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The hidden cost of second-hand clothing

  • Written by  Andrew Brooks
  • Published in Opinions
Market in rural Pokot, Kenya Market in rural Pokot, Kenya Katherine Brickell
20 Mar
Donating your used garments might be well intentioned, but the situation on the ground means they may be doing more harm than good

You probably know a little bit about the origins of your clothes. The small label in the back of your T-shirt might read ‘Made in China’ and you probably recall where you bought it. But have you ever stopped to think about what might happen after you give it away for recycling? Your old T-shirt does not just go away, it goes somewhere. As we buy more and more clothes and rapidly discard old outfits to make space in our wardrobes for new fashions, we fuel another little known economic system: the international second-hand clothing trade.

Many old clothes are donated for re-use through recycling bins and door-step collections. You might expect that they are sold in High Street stores or given away to people in need. Some are retailed in charity shops in the UK and occasionally provided to the poor, but this is only a small percentage. The majority are exported and sold overseas. It is important to emphasise that the charities who collect clothing, as well as the commercial operators, sell used clothing to traders in low and middle-income countries rather than giving away donations for free; a fact that surprises many people. There is a large, ‘hidden’ international trade in old clothing. Donors see their local charity shops and understandably assume most clothes are sold in such places, but there simply isn’t a market in Britain for the tens of millions of used T-shirts and jeans collected every year.

Africa2Destinations of the UK and the USA’s second-hand clothes (Image: The Journey of Jeans)

Across the UK, industrial facilities sort and process thousands of tons of unwanted garments. Over £2.9billion worth of used clothes – the equivalent to 26.9 billion T-shirts – are traded globally, and Britain is the second largest exporter, sending 350 million kilograms overseas each year. On the surface it appears to be an environmentally beneficial relationship as used clothes are kept away from landfill. But what are the actual social and economic impacts of the trade of used clothes from the rich to poor countries?

Throughout Africa, used clothing markets can be found selling unwanted jeans and T-shirts from the UK, alongside clothes from America and the rest of Europe. In Benin, Tanzania and Zimbabwe these items are known as the ‘clothes of the dead whites’ and are often culturally unsuitable and ill-fitting. Market traders have been banned from selling second-hand underwear in Ghana, while North American jeans sold in Mozambique are often too large in the waist to fit local body types. International middle men who link supplies of used clothing to poor consumers can make big profits from the trade, although local informal traders gain little from the process.

Many in Africa are too poor to afford clothes other than imported second-hand ones, whereas 30 years ago they could buy locally produced new clothes

Africans have not always been dependent on second-hand clothing imports and it is important to understand that uneven geographical relationships have been historically produced. Many African countries established clothing factories to serve local markets after the end of colonialism to spur industrialisation, as happened in South Korea and China. Unlike their Asian counterparts, African leaders were unable to protect their infant industries and under political pressure from banks and governments in the West, were forced to liberalise their economies in the 1980s and 1990s.

This meant that African clothing factories had to compete with imported goods, like second-hand clothes. Cheaper imported garments flooded African markets and workers in clothing factories lost their jobs. Meanwhile there were falling incomes across the continent due to the debt crisis and the long-term decline in the price of agricultural products, such as cotton. Used clothing imports boomed, forging a relationship of dependency and negatively affecting poor countries’ balance of payments.

In today’s globalised economy, many cotton farmers and ex-factory workers in African countries such as Zambia are now too poor to afford any clothes other than imported second-hand ones from the West, whereas 30 or 40 years ago they could buy locally produced new clothes. The flourishing used clothing is a symptom of uneven development and the continued impoverishment of Africa has been an outcome of economic globalisation.

Africa1Second-hand clothes in Africa (Image: The Journey of Jeans)

So what should you do with your old clothes? Simply stopping the trade of second-hand clothes will not enable the development of clothing industries in Africa alone, but your used jeans and T-shirts are often unwittingly part of the problem. The best consumer advice is to buy clothes that are well-made in good labour conditions and try to slow the rate at which you discard old clothes.

The truth is there isn’t an easy individual pattern of behaviour change that can correct the inequalities in the clothing industry and the injustices at the heart of global economic relationships. We cannot shop or recycle our way out of these problems. Instead advocacy and support for campaigning organisations working on labour and trade justice issues – like Labour Behind the Label – is the best available avenue for those who want to see progressive change and reverse some of the unequal relationships at the heart of economic globalisation.

Dr Andrew Brooks is a lecturer in Development Geography at King’s College London and the author of Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-Hand Clothes.

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