Should we be placing restrictions on second-hand clothing imports or virgin textile production?

By: Angela Luna

Most people (admittedly, myself included) don’t always think about where the clothing from last season that they drop off at a donation bin is actually going. They feel good about giving away their hardly-worn clothing to someone who may have a better use for it, without thinking of the actual impact that donated piece has, where it ends up, and who is wearing it.

In this past week’s research on sustainability, garment manufacturing, used clothing, colonialism, and waste imperialism, I was fascinated to learn that more than 70% of donated clothing from Western nations ends up in Africa, where it is resold at lower costs to local communities.

The apparel market in Africa has shifted: with an estimated 60 to 80 percent of clothing being purchased second-hand, textile manufacturing has seen a decrease of employment from 500,000 people to only 20,000 people within the last 30 years — an astounding 96% drop. Alongside these massive layoffs within the textile industry, the apparel reselling marketing has encountered growth, with generational shops dominating the industry and providing the opportunity for locals to be employed in “odd jobs” to earn a living.

National governments have responded to this surplus of donated clothing imports with legislation that restricts, bans, or highly taxes the import of used clothing to African nations in order to allow for recovery of the local textile market. It’s obvious that restoring the apparel manufacturing industry has become the priority. Restrictions on imported garments (with Rwanda increasing taxes from $0.20 per kilogram to $2.50) have understandably hurt the resale market and the shop owners, causing the cost of clothing to double or triple for the buyer.

With respect to the traditions of the mills and the existing practice of textile manufacturing, the fashion industry is contributing to a global environmental crisis that should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds within the industry. (Of course I feel guilty saying this after reading this article on waste colonialism, and of course indigenous people have the right to do whatever they want with their land.) As the insider perspective of someone working in this industry and attempting to leverage used items as a resource, and the outsider perspective of someone who is not native to an African nation or its apparel market, I feel there is an opportunity here. I am in no way saying how things should be done, but as a colleague in industry, I would like to raise some points -

This legislative action causes to question: with the excess of clothing and existing material, should we be encouraging the production of new textiles, especially those made by unethical employment practices, in the first place? Not just in Africa, but globally. Should there be a ban on importing used goods? If it is so harshly disrupting the local economy beyond homeostasis, perhaps. But should there be a ban on the production of virgin material? Maybe more so.

Again, considering the ripple effect here: if there are no new textiles being created, what does that mean for cultural representation through textile and garment? I’m curious to see what types of traditional cultural textile these mills could create by using the surplus of donated garments as raw material. But also, what are the implications of an upcycling process? A non-wesetern community forced to create their own traditional prints, patterns, textiles, garments, etc. using the waste of their colonizers? It’s dismal that African nations need to handle the blunt of Western fashion consumerism and the shift it has caused to their economies.

As a designer working at the beginning of the clothing life cycle, this whole chain of events causes me to encourage other designers to consider how the end of life of their clothing is impacting these local economies. At what point are their pieces discarded? Are they being resold? Is the brand implementing processes that can make the end of life process more intentional?

I also suggest western civilizations take a note from the second-hand clothing markets these nations have built. Imagine the reduction to the fashion industry’s environmental impact if 60–80% of our garment purchasing was second hand. Could less exports of donated goods and more second-hand shopping domestically restore the balance of garment industries internationally?

Regardless to the answers of all these questions, as designers, manufacturers, and consumers, focus should be applied to how we produce, use, and dispose of our fashion.