Second-Hand Fashion: Its impact on the African Fashion Industry
Second-hand clothing is regarded as the primary source of clothing across Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2019 alone, Kenya imported 185 000 tons of second-hand clothes, while Accra currently receives 15 million garments every week. In the view of exporting countries, used clothes are a step towards sustainability as they present an opportunity for African fashion consumers to curb extra spending on fast fashion. However, this is often deemed misleading given that in countries like Ghana, 40% of the clothes end up in landfills. Regardless of their detrimental effects on the environment, second-hand clothes are also credited with benefits such as employment creation and improving the affordability of clothing. With such diverse effects on the African economies, the true impact of second-hand clothing remains a debatable subject.
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History of Second-Hand Clothing in Africa
Second-hand clothing became popular during the 1990s, after trade was liberalized in Africa. This development also coincided with a rise of fast fashion in advanced economies such as the United States, which resulted in the mass production of garments in shorter cycles. The combination of a rise in fast fashion and removal of trade restrictions in African countries exposed the African textile industries to fierce international competition, which resulted in the closure of many textile factories. Additionally, trade liberalization policies in African countries also resulted in the decline of the purchasing power of their currencies – a factor which limited consumers’ ability to buy new clothing. Since then, cheaper used clothing has met most of the demand for clothes in Africa. In this article, we will discuss some of the ways in which second-hand clothing has impacted the African continent and its diverse textile industries.
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Positive impacts of second-hand clothing
Making clothing more accessible
Buying second-hand clothing has become an economically viable fashion option for many Africans given their limited disposable incomes. In addition to affordability, second-hand clothing is preferred because it gives consumers an opportunity to buy unique designer clothing which can’t be found anywhere else, at a cheaper price.
Contributing to employment
In Africa, second-hand clothing has an organized and fairly long value chain that provides employment at various stages. Jobs created through second-hand clothes include handling, alterations, refinements, and distribution of used clothes. Other indirect employment exists through hawkers who sell food to clothing vendors and people who rent out spaces for vendors. Second-hand clothing has also promoted the work of entrepreneurs in the fashion industry, who repurpose and up-cycle second-hand clothes to produce new products of higher value. In Kenya, second-hand clothing creates employment for 2 million people while it is estimated that it creates hundreds of thousands of jobs in other African countries.
Negative impacts of second-hand clothing
Stifling of the domestic industries
The influx of second-hand clothing has resulted in reduced demand for domestic clothing – an issue that constrains the revival of the African textile industry. While the quality of domestic clothing is good, local companies have limited capacity to compete with second-hand clothing on price. Countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda have attempted to ban second-hand clothing, but to no avail. Given that most of them enjoy benefits accrued under the Africa and Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), moves to ban second-hand clothing are threatened by a suspension of AGOA benefits. The plight of the African textile industry is further complicated by the problem of end-market concentration, where its major export destinations are also the ones which they seek to ban from further exporting second-hand clothes.
Second-hand clothing poses a threat to the environment through land pollution and contamination of water sources among other challenges. Without properly structured mechanisms for managing excess second hand clothing, it continues jeopardizing the environment at the cost of future generations.
Issues of dignity
Second-hand clothing is viewed by policy makers as dumping of discarded clothes on African consumers. This perception is fuelled by the fact that second-hand clothing is only sold to Africa because it is deemed to no longer be of value to consumers in developed countries. In Ghana, second-hand clothes are referred to as ‘dead old white man’s clothes’, a statement which speaks volumes about the level of dignity associated with second-hand clothes
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What can be done to improve the situation?
Reviving Africa’s textile industry
The African textile industry is constrained by its fair share of challenges, but stakeholders in the African fashion industry are making efforts to set it on a path to recovery. In order to revive the African textile industries and stimulate local demand for garments, there is need for investment in infrastructure, technology, and proper policy prescriptions so as to aid competitiveness of local textile industries, as previously mentioned. A great example is the policy stance taken by Rwanda through raising tariffs for second hand clothing in 2018. Although the country lost its AGOA benefits, it diversified its export markets to Belgium, Democratic Republic of Congo and Hong Kong. Resultantly, the export value of its textile garment products rose from US$5.9 million in 2018 to US$34.6million in 2020. Furthermore, Rwanda’s demand for locally produced garments also surged, giving an opportunity for Rwandan brands such as Moshions and Haute Baso an opportunity to increase their market share.
Investing in recycling and upcycling through second-hand industries
Banning second-hand clothing is a complex decision due to trade conditions previously alluded to. However, second-hand clothing can feed into Africa’s textile value chain through up-cycling and repurposing of old clothes. With the required investment in the recycling industries, the African fashion industry can produce new products of higher value, which they will be able to export at competitive prices to markets in the developed world. Organizations such as The Revival in Ghana are already making strides in this area, by up-cycling global textile waste.
Cover picture: Thiébaud Faix / Unsplash