We live in a world where consumers are gravitating toward secondhand fashion, with millennials and Gen Z leading the charge. At the same time, there is an enormous appetite for low-cost, trendy pieces – a world we call fast fashion.
But as consumers learn to adopt sustainability practices and then contradict themselves the very next second with Fashion Nova and SHEIN hauls, one begs to ask the question: what ramifications does secondhand fashion and fast-fashion have on…Africa?
The backstory on Africa
In 2019, Kenya imported nearly 185,000 tonnes of secondhand clothing, making it the biggest importer of secondhand clothing. To put that in perspective, that is roughly 8,000 containers.
It is estimated that 92% of households in Kenya bought these secondhand garments for around $9 or less per bundle. In Kenya, these clothes are called mitumba after the Swahili word for “bundles.” In Ghana, they are referred to as obroni wawu, also known as dead white men’s clothes.
The secondhand industry remains an essential source of revenue for the Kenyan government as taxes raised from this sector amount to $107 million a year.
The industry became a profitable source of revenue for African countries such as Kenya, as Americans typically discard their clothing rather quickly, with the average American throwing away approximately 81 pounds of clothing a year.
Things are starting to change, however. Many Americans now look to resell their clothes on secondhand platforms such as Poshmark, allowing them to make money back on items that are of higher quality. Anything else is likely to end up in the donation boxes.
And while most would probably argue that this approach is circular, Liz Ricketts, director of The OR Foundation, a Ghana-based nonprofit that has investigated the influx of secondhand clothing in the country, believes it’s simply greenwashing – i.e. it appears to be more sustainable than it is in reality.
Unless the clothes are collected and recycled into new garments repeatedly, the approach is not circular but linear, just with a different dumping point. So, instead of ending up in a dumpsite/landfill in the United States or another first-world country, garments make their final journey to dumpsites in Africa.
The impact on Africa
For the most part, the bulk of clothes donated from Western countries are fast-fashion pieces.
“The whole fast fashion model is built around… building cheap clothing, and the U.S. is the biggest culprit, exporting more secondhand clothing than any other country on earth,” said Samuel Oteng, a fashion designer and project manager at the Or Foundation.
According to the Global Fashion Agenda’s Pulse Report, since the mid-2000s, the number of clothes purchased by the average consumer has more than doubled. Meanwhile, the number of times consumers in Westerner countries actually wear a piece of clothing has declined by 36%.
This has ultimately created a surge in the volume of secondhand fast fashion clothing in African cities. Accra, for one, receives an estimated 15 million used garments every week from Europe, America as well as Australia.
As these garments make their way into the country, the bales are then purchased by market traders anywhere from $25 to $500 each. The clothes are then cleaned, tailored, and re-dyed to give each piece new life.
This, in turn, creates unfair competition among local textile companies in African countries. In 2016, members of the East African Community (EAC, comprising Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda) looked to tackle this problem by pausing the import of secondhand clothes.
But American lobbyists retaliated, claiming that the halt by the EAC put 40,000 American jobs, such as those tied to sorting and packing, at risk. So in 2019, all countries rolled back their decision, except for Rwanda.
According to the Ghana-based nonprofit, OR Foundation, which has investigated the influx of secondhand clothing in the country, more than 40% of clothing in markets in Accra is deemed unsellable. These garments end up directly in the landfill.
And while the quality of these garments is deemed unsatisfactory, the common rebuttal from exporters is that the secondhand clothing industry creates jobs in Africa. The quality of these jobs, however, remains questionable.
As for clothes that do end up getting sold in African markets, it is often fast-fashion pieces that are still cheap and of poor quality. A typical scenario for shoppers in Africa is coming across stalls that sell new fast-fashion pieces made of inferior quality, while others sell used but higher quality pieces.
What is Africa to do?
Upcycling has become fashionable, with consumers and businesses finding ways to reuse everything. For example, a startup run by Sydney Emeka tackles the mountains of used clothing shipped to Africa by using the materials they find to create new things like suits.
But in the end, even with the mentality of wanting to reuse everything, an estimated 40% of garments are in such poor quality that they are deemed worthless and are dumped in landfills.
This puts the onus on brands such as Fashion Nova and SHEIN to clean up their act and develop programs that promote sustainability. Their profitability, after all, should not cost African communities.