In March, the governments of the East African Community, which includes Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, proposed a ban on imports of secondhand clothes to their regional trade bloc. The ban would outlaw donations of clothing from wealthier countries by 2019.
The logic is that by stopping the trade of used garments, the apparel industry in these countries will be revitalized, create jobs and exports, and bolster their economies. Imports of secondhand clothing have been growing over the past two decades, with Uganda and Tanzania seeing a 233 percent and 1100 percent growth, respectively, in imported worn clothing in the past twenty years. This level of increase is unsurprising given the rise of “fast fashion” in the developed West, where most of these clothes are coming from.
Supporting Local Economies
While there are many traders earning a living through the sale of these donations, the governments proposing this ban argue that they will be able to create better jobs within the textile industry, more than offsetting any economic loss faced by the traders.
It seems unlikely that the ban will actually become law, but the very fact that it exists is fascinating on several levels. Once again, we see unintended consequences of well-meaning foreign aid. In Uganda, for example, it is estimated that secondhand garments make up 81 percent of all clothing purchases - leaving little market share for locally produced apparel. Kenya had a clothing industry that at its height employed 500,000 people, and today only sustains roughly 20,000 jobs. Even if enacted, the ban won’t necessarily spur local apparel production; the ban does not include inexpensive new clothing, which could be easily imported by traders from Asia.
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What interests me more is the implications this ban would have on the donating Western countries: If rich countries could no longer offload our unwanted discarded clothing onto the poor, what would we do with those clothes?
Uganda imports 1,500 tons (tons!) of used clothing each year from the US alone; that is just one of many countries to which we export used clothing. The average American throws away 70 lbs of clothing every year.
As more and more of us take to ‘Marie Kondo-ing’ our closets, we need to find better uses for that ‘going-out top’ bought for $15 and worn only twice. Places such as Uganda, and Haiti, and India shouldn’t have to be - and very soon may choose not to be - responsible for our excess. Burying discarded clothes in the ground is equivalent to burying our heads in the sand.
A New Life
Take-back programs, garment leasing, and renting formal wear for special events are all becoming more and more mainstream options in the world of retail apparel. There is some very exciting research and development being done around fiber-recycling technology with the possibility of creating virgin-level, high-quality thread that can be woven and knitted back into fabric. In the not-too-distant future, truly closing the loop on fiber will be possible. This will only happen if we start shifting away from the linear buy-use-dispose model and start regarding our “trash” as raw materials that have value.
That’s why, when you buy a Thread shirt, we ask you to send it back to us when you’re finished with it, not to a landfill. That shirt started as a plastic bottle in the streets of Haiti. It was picked up by an entrepreneur whose life has been changed because of trash. It was processed and blended with cotton and knitted into jersey and cut and sewn into a shirt. Dozens of hands touched it and made it possible. It’s too valuable to throw away.
We make sure that material stays useful. After all, we’re not creating the most responsible fabric in the world only to have it end up buried in the ground. It’s on consumers to make some behavioral changes, but it’s on brands to lead the way.