Gifting Commodities: Why East-Africa Just May Ban Used Clothes

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Visiting a local market place is the thing to do when you travel to any part of Africa. The atmosphere is vibrant and reveals so much about a culture. I’ve always enjoyed watching the lively interaction and skilled—and often witty—negotiations. On top of that there are the stacks of fresh local produce, well-prepared street food you eat at your own risk, and beautifully hand-crafted goods.

After visiting a couple of markets on a recent trip to Malawi, I noticed something jarring that challenged their fabric. Amongst the wonderfully ripe fruits and imperfectly shaped natural vegetables lay a jumble of colored used valuable goods: secondhand clothes.

Referred to as Kaunjika, some hang high on wooden displays where their obnoxious worn-out shapes and colors block-out the bluest sky and compete for your eyes’ attention. Most lay thrown on the ground (on top of tarps and mats) covered with some degree of dust. They reminded me of litter.

That is not how you imagined the clothes or shoes you donated to your favorite charities would end up is it? Your donation being sold, for profit, in a developing nation to the poor—some so poor they clearly cannot afford to purchase the merchandise that must now lay there like waste.

Despite well-meaning intentions, the reality is that the majority of clothes that are donated to charities in developed nations are sold to middlemen who then sell them as export products. According to the BBC, studies estimate that as much as 70 to 90 percent are exported. UN data shows that the US is the largest second-hand exporter, sending approximately $687 million worth of goods annually, followed by $612 million worth of merchandise from the UK.

The U.S.’s top second-hand clothes importers Canada, Chile, Guatemala, India, UAE, Mexico, Tanzania, Honduras, Angola, and the Dominican Republic. The UK’s are Poland, Ghana, Pakistan, Ukraine, Benin, Kenya, Hungary, Togo, UAE, and Netherlands. Canada and Netherlands are also part of an intricate second-hand clothes trade and among the top 10 suppliers, exporting primarily to countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia.

So second-hand clothes are an eyesore at local markets. What’s the big deal? After all, those that aren’t sold within their country of origin or to global traders end up incinerated or in landfills, also adding to waste and environmental degradation. Only a smaller portion is recycled for industrial use (e.g. insulation or industrial mops). And, even if they aren’t easily affordable to the poorest, shouldn’t some at least benefit from their trade and use? Like the legitimate charities that get revenue from selling donations they can’t move and put the resources back into furthering their nonprofit missions. The local middlemen and market sellers. Or, the few who need clothes and can afford to purchase that shirt, dress, or pair of tattered shoes.

The problem is—in addition to being an eyesore and littering markets—the overabundance of second-hand clothing has pretty much killed off the textile industry in countries such as Malawi, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda and others. Andrew Brooks, author of Clothing Poverty, argues these points in his well-documented research studies. The relaxation of trade policies in the 1980s and 90s, he points out, allowed for the increased import of second-hand clothes and cheaper new clothes from Asia; this correlates with the demise of the once rising African textile industries. Industries that provided jobs, required skilled workers, boosted economies, and allowed locals to buy locally produced goods.

Reading about this trend reminded me of the tailors that once sat in front of my grandfather’s and other neighboring stores, and of tagging along as he went to purchase materials from a nearby textile manufacturer that bought from local cotton farmers and trained tailors—something that stood out to me as many of the clothes-makers-in-training were visually impaired or some other disability. I haven’t heard of that manufacturer in years. Like many Malawian textile businesses, I am sure they have gone out of business. Learning about what has happened to African textile industries also helped explain why my grandfather’s town now only has a few store front tailors. Skilled tailors who once made an adequate amount of quality custom suits, shirts, pants, skirts, and dresses. Tailors who weren’t limited to the few customers who only depended on them to create their beautifully-styled African outfits.

At the end of February 2015, concern over the impact of used clothes and shoes on growing industries led a coalition of East-African states moving towards banning their import and sale. Doing so, they reason, will protect local textile and leather industries. Further, dependency theorists argue that doing so is a step away from dependency and a necessary step towards economic development. Others have called for African leaders to instead gradually increase taxation of second-hand clothes.

Not surprisingly, some countries already have banned or restricted the sale of imported second-hand clothes. Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eretria fully banned their import and resale, while South Africa allows only the importation of used clothes that are to be donated and not sold. Tanzania, Ghana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe restrict only the sale of second-hand intimate wear or other textile products that may risk health. All bad news for the charities that rely on them to boost their budgets or the for-profit businesses that benefit from the billion dollar industry.

It seems foolish to view all second-hand clothing export to developing nations as bad. Perhaps South Africa’s restriction to import only used clothes for donation is best. Although enforcement may end up being a challenge for many cash-strapped nations, this plus other national policies that fully support local industries seem to be the solution.

I could not help but notice how much Kaunjika had changed Malawi’s culturally-rich market places and the startling effect they have had on the environment, transforming them into imminent dumping ground. Even the normally rich-red or deep-orange soil seemed to lose its luster once it dusted the overly abundant yet seemingly unaffordable clothes. They truly take away so much from local markets.

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