Hey guys, another Fashion Factfiles post! This month, I’m changing it up a bit.
Alright don’t get too excited.
Lol but yeh, this month we won’t be looking at serious issues within the production of garments themselves, but rather what happens to much of our clothing once we’re done with them and have donated it to charity.
Oh you thought they’d all be sold and bought by people to reuse?
Welcome to another episode of: Calling out the West and its neo-colonial practices!
So as we are all probably aware, clothing consumption has increased immensely in the Global North, which is largely the result of fast fashion. This refers to the process of catwalk trends being quickly and cheaply replicated and sold for low prices in high street stores. These trends, instead of changing every few months, change in a matter of weeks, and with increased accessibility to new trends, the desire to keep up with fashion is more imperative than ever. Due to these fast-changing trends, and the desire to keep up, we end up with a hell of a lot of clothes we no longer want, in a short matter of time. This is also the result of clothes being poorly manufactured, due to the desire to produce clothes as cheaply and quickly as possible, thus they are likely to get worn out more quickly.
In fact, our clothes will last an average of 3.3 years til they are discarded or passed on, with 30% of our clothes being unworn for at least a year. Indeed, retailers including H&M, Topshop and Zara produce clothes that will only be used an average of 10 times.
As a result, more and more clothes are being donated to charity. However, there is now an overwhelming oversupply of clothes which outweighs the actual demand for clothes. Also, as a result of clothes being manufactured poorly, tonnes of clothing charities receive are damaged and unwearable. The overflow of clothes leads to very few donations actually being sold in charity shops. Indeed, of all the clothes charities receive, half are never put out on the shop floor, and less than 20% are actually purchased.
So what happens to these clothes?
Well, they’re shipped off to the Global South, particularly African countries. This may seem like a positive thing; our clothes being donated to those who most need it, but this is not necessarily the case. Let’s begin with a little history on the exportation of second-hand clothes.
During colonial days, second-hand clothing was exported to the colonies for charity shops catering to the poor. This appeared to be a win-win situation, where Western charities received enough revenue to continue their work, while African buyers were able to purchase cheap, well-made clothing. However, under the guise of aid, it is argued that the West merely used this as an opportunity to dump their waste materials elsewhere, using Africa as a dumping ground while protecting themselves. This is referred to as ‘white imperialism’.
Though second-hand clothes were sent to African countries as donations, recipients realised they could earn money by selling them, resulting in the trade of second-hand clothing globally, and in turn, creating second-hand markets across Africa. Again, this appeared to benefit both those importing the clothes and those exporting, as the exporters (generally the West) were guaranteed revenue, while the importers had access to cheap, fashionable, quality clothing, as well as creating jobs and revenue for the people. Moreover, as a result of the liberalisation of the economy (less restrictions on imports), this resulted in an influx of second-hand clothing entering the continent, and as a result, led to the expansion of the ssecond-hand markets. Indeed, 80% of the population in countries importing these clothes wear second-hand. However, this contributed to a huge problem: the decline of the textile industry.
Indeed, though not the sole reason for its decline, the influx of cheap clothing for locals resulted in the closure of thousands of local producers. This makes sense, as second-hand imports had no production cost, and were imported at low prices, meaning they could be sold at a very low cost to consumers, in comparison to locally produced clothing, with higher costs of production. This is suggested to have been implemented intentionally, as a means of disrupting the economy of those countries importing second-hand clothing, allowing Western countries to gain access to and dominate a new market they can gain from, at the expense of these local producers.
Moreover, it is argued that foreign aid, such as second-hand clothing, is a means to undermine economic growth in these countries e.g. by implementing practices such as replacing local markets and removing government investment in these local markets, this helps create traps that prevent such development, ensuring reliance on foreign imports (increasing the revenue of these foreign countries).
Many other problems arise from the second-hand clothing markets. These include:
- Unpredictability: the income of those who sell second-hand clothes are dependent on a constant supply of donations, which can be unpredictable in terms of the quality of clothes, shipment timing, appropriateness of clothing for particular culture. Clothes are frequently found in poor condition e.g. broken zippers, worn out, damaged etc.
- Impact on health: Second-hand clothes have been associated with various infectious skin diseases, including louse and scabies and are a common risk with these clothes, particularly underwear (yes, the West ship second-hand underwear too smh).
- Impact on human dignity: Many rightfully argue that if African lives are worth of respect, why are their homes treated as a dumping ground, and why are they expected to wear others’ used clothes. In fact, secondhand clothes are known as kafa ulaya in Kenya, meaning ‘clothes and shoes of dead white people’. The President of Tanzania perfectly articulated:
“it is really unbecoming that EAC countries will produce cotton and animal skin, sell them raw to Europe and America and when the Europeans and Americans have produced cloth and shoes from such materials, worn them or the users have died, they then send those dumps back to us!”
- Balance of payments: Countries receiving second-hand clothing are importing more (i.e. second-hand clothing) than they are exporting, creating a trade deficit. For example, Tanzania runs on a $297.25m trade deficit on average every month. On the other hand, the West sit comfortably, exporting large quantities of second-hand clothes, resulting in a decent balance of payment. This is seen as a trade strategy whereby the Global North can continue trade while maintaining the upper hand. This is suggested to be why countries in the North resist attempts by African countries to end second-hand imports, as they will lose their upper hand.
As a result, Eastern African countries are seeking the return of their textile industries and a ban on second-hand exports. Indeed, with access to raw materials, markets locally, in the EU and US, cheaper access to resources, and increasing support from the government, it is possible that the textile industry here can expand once again.
However, when Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania presented their decision to completely ban second-hand imports there was one particular foreign actor who was pissed…can you guess….MURRICCAAAA.
Yeh, after hearing the news, these guys stated the ban violated the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which aims to expand trade and investment in Africa. As a result, the East African countries backed down, and decided to focus on building their textile industry instead. This was only decided last month so we’ve yet to see how the US will take this.
Understandably, many are concerned about the ban, particularly those whose livelihoods are dependent on the second-hand clothes market. However, as long as the government provides support and employment for these people, we could potentially see the rise of the African textile industry and a decline in the exceptionally degrading practice of treating Africa as the West’s dumping ground.
I would end with my own take on it all, but I feel this articulates the situation perfectly:
“The philanthropic nature of donations leads consumers to believe that they are only helping developing countries. However, an important part of development is the ability to create self-sustaining economies and businesses that can support villages, towns, and cities and employ the people within them. Used clothing donations are partially responsible for taking away this opportunity for those in the apparel industry, potentially causing dependence and negligence of existing clothing businesses. In many African countries, there is not necessarily a lack of accessible clothing. Rather, providing of funds to make existing local clothing affordable is potentially a more productive means to create and sustain long-term change. ” (Hoang, 2015)
Hoang, N. L. (2015). Clothes Minded: An Analysis of the Effects of Donating Secondhand Clothing to Sub-Saharan Africa. http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1680&context=scripps_theses
Wetengere, K. K. (2018) Is the Banning of Importation of Second-Hand Clothes and Shoes a Panacea to Industrialization in East Africa? (really good paper guys) https://www.ajol.info/index.php/ajer/article/viewFile/166029/155464