With the rise of “fast fashion,” people go through clothes faster than ever. With greater environmental consciousness, many people donate their clothes at Goodwill or The Salvation Army to give them a second life.

However, most donors don’t realize that only 20% of donated clothes reenter the domestic clothing market. The majority, anywhere from 40-70% of clothes, enter the global used clothing trade through which they mostly reach Sub-Saharan Africa.

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How it stands

  • An estimated 45-70% of clothing donated in Western countries (US, UK, Germany) enters the global used clothing trade.
  • Clothing is sold to traders in Sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda) and ends up in used clothing markets in cities, towns and villages.

Background

  • Starting in 1980, economic liberalization (i.e. reforms to open their borders to international trade) in Sub-Saharan Africa caused domestic manufacturing to decline and increased demand for imported, cheap, used clothing to the region. 
  • The used clothing trade is a lucrative profession for those with limited job prospects. A used clothing trader in Nairobi can make up to 1000 shillings a day ($9 USD), 10 times the prevailing wage.
  • In 2016, the East Africa Community (EAC)  – an intergovernmental organization of six East African countries – decided to ban all imports of used clothing by 2019 to boost local manufacturing and create employment opportunities. The effects of this ban are unclear.

What can we do

  • The problems plaguing the Sub-Saharan African textile industry are complicated to say the least. Limiting the used clothing trade is not enough to reinvigorate manufacturing.
  • Dominant trends like fast fashion encourage consumers to buy new and improved products and discard the old ones at the expense of manufacturing economies in developing nations. Next time you go to donate those old T-shirts, carefully consider the downstream impacts. Out of sight does not mean out of mind.

Dig deeper → 3 min

The global used-clothing trade is a $4.38B industry and growing. Between 2017 and 2018, used clothing exports increased by 15.8%. However, this trade raises many ethical and economic questions: does the used clothing trade hurt or help Sub-Saharan African nations?

The global used clothing trade

Contrary to popular belief, used clothing is not freely distributed in developing countries but part of a complex network of buyers and sellers through which it is finally sold in large used clothing marketplaces.

After charities in Western countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Germany collect clothing donations, thrift stores sell the highest quality garments. The rest go to textile recycling companies such as S.M.A.R.T. (Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles), which sort and mark the clothes for resale or shredding. Traders sell the clothes marked for resale to Sub-Saharan African nations like Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria.

After arriving in Sub-Saharan Africa, the clothes enter a large informal used clothing industry. Professors Andrew Brooks and David Simon found that used clothing imports in Mozambique are re-exported to South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, despite their national bans on used clothing imports. Used clothing remains popular among Sub-Saharan African consumers because it’s more affordable than locally produced clothing or Asian imports.

stacks of donated clothing

Used Clothing Trade impacts local Industry

Since the 1980’s, textile manufacturing has declined in Sub-Saharan Africa. As Brooks and Simon note, “in Ghana textile and clothing employment fell by 80 percent from 1975 to 2000; in Zambia from 25,000 in the 1980s to below 10,000 in 2002; and in Nigeria from employing some 200,000 workers to being negligible.”

Because this decline coincided with the increase in used clothing imports, many connected the two trends.

However, the liberalization of Sub-Saharan African economies in the early 1980s led to both of these occurrences. When international pressure pushed these countries to open their borders to exports, the textile industry received little government support – no capital, high tariffs on machinery and materials and little protection. As a result, the industry could no longer compete, especially not with South and Southeast Asian textiles.

The few textile manufacturers that survived in Sub-Saharan Africa specialized in special occasion clothing. For local consumers, used clothing filled the void left by the decline of domestic textile production.

Benefits of used clothing industry

With the decline in household wealth and the absence of an industrialized economy, the used clothing trade became embedded itself in the social and cultural landscape of Sub-Saharan Africa. Dr. Hansen notes that “not only does salaula [used clothing] give people what they need, namely clothing they can afford; it also gives them what they want: the ability to dress rather than wear rags.”

Moreover, the used clothing trade has become a source of economic independence for many women. “In buying their clothes from salaula rather than being presented with them by their husband as customary conjugality once prescribed, women are shaking men’s domestic imperialism,” wrote Dr. Hansen.

The industry is also quite lucrative. A used clothing trader in Nairobi can make up to 1000 shillings a day ($9 USD) in a part of Nairobi where people earn a tenth of the amount. With the limited job opportunities, the used clothing industry has become vital in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Recent Developments and the Future

In 2000, the United States signed the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which offers the US duty-free and quota-free access to African apparel imports. Although the act intended to support African manufacturing by providing direct access to American markets, the AGOA has had mixed success throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

While there has been some employment growth in Kenya and Lesotho, growth has plateaued. The fact that African textiles are still not competitive with South and Southeast Asian imports further complicates efforts to evaluate the impact of the AGOA on the used clothing trade Additionally, the United States remains invested in the growth of the used clothing trade, because it employs many Americans. 

Therefore, the East Africa Community (EAC) decided in 2016 to ban imports of used clothing by 2019 to boost local manufacturing and employment. The effects of this ban are unpredictable, but many economists like Dr. Andrew Brooks believe the ban will not boost East African manufacturing, as it does not adequately invest in the domestic textile industry nor does it regulate illegal imports of used clothing.

used soccer jersey display
Noor Khamis/Reuters

What Should American Consumers Do?

The challenges plaguing the Sub-Saharan African textile industry are complicated to say the least. Simply limiting the used clothing trade will not solve the problem. Reviving the Sub-Saharan African textile industry and creating jobs requires substantial investment in manufacturing infrastructure. Moreover, the ethical implications of African countries dependence on Western nations for second-hand, often poor quality clothing remain debatable.

However, “fast fashion” is harmful as it hurts the environment and violates ethical standards. Even if textile manufacturing spreads to Sub-Saharan Africa, to ensure that it does not result in the same human and labor rights violations happening in South and Southeast Asia, Americans must be smarter consumers of clothing.

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