The winter holidays are a busy season for charity. What many donors do not know however, is that an overwhelming majority of donated clothing is sent to developing countries, who are now pushing back on taking throwaway clothes.
A global export market valued at $4 billion by UN Comtrade, worn clothing has been traveling mainly from the US to developing countries through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).
In recent years however, many African nations have vocally stood up to the fast-fashion addicted West; last June, Rwanda President Paul Kagame stated a sentiment felt across his neighbors:
“We have to grow and establish our [own] industries.”
According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the life cycle of second-hand clothing starts with a consumer donating to charity or recycling at a local drop-off. Of the 25 billion pounds of textiles (including clothing, footwear and bedding) that is produced annually in the US, only 15 percent is donated or recycled. That means that 85 percent of textiles go straight to landfills.
For the socially and environmentally conscious who actually donate to charities like Goodwill and the Salvation Army, 10 to 20 percent of their second-hand clothing are sold by said charities at their thrift stores, generating important revenue for the organizations. The rest are resold to be exported (45 percent), recycled and converted for industrial use (30 percent), recycled into fiber (20 percent) or dumped (5 percent). The majority of clothing, which are exported, are separated, labelled and bound into bales.
Flooded by cheap clothing, nascent industries in Africa have struggled to find foothold since market liberalization forced by international bodies in the 1980s. Since 2015, the six members of the East Africa Community (EAC) have called for action, with a plan to ban worn clothing imports by 2019 in order to boost domestic industries. This year, all of EAC, with the exception of Rwanda, were bullied into rescinding the import ban; the US had pushed back hard on the EAC by threatening to pull back AGOA incentives.
According to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), at least 40,000 US jobs and 150,000 not-for-profit jobs would be “negatively impacted” by Africa’s import ban. Not only are jobs involved, but the inability to ship second-hand clothing abroad would put additional pressure on fast fashion companies operating in the US like H&M, who already carries unsold clothing worth $4.3 billion, according to the New York Times earlier this year.
Looking back at the past five years, the US has always been the greatest exporter of worn clothing, averaging $662 million in value annually. Over five years, the US made up 40 percent of the top three exporters of worn clothing. To make up as much export value as the top three, or $8.2 billion, the next ten countries must be summed up. In terms of weight, approximately 4.2 billion kilograms of worn clothing have been moved globally, of which the US contributed the most, at 19 percent.
When observing the top three largest exporters by volume, there has been a significant year-over-year increase as of late, at 5 percent growth a year.
For EAC members, including Kenya and Tanzania, the AGOA that was signed in 2000 is a crucial trade act that allows 38 African countries to export to the US without facing tariffs. In exchange, US trade, like worn clothing, and investment into AGOA countries face no barriers to entry.
Worn clothing in Africa has come to the heavy cost of the domestic textiles industry, which is unable to compete in price. “We used to make [clothes],” an Ugandan retailer of second-hand clothes told Bright Magazine. “But now there’s this new form of colonialism… they want to bring their products this way, so they cannot allow us [to make our own].”
Picking a trade battle with one of the poorest countries in the world, the US has hardly elicited support globally. With US exports to Rwanda last year representing only $66 million out of $1.4 trillion, to pose such a strong backlash to one of the poorest countries where the annual income is $718, hardly seems honorable.
Moreover, it’s certainly not the first time that the US is dumping the issue on someone else. Until now, the US has been able to sweep its addiction to fast fashion under the rug by sending its worn clothing to Africa. In plastics, it’s used the same play out of the playbook.
Since the early 1990s, about 45 percent of the world’s plastics have been exported to China for recycling. This simple solution came to an end earlier this year when China’s National Sword policy, banning plastic waste from being imported, went into effect.
The National Recycling Coalition told US News that the US must “fundamentally shift how we speak to the public… [on] how we collect and process” recycles. In reality, a lack of a coordinated national response has meant that recyclables are joining trash in the landfills and the cost of recycling to local communities have been increasing.
The plastics issue is one that touches millions of products; not only is it impossible to separate plastic from daily life in the kitchen or the office, plastic microbeads are even found on wash-off products that consumers scrub on their face and then send down the drain to enter waterways.
As with many multifaceted issues, consumers have a large role to play. While there is not one actor in the clothing chain who is solely responsible, there is a lot of power with the consumers to make change happen. The clothing cycle starts with the consumer’s demand for fast fashion, where the lifespan of a garment is just seven wears, according to Fashion United UK, a B2B fashion network. With more than half fast fashion products disposed within one year of purchase, according to the Evening Standard, it’s no wonder that H&M, Zara and others have been left to produce, produce and produce.
The straight-up ethical answer for consumers is not to buy into fast fashion and invest in clothing that is: meaningfully made, vintage, or made to last. According to Good On You, a shopping app with ethical ratings based a methodology of certifications, international standards compliance and public statements from companies, Christy Dawn is a brand that is “Great.” Run by a former fashion model in Los Angeles, the brand uses deadstock, or leftover fabrics from other companies destined for the landfills, and transforms them into limited editions of dresses; recently the brand has expanded into sweaters.
Another brand that has already thought hard about sustainable fashion is Eileen Fisher, whose Renew program has yet to be as successfully replicated by other brands. In the Renew program, customers bring back their worn clothing and the company either “finds them another home or turns them into one-of-a-kind designs,” using them as “tomorrow’s raw material.”
An alternative solution gaining traction is renting clothes. Rent the Runway was among the first online retailers to take on the model, starting in 2009. The market has picked up traction with consumers since then, overriding a social stigma of used or rented items. Who knew that a rental company could hit $100 million in revenue and six million customers? Certainly, this is a sustainable model here to stay. In fact, this year, New York & Co., Ann Taylor and Express became major retailer pioneers to launch a clothing rental service.
Raising the issue on the piling market for worn clothing is by no means to berate clothing donors. Rather, it’s to bring to attention the fact that the joy of cheap fashion is a short-sighted purchase decision that lasts decades in landfills in our communities and those abroad.
Photo credit: The Guardian