SEATTLE — The U.S. exports over a billion pounds of secondhand clothing to East Africa and other developing regions every year. While cheap and often affordable for poor families, these clothing shipments can actually negatively affect the economies of the countries that import them. Historically, used clothing imports have inhibited the growth of developing communities’ clothing industries and made it difficult for textile manufacturers and vendors to profit off their wares.
Long before they end up in Africa, these used garments are brought to secondhand shops in the U.S. like Goodwill and Salvation Army. If they are not sold within a designated period of time — about a month for most stores — the clothes are either thrown out or sold in mass quantities to traders, who sell them to vendors in developing countries. These vendors then retail the clothes at their storefronts or marketplaces.
Secondhand clothing sells for incredibly low prices at East African markets. Because most items are so cheap — think $1.50 for a pair of used jeans — consumers are less likely to purchase locally-made products, which appear expensive by comparison. The vendors of these wares cannot compete with the low prices of the imports, and as a result the local industries suffer.
Importing clothes from the U.S. additionally fosters a heavy reliance on the West in East African countries. This dependency makes it harder for African countries’ economies to develop on their own.
A 2006 study shows that East African countries began importing used clothes in the 1980s, when a debt crisis in Latin America hurt African markets. Developing countries took advantage of Africa’s struggling industries and relaxed restrictions on trade and began exporting used goods to the region. Since then, East African countries have seen a great decline in their domestic clothing industries. In Kenya, for example, the textile industry currently employs over 95 percent fewer workers than it did in the 1980s.
To keep the struggling clothing industries alive, some countries in the East African Community (EAC) proposed banning the importation of used clothes by 2019. The ban could boost the economies of East African countries, according to the ban’s supporters.
Betty Maina of the Ministry of EAC told The East African she believes the ban will be empowering for EAC countries. “[T]he region … is ready to transition itself into an industrial bloc through a higher level of production quality and manufacturing practices,” Maina said. Members of the EAC also hope that reducing second-hand clothing imports will instill a new sense of pride in the region.
The proposal faces opposition from the U.S., which benefits from the sale of used clothes in Africa. In response to the ban, the Office of U.S. Trade Representative has threatened to reevaluate the trade agreement the U.S. shares with various EAC countries under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). The act promises duty-free access to American markets under the condition that the involved African countries keep trade with the U.S. open, among other requirements.
Kenya has since backed off from the ban, while Rwanda still plans to eliminate secondhand clothing imports within the next two years.
Ending African imports of secondhand U.S. clothing will not completely fix the economies of the affected countries, since decades of dependency on the West have deeply hurt Africa’s economy. Still, Rwanda and other EAC countries hope banning or reforming the secondhand clothing industry will help them develop their own domestic clothing market.
In the meantime, think twice before you donate that once-worn top — you never know where it may end up.
– Sabine Poux