Do our clothes donations really do any favours for developing countries?

Environmental good vs. economic harm

Donating your unwanted clothes is certainly a better option than throwing them away and letting them go to a landfill. When you offload a few bin-bags at a charity shop or in one of those big metal dumpsters, though, you can’t be sure that they will be used as you intended. The clothes you think you are donating can be shipped off to a third-world country and sold off. In fact, it has been estimated that due to the sheer volume of unwanted clothing, only 10-30% of what is donated in the UK ends up being sold nationally. The rest is mostly shipped off to Africa, Asia or Eastern Europe. The culprit behind this sea of discarded clothes, no doubt, is over-consumption in the West, fuelled by incessant advertising and a rabid trend culture. Textile waste is such a huge problem because our clothes have a much shorter lifetime than they did even a generation ago. But I’ll elaborate on how us Westerners are “capitalist pigs” who are destroying the earth later. 

Indeed, the clothes are sold cheaply, but the problem is that this has killed the garment industry in many developing countries because local tailors can’t compete with the price of Western second-hand. Joseph Nyagari of the African Cotton & Textiles Industries Federation pointed out that “The average cost of a second-hand garment is between 5 and 10 percent of a new garment [made in Kenya]”, making it clear that in such a climate local tailors have become almost redundant. When the market is inundated by the castoffs of the West, domestic textile businesses have no room to flourish. Whereas once many African nations were home to vibrant clothing industries, today they comprise some of the biggest trading grounds for second-hand clothing. Take a look at Kenya, who had half a million garment workers a couple of decades ago. Now that number has fallen to the tens of thousands. Ghana, too, has suffered, with those employed in textile and clothing jobs dropping from 25,000 in 1977 to just 5,000 in 2000. Developing nations become overwhelmed with worn clothes aplenty (approximately 90% of Haiti’s clothing imports are second-hand), which may well provide employment opportunities in selling these garments, but in the long-term this inhibits the development of a stable, local, garment industry. It also creates a relationship of dependency on the West, a label which many developing nations want to shed.

America the bully

Although there are definitely those who benefit from the used clothing trade, the abundance of hand-me-downs was highlighted as a national problem for the members of the East African Community. Back in 2016, member states of the EAC – including Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Uganda – formulated a 3-year plan to gradually phase out imports of used clothing, which would culminate in a complete ban by 2019. This was done with the goal of bolstering their own clothing industries and thus their economies. Rwanda was the nation with the most conviction in this trading tiff, raising its per-kg import tax from 20 cents to $2.50, and later to $4. This, in the eyes of the US, was a “de facto ban”. 

The Trump administration’s reaction to this prospective ban by the EAC was a swift and threatening one, undoubtedly because the sale of used clothing comprises a nearly $1 billion industry in the US. The East African nations’ AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) benefits were dangled like a carrot before their noses, leading all countries except Rwanda to back down. AGOA, intended to fortify trade and economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa, includes benefits such as duty-free access to the US apparel market. Ironically, AGOA ended up being most advantageous to the US, as evidenced by the trade deficit for many African countries. (Imports from Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania to the US amounted to $43 million in 2016, whereas the figure for US exports to these countries is significantly higher: $281 million. This is not free trade. The crowd hisses and boos.) Though the US throwing its economic weight around as a deterrent for “disobedient” countries is nothing new, the Trump administration has been accused of bullying by political experts such as Rosa Whitaker, the US’ first Assistant Trade Representative for Africa.

A colourful history of Africa’s textile industry

I mentioned the thriving textile industries that once existed. So, what the hell happened? We have to go back to the 1980s, when a debt crisis in South America disproportionately affected developing countries. African nations, in debt to Western banks and governments, caved into years of pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to liberalise their markets. This meant the removal of trade barriers, such as import taxes and quotas, which had hitherto protected fragile businesses and economies. And that meant – you guessed it – the economic dam burst and allowed for a gush of cheap, imported goods which has not really subsided since. In Kenya, for example, it didn’t take long for the perceived superior quality and “trendier”, branded nature of Western clothes to catch the attention of the young urban population. This, along with the natural appeal of cheaper clothing, helped to bring about the collapse of Kenyan textile companies such as Rift Valley Textiles and Kisumu Cotton Mills.

It is tempting to tie this issue up into a neat little narrative, with a clear cause (second-hand clothing imports) and effect (the near-collapse of the African textile industry). However, there are a number of other factors at play. Namely, conflict and political instability, as was the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation plagued by years of civil war. Between 1990 and 1996, there was a reported 80% drop in textile production in the DRC. Not to mention Rwanda, a loud voice in the recent dialogue regarding the imports of second-hand, who was devastated by genocide in 1994. Other experts also point to inefficient production as a factor, which is very possible when considering the backdrop of social and political turmoil.

A silver lining?

This is not to say that the masses of “mitumba” (the Kenyan word for second-hand clothing) are solely a job-killer. The vendors of these clothes can often set up a pretty lucrative lifestyle for themselves. In Nairobi’s Gikomba market (East Africa’s biggest second-hand clothing market), for example, a trader can make the equivalent of $10 a day whilst many in the same area survive on 10% of that, says The Economist. According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the used clothing industry provides employment for more than 355,000 people in East Africa, and by extension supports the livelihoods of 1.4 million people. This figure can’t fully compare to the 500,000 textile workers which once existed in Kenya alone, but it is still a huge number of people to have left jobless should the complete ban have taken effect. The imports of used clothing have given birth to a complex redistribution supply chain, which sustains many jobs and involves the garments trickling down from importers to local markets and even those who transport the clothes to be sold in rural towns. Charles Kuria, a retailer in Gikomba, told the Guardian that the real victims of a ban would be the casual workers who depend on odd jobs to support themselves: “If these people are deprived of an opportunity to make honest wages, they might turn to crime and contribute to making Nairobi an unsafe city.”

Although there are clearly winners in this sector, the benefits that vendors reap don’t always translate to prosperity for their country. Bandana Tewari, editor-at-large at Vogue India, noted that due to the “unregulated and opaque” nature of the business, middlemen can enjoy large profits whilst not much is being re-invested into the country and its poor. However, it should also be noted that the selling of second-hand is not the most stable of incomes, since the mounds of clothes are all of variable quality or may not match local fashions or body shapes. 

The choice between dignity and necessity

As usual, it is a complex issue with no obvious solution. Depending on who you ask, the second-hand clothing market could be a scourge on African nations, inhibiting the growth of an independent economy, or a vital supporter of thousands of livelihoods. Aside from the distributors, transporters and sellers of these wares, there are also those who have come to rely on cheap markets such as Nairobi’s Gikomba for the clothes on their backs. Clare Akamanzi, CEO of the Rwanda Development Board, says that it is the government’s assertion that, “...our citizens deserve better than becoming the recipients of discarded clothes from the Western world. This is about the dignity of our people.” The question of national dignity is surely an important one, but when 63% of Rwanda’s population still earns less than $1.25 a day, it is apparent that affordable apparel is a necessity. And the tax is not helping; rather, it has made used clothing unaffordable for many Rwandans. Bayingana Mark, a trader and head of Rwanda’s Biryogo market, is not opposed to the prioritisation of home-made goods but maintains that it is important to be realistic: “I believe there should be proper competition between Made in Rwanda and second-hand clothes. Some clothing can be found for less than a dollar which you can’t find with locally made clothes. Some people don’t have a choice between dignity and necessity. They are too poor to be able to care much about that.”

Problems with the potential prohibition: would a ban have fostered local production?

Aside from the reliance of the general population on these cheap wares, there is also the worry that this ban would not have the desired effects of stimulating Rwanda’s garment manufacturing. When South Africa banned used clothing, the floodgates were opened for cheap Chinese imports which only continued to undermine the domestic clothing industry. Not to mention the fact that – as demonstrated by the lack of imported goods in Eastern Europe under Communism – the black market will always be ready to fill in the gaps created by the government.

Then there is the question of whether a country like Rwanda even has the capacity to mass-produce affordable clothing. If “Made in Rwanda” clothes were to overtake the popularity and accessibility of second-hand, they would have to be cheap. And this is only possible with large, efficient factories which can produce their products en masse. Designers and tailors believe that, since textiles are still largely imported from places like China or Turkey rather than manufactured domestically, the costs will likely remain high. Other obstacles in the quest for Rwandan sartorial self-sufficiency include funding the training of a skilled labour force, as well as a reliable electricity supply.

Additionally, the proposed ban wouldn’t have blocked imports of new clothing which – although more expensive than imported second-hand – are still cheaper than locally produced garments. Andrew Brooks, author of Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-hand Clothes, suggests that for a ban to work it would have to be introduced gradually, alongside the taxation of second-hand imports which could help to subsidise local production.

Furthermore, if the ban had gone ahead as the EAC intended, there would have been the environmental issue of producing clothing for a whole population whilst we are already overloaded by textile waste. Textiles aren’t biodegradable, meaning they remain on our planet for centuries. And this brings me back to the reason we’re here in the first place: the West needs to dump its unloved clothes somewhere.

Re-thinking the way we consume: killing disposable fashion reduces a need for second-hand markets

I know it may be discouraging to hear that something you do with good intentions should have negative repercussions hundreds of miles away. It may make someone think, “Why bother? No matter how hard we try it’s impossible for the average person to do any good for the planet when the ‘system’ is so skewed.” But the issue of clothing waste is a huge, stinking one, and adding to it is certainly not the more ethical alternative. In the face of such a complex topic, the solution may seem impossible to find. But if there is anything to be learned from this issue, it is that being an ethical consumer is not so simple. It is not good enough to give into every materialistic whim with the comfort that those clothes can then be donated with no guilt involved. In any case, it has been said by Juanita Riling, Director of the Centre for International Disaster Information, that most charities find clothes donations to be a burden after disasters. She noted that what they really need is money with which to buy medicine and emergency rations. It causes one to pose the question: are we donating clothes for the benefit of the poverty-stricken, or to make ourselves feel better? Making our unwanted clothes another continent’s problem is not a sustainable alternative to choosing our purchases wisely. The “third world” should not be the dumping ground for the hedonism and gullible consumerism of the West. 

Written by Anastasia Vartanian



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