Used Clothing Trade Debate Continues in Kenya

A new study by the Changing Markets Foundation suggests severe negative environmental and social, economic impacts of used clothing exports to Kenya. However, the Textile Recycling Association, based in the UK, argues strongly in favor of the benefits of the used clothing trade.

Concerns about the used clothing exports to Kenya (viewpoints from the Changing Markets Foundation)

  • Data from the United Nations (UNComtrade) shows that Kenya’s used clothing imports surged by over 500% from 2005 ($27 million) to 2021 ($172 million).
  • An overwhelming volume of used clothing shipped to Kenya is waste synthetic clothing, a toxic influx creating devastating consequences for the environment and communities. It is estimated that over 300 million items of damaged or unsellable clothing made of synthetic or plastic fibers are exported to Kenya each year, where they end up dumped, landfilled, or burned, exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis.
  • Interviews with used clothing traders in Kenya show that 20–50% of the used clothing in bales they purchased was unsellable due to being damaged, too small, unfit for the climate or local styles, and sometimes even with clothing that is covered in vomit, stains or otherwise damaged beyond repair.
  • European sorting companies often skimmed off high-quality used clothing for resale in the local EU market. They exported the lower-quality and lower-graded ones to developing countries like Kenya.
  • It remains challenging to recycle synthetic clothing as it often contains harmful additives or other materials that make the recycling process difficult or impossible. Additionally, the quality of the recycled synthetic fibers is typically lower than that of the original fabric (i.e., using virgin fiber).

Defend the used clothing exports to Kenya (viewpoints from the Textile Recycling Association, TRA)

  • Sorting, trading and selling used clothing “directly employs two million people in Kenya alone , with tens of millions employed globally and supporting many more employment positions in ancillary sectors.”
  • “Used clothing and textiles collected in the UK, should go through a detailed sorting process and can be sorted typically into 130 plus re-use and recycling grades and sometimes this can be more than 200 grades. In the sorting process each garment is picked up and individually assessed by highly trained experts*.  The good quality re-useable products are segregated from the recycling grades.” [*According to Changing Markets Foundation’s report, about 36 million pieces of used clothing were exported from the UK to Kenya in 2021; All EU countries exported about 112 million pieces to Kenya]
  • “It is the buyers in these countries (note: countries like Kenya) that dictate the flows of (used clothing) textiles and which import the goods into their countries.”
  • “TRA members are required to ensure that only good quality re-usable clothing products are sold onto countries in Africa and other non-OECD countries.   Recycling grades and other non-textile/clothing items have to be removed… However, the majority of countries are not subject to the same tight restrictions on trading as the UK..  This is to the extent that some countries allow unsorted used textiles containing a complete mix of re-usable items, recycling grades, and waste to be sold into African countries as a product.” “The qualities of (used clothing) items originating from different countries is likely to vary significantly.”
  • “Kenyan’s buy more than 10 times as much used clothing from China than they do from the UK.”

Discussion questions for FASH455:

  • What is your stance on the used clothing trade? Should the government impose more export or import trade restrictions on used clothing?
  • After considering both sides of the debate, what is your decision regarding donating used clothing? What factors influenced your choice?
  • Any other thoughts or comments on the used clothing trade debate?

Additional reading:

Author: Sheng Lu

Professor @ University of Delaware

3 thoughts on “Used Clothing Trade Debate Continues in Kenya”

  1. The video highlighted a great issue in the Textile and Apparel industry. Shocking statistics such as 300 million garments are entering Kenya by stealth and saddening imagery of polluted rivers and overfilled landfills bring up an enlightened attitude towards the fashion industry’s current strategy of removing waste clothes. Even as a consumer in a developed country, it is clear to see the vast textile and apparel waste around us. Every thrift store is full of hundred to thousands of unwanted garments, combed through for actually wearable and stylish items. I know many friends who are overwhelmed by clothes, shop fast fashion, and have many items in their closets with the tags still on. There are not enough places and people for all the garments produced today. However, there is the other side of the debate that explains the shipments of garments in Kenya create over 200 million jobs. If countries were to be fully outlawed to send garments to Kenya, jobs would be lost and economies could collapse. As a developing nation, Kenya is at the short end of the stick. Despite the multiple poor effects of the T&A waste shipments, they are partially dependent on this industry to support their economy and developed nations depend on them to take the waste they have no space for. I still believe that donating clothes is an option, but a consumer must be mindful of when to throw out an item in their own country to prevent soiled garments from ending up across the oceans.

  2. This video made me worried for the future of the fashion industry, and is eye opening that the cheap plastic fibers that consumers actually desire right now are sitting in this landfill and millions of tons of it. The problem has been pushed elsewhere because of the little knowledge on the impact of the environment. Learning about the traders in Kenya that deal with the second hand clothing that has been exported with excess waste in the bails goes to show one exporter passing their problems off to another, without consideration of what to do with it next or where it will even end up. I understand that this is not even the retail industry’s largest issue; however, the unintentional or maybe intentional passing off of responsibilities is something that will burn bridges and relationships with nations once it comes to a certain point in time when nothing else can be done.

  3. Watching this video and reading through the article puts in perspective how wasteful consumers are, and has opened my eyes to wasteful habits of my own. Even though Kenya has been able to use some of these products for resale, the “mitumba” is usually too damaged with holes and stains and most of the clothing are low in quality. It is disheartening to hear about how shipments of clothing are being sent to Kenya even though the clothing is subpar and unsalable. This raises the question of if the countries exporting these goods are even checking their clothing, or if they are sending the clothing there knowing that they are sending mostly waste. It is hard to hear about how the overconsumption is other parts of the world, and definitely in America, is affecting the lives of those in Africa. Kenya is attempting to use the secondhand clothing to create a business, but in the end they are not even able to turn a profit on these goods. Even worse than that, is that the Kenyans are forced to deal with the extra waste, creating mountains of plastic clothing that will eventually burn and emit toxins into the environment and affect the workers. One fact that especially surprised me in the video was that 1 out of 3 pieces of clothing contained plastic, which will only continue to worsen the environmental impact of the fashion resale industry in Kenya

    Overall, the video continued to make me question my clothing choices and will continue to make me rethink my purchases. My question to my classmates is: What steps do you think should be taken to improve this process of resale in Kenya?

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