Bei ya kuongea: The second-hand impact on the Fashion Industry

Mitumba or mtush. There was a time no one in their fashionably acclimatized mind would EVER admit that they got their clothes by standing in a heap of second hand clothes in an open air flea market. It was ‘this old thing? I got it from abroad.’ And technically you weren’t lying. But times have changed and we’ve embraced the global hand-me-downs, proudly proclaiming how dirt-cheap the item is. Plus we reassure ourselves that it prevents us from bumping into ten other Kenyans tromping around the CBD in the same frock. But what does that KShs.30 top or KShs.800 pair of curtains actually cost you and the fashion industry at large?

“There is now this notion that fashion is just a commodity. Fashion should be about cherishing clothes and creating an identity, [but today it’s] based on constant adrenalin and the excitement of purchasing. There is no anticipation or dreaming. Nothing lasts or is looked after. We each have a mini-landfill in our closets.”

Reasons why cast-offs are so readily available

Eighty percent. That’s how many Africans are estimated to rely on Second Hand Clothing (SHC). You just need to take a moment and review what you’re wearing right now. How much of it is made in Kenya and what percentage came from Toi / Gikomba? There are different angles to approach why there just always seems to be a new container arriving at our docks:

Over consumption and Overproduction by the West

Long gone are the days when clothing was just a necessity. When that ‘Sunday best’ dress was to be worn for at least a year longer after you’d outgrown it. Today we are surrounded by extreme clothing consumption. A vicious cycle that sees the consumer buy a large quantity of the latest trends, often pushed by the psychology in the urgency of their purchase. The director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion in an interview with the businessoffashion.com commented on this new fashion psychology, “There is now this notion that fashion is just a commodity. Fashion should be about cherishing clothes and creating an identity, [but today it’s] based on constant adrenalin and the excitement of purchasing. There is no anticipation or dreaming. Nothing lasts or is looked after. We each have a mini-landfill in our closets.”

[Image: Courtesy of emaze.com]
[Image: Courtesy of emaze.com]
But then the new wave of frequent assortments roles in and the consumer needs to create space to acquire all the new shiny fashion things! According to the US Census 2015, in the USA alone, the annual retail sales in 2013 were $244.5 Billion from $120.1 billion USD in 1992. With the industry adopting a fast fashion model, they are able to supply the demand by outsourcing to low-priced manufacturing countries. However, for the cost to be at that great low price, they have to order in bulk from the manufacturers. So after the retail season is over, and the sales have come and gone, what are they to do with the excess? For example, the UK has 1.4 million tonnes of clothes annually discarded in landfills which isn’t working anymore due to environmental concerns. What to do?

…because African states didn’t have legislation or any solid plan in place, it opened up the local economy to second-hand clothes. Africa became the world’s landfill. In other words, if you’re still looking for the other sock…It’s already in Africa.

Then there’s that thing the IMF did

In the 1990s the International Monetary Fund (IMF) initiated economic liberalization with the aim of achieving market friendly policies. On paper, Countries could easily move their products to and from each other, encouraging and improving trade. In reality, because African states didn’t have legislation or any solid plan in place, it opened up the local economy to second-hand clothes. Africa became the world’s landfill. In other words, if you’re still looking for the other sock, just stop and let it go. It’s already in Africa. The IMF in 2001 explained that this happened due to, “complex, deep-seated structural problems, weak policy frameworks and institutions, and protection at home and abroad”.  Apparently the industries were already on shaky grounds in the 1980s and the IMF’s policy was just the butterfly effect waiting to happen.  Hence the derailing of existing textiles that further perpetuated the cycle of dependency. 

SHC exports to Africa [Image: Courtesy of Atlantis Exports LTD]
SHC exports to Africa [Image: Courtesy of Atlantis Exports LTD]
So they donated

The average donor isn’t actually aware of all that economic struggle. When consumer’s tire of their clothes they engage in what they believe is the positive recycling act and donate to the needy. They’re trying to do a good thing but the numbers of clothes making their way to the donation bins is much more than donation firms knew what to do with. To give you a rough idea, in 2015 the Salvation Army collected from the United States a total 80 million pounds of clothing. Now, the Salvation Army and Goodwill have been receiving donations from as early as the 1880s and even began to sell some of the clothing for income to support their charitable projects from the 1950s. But they have one month to move the influx of donations, whether it’s free or being sold. So they were left with a dilemma of what to do with clothes twice rejected.

Hidden professionalism

The most sophisticated charities have their own registered sorting and exporting firms. What is not sold in their stores is sent to their registered trading subsidiaries, such as oxfam watersave above, where the pieces of clothing are packed and baled for exportation. [Image: Courtesy of Oxfam]
The most sophisticated charities have their own registered sorting and exporting firms. What is not sold in their stores is sent to their registered trading subsidiaries, such as oxfam watersave above, where the pieces of clothing are packed and baled for exportation. [Image: Courtesy of Oxfam]
Globally, the SHC trade is valued over $1 Billion annually with it being a dominant feature in Sub-Saharan countries. Take for example the information put out by the UK-based anti-poverty organisation Oxfam Wastesaver in 2014. It states that 300 bales of SHC can be sold for around £25,000 (approx. KShs 3.6 million at current exchange rate) in Africa with only £2,000 (around KShs 30,000) in transport costs. Even after deducting the other costs such as collection from the port, it still works out to be a highly lucrative industry, especially since the clothes were free donations to begin with.  Kenya alone annually imports around 100,000 tonnes of second-hand clothes, shoes and accessories while East Africa imported SHC worth a whopping $151 million (Approx. over KShs15 Billion) last year.

The Impact

To be unbiased, we’ll start with the argued benefits. The most obvious being employment, SHC industry is said to be a source of income for several people along the line. This includes transporting, distributing, cleaning, repairing, restyling and so on. Then there’s the fact that most Africans have low purchasing power.  Poor consumers are able to meet their basic needs. However, it can’t be denied that a large number of the Sub-Saharan population, regardless of economic class, choose SHC for their affordability.

[Image: Noor Khamis/Reuters]
[Image: Noor Khamis/Reuters]
[Image: Khallil Senosi/AP]
[Image: Khallil Senosi/AP]
But it came at the price of the loss of Kenya’s once vibrant textile industry. If it weren’t for the (The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act) AGOA lifeline in 2000, the textile and apparel industry would be have been extinct. But this didn’t save the labour intensive industry and those previously proud 500,000 jobs have dwindled down to 20,000 at best. But to be fair it wasn’t all the SHC fault for its undoing. The textile industry just couldn’t compete with the ready to wear and cheaper clothes because of the lack of domestic credit, as well as the lack of government aid or assistance when it came to high interest rates, expensive raw materials and high import tariffs if you wanted to update your machinery.

What measures Kenya has taken

The leaders of the East African Community, namely President Uhuru Kenyatta, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Tanzania’s John Magufuli, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame unanimously agreed on the banning of SHC. They however granted SHC traders temporally relief by postponing the planned ban on mitumba to 2018/9. Some economists disagree with the move to ban as it goes against free trade principle. There is also concern that Kenyans would then be forced to buy higher priced, lower quality local goods or the alternative of purchasing from Asia.  However there are still other proposals on the table other than a complete ban of the goods. One being, doubling the duty rates for finished clothes as well as the option of creating regional processing parks to produce cheaper clothes for domestic markets. The duty would go to subsidising local production and increasing its manufacturing capacity.

The leaders of the East African Community…unanimously agreed on the banning of SHC. They however granted SHC traders temporally relief by postponing the planned ban on mitumba to 2018/9.

Let’s say the ban does happen three years from now. What has the EAC put in place to ensure that it’s a win-win situation for the textile and manufacturing industry as well as their citizens? According to a report in the Guardian US, the ban wouldn’t cover foreign imports if they were new. And if you take the example of South Africa, new western clothes still work out cheaper than locally manufactured ones. They’d also need to reboot their manufacturing industries and that requires promotion and restructuring of industrial policies. This includes the supporting of industries such as transportation, communication, improved agriculture techniques and power supplies to mention a few. The governments would have to look at how to link to each other in order to readily supply the raw materials and support each other. As well as look internally at tax reliefs and proposing export incentives.

[Image: Stan Honda/AFP /Getty Images]
[Image: Stan Honda/AFP /Getty Images]
There’s a lot of streamlining and policy making if we ever want to come to a feasible solution. The government can start by looking onto the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that was set up to help countries protect themselves against dumping. They’d also have to streamline the textile industry so that we can actually have local quality products and steady job creation into the millions. With the abundance of raw material, and cheaper labour it’s not comprehendible how Africa is incapable to produce and export textile and apparel. It’s a fact that prosperous nations such as China and South Korea didn’t get to where they are by relying on hand outs from the west. They got there by protecting their domestic markets. Africa has the tools to make their textile industry strong and self-sufficient. If only we could work together to make this a reality. But until then, we have three years to see what the EAC will achieve with the SHC issue.

 

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