second hand import from Western countries is something that has been going on in many African countries for awhile now. And, many of the receiving countries are fed up with getting in more clothes from the West. It does not only hurt the honor of their populations but it also obstructs some of the economic development of these countries.

As many of us tend to donate clothes to charities or in stores when we don’t want them anymore, it is quite curious that the clothes end up in a whole different place that we may have expected. 

Many multinational brands are actively promoting recycling in the context of climate change and rising environmental issues which is close to the heart of many potential customers. Undeniably, consumption is a major part of our society today and the principal ambition of entreprises is to make profits which can only be accomplished by satisfying their consumers. The solution is very easy, more and more stores have been putting out donation bins used as a motivation to make customers consume more. This strategy involves rewarding the donors of clothes with reductions on new items as well as making them feel good about their deed. But, what the consumer is not aware of is what really happens to the clothes afterwards. It is not a surprise that many of us are ‘victims’ of the clothing deficit myth which means that we think that our donated clothes are going to people in need. Yet, there are actually more clothes in the world than people in need of them. 

The Swedish multinational brand, H&M, has been campaigning passionately about garment collecting and recycling programmes. They have stated in their “100% Circular & Renewable” report that 20,649 tonnes of clothes have been collected in 2018. Yet, we cannot omit that only 0.7 per cent of the material that are used to create the estimated half a billion garments a year, is recycled. The idea is of course to address the issue of sustainability at a surface level. However, it is worthless in long-term schemes since brands, including HM, can still sustain their mass-production of clothes that nourishes the ongoing unsustainable fashion consumption by pretending to recycle and be sustainable for customers. 

At a start, the clothes may be sent to charities, such as the Salvation Army in the US, but all of the clothes will not be sold. And, the surplus of clothes in many retail stores are therefore sold to a middleman that will resell it to other countries, especially developing countries in Africa. Thus, a large amount of textile bundles arrive at West African ports to afterwards be sent to small markets found in mostly rural areas. 

But, how did it all start? Arguably, the trade may find its core in development. The African countries, that currently are or have received clothes, seek economic growth as many other countries in the world. To target this goal many different development measures have been tried out. But during the 1980s and early 1990s, the development measure in fashion was deregulating the market and creating liberalization policies, strongly advocated by global actors as the IMF and World Bank. In many of the countries that implemented these programmes, the consequence was low tariffs that steered local textile industries to collapse. The deregulation of the domestic market made it impossible for the local textile industry to compete with the global one where Western countries were ruling. Therefore, second hand trade became the solution to fill this gap of competition. 

Picture of two young boys picking up second hand clothing in Kibera market, Nairobi, Kenya / On Flickr by Colin Crowley

It is debatable whether the shut down of local textile industries may have been so negative as many tend to claim. Some experts even state that it wasn’t due to the import of second hand clothing but because of low productivity. Anyhow, the import of garments has created an opportunity for many Africans to retail it to make a moderate earning of living. 

However, the outcome of this on the concerned populations is another story. There is undoubtedly repercussions on the identity of the people as well as their well-being. 

The African continent’s relation to many Western countries is due to their shared history of colonialism. This is not something that can easily be forgotten. Thus, the deed itself of importing second hand clothing from their former colonizers can hurt the populations general dignity

Some African countries have therefore stepped up and confronted the world in order to see their own textile industries bloom. Rwanda imposed in 2017 a taxation on the second hand import. The response from the superpower, the United States, was not pleasant. Taking into account the fact that the US is one of the biggest exporters of second hand clothing, the move was seen as displeasing for them. With a first threat in march 2017 to remove four of the countries in the AGOA (Africa Growth and Opportunity Act), it was only materialized in 2018 for Rwanda. All that can be done now is to  wait for results from the Rwandan textile industry. The consequences of this decision making by the Rwandan government will demonstrate whether it was efficient to nurture their domestic industry or if it was unsuccessful. 

Moreover, we cannot bypass the environmental challenges that have emerged with the trade of second hand clothing. The same issue of not being able to sell of all the imported garments in retail stores in the West is also happening on local markets in African countries. Unfortunately, being at the end of the chain, the only way of solving the problem for the merchants is to dump the clothes on dumpsites. It is not a surprise that the African continent has up to 20 out of 50 of the world’s largest dumpsites.

 A dumpsite near Nakuru in Kenya with vultures observing the premises / On Flickr

The clothes are either picked by the extremely poor that can’t afford to buy them or the clothes are burned to prevent that. Many of our clothes today are made out of polyester and the decomposition of the material can take up to a 100 years. The environment for the people living close-by the dumpsites are being compromised by air pollution causing serious health issues. Moreover there is an increase in local injuries due to dumpsite linked accidents, such as falling down from the large hills of waste where the clothes are dumped. 

All in all, the trade of second hand clothing importation for these countries is an important factor in their development. It directly impacts the environment of the locals and the world, to some extent it disrespects the dignity and identity of the local populations and exclude a potential economic opportunity for their textile industry. This article is written to shed light on the issue and encourage people to get more informed about this ongoing trade. It may seem far away when buying a shirt in a store but the aftermath is alarming and must be more emphasized.

Maguette Fall

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