What if…the west stopped exporting second-hand clothing?

What you need to know:

  • Producers across the African continent find themselves unable to compete with the price of used clothing flooding in from the West, or truly benefit from materials grown on their own soil, such as cotton.

By Alice McCool

The second-hand clothing trade is a multi-billion dollar business. For many of us, seeking out those thrift store bargains is an ethical choice and an economic one – better than buying fast fashion, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. It is estimated that more than 70 percent of clothes donated globally eventually end up in Africa, meanwhile, 85 percent of all textiles worldwide are sent to landfill sites.

Producers across the African continent find themselves unable to compete with the price of used clothing flooding in from the West, or truly benefit from materials grown on their own soil, such as cotton.

If richer countries had no place to dump clothing waste, would more of us be forced to change how we consume?

In the words of the late Vivienne Westwood, we’d need to ‘Buy Less, Choose Well, Make it Last’.

According to sustainable fashion activist Aja Barber, if clothing producers were charged just one penny (less than two cents) per garment, over $43 million could be raised ‘for investment in better clothing collection and sorting in the UK’.

Unable to profit from the export fashion cast-offs, Western governments may be forced to regulate the fashion industry to deal better with waste.

This could be done through a more radical implementation of ‘extended producer responsibility’ (EPR), an environmental policy that extends a producer’s liability for a product to the disposal stage to further along its lifecycle – after consumers have finished with it.

Today there are over 400 EPR programmes globally that cover industries such as electronics, tyres, and packaging, but only one country has an EPR policy for textiles and clothing – France.

What’s more, when it has been put into use, this policy has largely been driven by Global North concerns about the high cost of waste management and limited landfill space in their own countries, not environmental justice or waste colonialism.

Without having to compete with cheap second-hand clothes from the West, home-grown textile industries in the Majority World might flourish.

This can already be seen on a small scale in Rwanda, which banned the import of second-hand clothing in 2018.

Despite severe sanctions from the Trump administration, the country’s textile and garment sector is showing promise, growing 83 percent in value from 2018 to 2020.

In cotton-growing countries such as Ghana and Uganda, more processing facilities could be developed, creating jobs for millions of Africans.

This would enable such countries to benefit from the global cotton industry as a whole, rather than relying on materials extracted and exported in their raw form, which is nowhere near as profitable.

Fashion designers in the Majority World could also find it easier to produce their clothing with locally made, sustainable materials, rather than having to rely solely on imported materials.

More localized textile industries would also reduce the carbon footprint of the fashion industry, and provide a cultural benefit.

As Bobby Kolade, the founder of Ugandan fashion brand BUZIGAHILL, told me: ‘I don’t like seeing Ugandans wear t-shirts with German sayings on them.

I want to see t-shirts that have local languages on them and local art. That has cultural value.’

Kolade’s wish is for young people from Nairobi to Lagos to switch second-hand clothing, made for a British ‘fun run’ or a North American bachelor party, for designs made with local languages, designs, and cultures in mind.

Liz Ricketts, who co-founded The Or Foundation – the non-profit behind initiatives including Stop Waste Colonialism, a campaign to make EPR globally accountable – has written: ‘There can be no “sustainable innovation” without justice.

Waste will either be the next frontier of colonialism and greenwashing or waste will serve as an opportunity for greater reckoning and reparation. Choose the latter.’

Alice McCool is a freelance journalist who lives between East Africa and the UK. Her work has been published in outlets such as The Guardian, VICE, and BBC News. This analysis was published by The New Internationalist