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Kenyan reuse market for second-hand clothing ‘an example to the world’

Representatives of textile recyclers around the world have made an impassioned plea for countries to follow the example of economies in Africa and embrace the consumption of used clothing and textiles to move towards a circular economy. They also say they want to ‘set the record straight’ over recent media coverage of the export of export of second-hand clothing.

The call comes from the US-based Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), the European Recycling Industries’ Confederation (EuRIC), the UK’s Textile  Recycling Association (TRA) and the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) who insist it is crucial to understand the used clothing supply chain. ‘There is a common misconception that secondhand clothing exported to developing countries partially ends up being discarded right away,’ they say.

‘The fact is clothing not sold directly in the market simply gets passed down the supply chain and ends up selling in other smaller markets throughout the region. If you follow simple rationale, it is easy to understand that no profitable business will spend money on packing, shipping, and distributing a product only to have it end up in a landfill.’

Jackie King, executive director of SMART, argues that textile reuse and recycling is the solution rather than the problem. ‘Secondhand clothing exported to countries is sorted and graded for customer needs or preferences. The reality is if clothing doesn’t sell, it is often shipped to other worldwide markets for resale or recycling – not thrown away.’

Martin Böschen, president of BIR’s textile division says it does not make sense for importers to import secondhand textiles which are not suitable for the local market. ‘Discarding or recycling those textiles in the US or Europe would be cheaper than sending them to Africa.’

The organisations quote a study from the Institute of Economic Affairs in Kenya earlier this year which assessed the used clothing industry and its contributions to the Kenyan economy.

It found that the used clothing textile industry is crucial to Kenya’s economy with two million people directly employed. It said consumers are seeking good value clothing on limited budgets. ‘The typical income earner in Kenya spends about 40% of monthly earnings to procure food alone. The rest of the available income is spent on shelter, transportation, education, health, and other needs.’ An estimated 91.5% of households in Kenya buy secondhand clothes.

Additionally, Kenya imported 185 000 tonnes of secondhand clothing in 2019 equivalent to an approximate 8 000 containers. Many businesses are operated by women, which helps promote gender equality. For every 100 used garments purchased, 60-85 new garments are displaced. In turn, that means there is a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and the use of toxins which would have been caused by the production of new textiles.

Alan Wheeler, ceo of the TRA, who criticised media reports of textile exports from developed countries in Recycling international in July, says the benefits for Kenya can have the same effect globally. ‘The used clothing industry will continue to underpin the viability of circular business models for decades to come and supplying used clothing to markets and people wherever they are in the world will be fundamental to achieving the maximum environmental benefits as well as social and economic benefits.’

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