Each year Kenya takes over $42 million (Sh4.2 billion) worth of second-hand clothes from the UK — the world’s second largest exporter of used garments. But increasingly some non-governmental organisations are asking at what cost?
This year Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda were supposed to ban all imported used shoes and clothes but under pressure from the US government, all but Rwanda have backed down.
Some estimates in the UK say as much as 80 per cent of all unwanted clothes British residents donate each year end up in second-hand markets in Africa. Ghana is the largest market followed by Benin and Kenya.
The used-goods market of course has its benefits. Kenya imports about 100,000 tonnes of second-hand clothes a year, providing the government revenues from customs duties and creating tens of thousands of jobs. The market offers quality used clothes to Kenyans at a fraction of their manufacturing cost.
But the cost to Kenyan manufacturers has been immense. Because the average cost of a second-hand garment in Kenya is between five and 10 per cent of that of a new garment, local industries cannot compete.
In the early 1990s, Kenya had about 110 large-scale garment manufacturers. By 2016, it had just 15 textile mills, according to Fashion Revolution, a UK -based group that promotes sustainable clothing manufacturing.
Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, says up to 20 years ago donating clothes by UK people was a gesture of goodwill but is now “an act of dumping”.
Fashion Revolution, along with a number of other campaigning organisations, argues that East Africa has become dependent on unwanted western fashion products with dire consequences for local manufacturers.
Fashion Revolution says old UK garments going to Africa doesn’t clothe poor children — it just feeds the second-hand market. This is because the goods are not donated but sold to a textile reclamation merchant, increasing profits for the charities.
The market is huge. In Britain alone, an estimated 365 million unused items of clothing, worth approximately £5.4 billion, are given away annually.
But the result is that up to 85 per cent of Kenya’s textile plants have closed since the early 1990s, while cotton output is around a tenth of 1990s levels.
Some industry experts maintain it was not the used-clothing imports that drove factories out of business, but inefficient production. But critics say local manufacturers never had a chance.
There is also resistance from sellers in East Africa whose livelihood depends on these shipments, as well as from experts who think an outright ban won’t be enough for these countries to restore production at home.
Textile Recycling Association director Alan Wheeler believes the way forward is to promote textile recycling and manufacturing jobs in Africa because every country in Africa has suffered not only as a result of the second-hand clothes market but also competition from China.