East Africa Doesn't Want Your Used Clothes

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CC BY 1.0. European Commission -- A clothing market in Eritrea with Western-style clothes for sale

Used clothing donations are more of a hindrance than a help, in the eyes of the East African Community. We need to listen to what they're saying.

East Africa no longer wants your old clothes. For decades, countries such as Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Uganda have received shipments of second-hand clothing from North American and European charities. These charities gather donations from well-meaning citizens who were raised to believe that donating clothes is an effective way to "help the needy" (or do a guilt-free wardrobe overhaul), but now it appears this thinking is outdated.

African marketplaces are flooded with Western cast-offs to the point that local governments believe the second-hand clothing industry is eroding traditional textile industries and weakening demand for locally produced clothing. As a result, the East African Community (EAC), which represents the nations listed above, has imposed high tariffs on charities that were importing second-hand clothing. In early 2015 a total ban on second-hand imports was proposed to take effect in 2019.

The effect of the tariffs is being felt by everyone along the supply chain, from charities gathering donations to recyclers and resellers. Some charities are resentful because reselling used clothing is a major income generator. CBC reports that, in Canada, the textile diversion business generates $10 million a year (nearly one-quarter of their annual revenue) for the National Diabetes Trust. The charity moves 100 million pounds of textiles each year.

"Diabetes Canada, along with other Canadian charities, partner with for-profits like Value Village to sort, grade and resell the donations they receive. Value Village then sells them through their retail stores, and any excess clothing suitable for reuse is then sold to wholesalers who might sell them overseas."

Value Village has responded to the steep tariffs by increasing its focus on domestic sales (a very good thing!). Says one representative for the company:

"What we have chosen to do is focus on efficiency inside of our stores to compensate for that, figuring out how to drive merchandise in our stores that has a higher yield."

This reminds me of a post I saw on Facebook recently. We in North America would do well to push second-hand sales for environmental reasons:

The North American trade association group, Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), is also feeling the squeeze. CBC says:

"In a survey of its members conducted by SMART, 40 per cent of respondents said they have been forced to reduce their staffing levels by one-quarter or more and expect that number to increase to half if the ban goes into effect as planned in 2019."

Apparently, Kenya has bowed to America pressure and withdrawn from the proposed ban, but the other countries remain committed. Not all of their citizens are pleased, as many own stalls in marketplaces and rely on resale in order to generate income for their families. Others contest the accuracy of the assumption that imports are what's diminishing the local economy, pointing out that cheap new clothing from China and India is also a factor.

Needless to say, it's an eye-opening debate for many North Americans, who tend to assume that the rest of the world wants our junk. It's something I first learned about while reading Elizabeth Cline's excellent book, "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion" (Penguin, 2012). Many people justify buying excessive amounts of clothes and wearing them for a short time precisely because they can be donated once they've fallen from favor; but this news story shows it's not so simple.

Someone, somewhere in the world, has to deal with the fall-out of our rampant consumerism, our affluenza, our addiction to fast fashion, and it's hardly fair to dump that on developing nations. While it's unfortunate that charities may lose out on an income source, it's hardly fair for them to expect East African communities to bear the burden of those efforts. Developing a stronger local textile industry could, in fact, create more economic opportunities and financial security for EAC citizens. To disregard what they're saying to make ourselves feel better as consumers is eerily reminiscent of condescending colonialism.

This story is not much different from the many stories we write about plastic waste. The world is a small place. There is no away. No matter how much we pat ourselves on the back about donating unwanted clothes, or recycling single-use plastics, it's not really happening the way we like to think it is. Someone's always paying the price.

It's time we all bought less, bought better, and used it longer.