'Oxfam’s used clothing trade in Africa opened employment, cut waste'

Second-hand clothing business has changed peoples’ lives for the better — they get a fair wage, steady employment, health care and pensions

By Kundan Pandey
Last Updated: Wednesday 29 May 2019

A few African countries have been vocal in the last couple of years against the import of old clothes from developed countries. Such imports, they claim, have ruined local industries while going against the dignity of the local people. The United States (US), on the other hand, has pressured thee countries to keep taking old clothes in. While others backtracked, Rwanda levied heavy duties on imported used clothing.

Down To Earth spoke to Ian Falkingham of Frip Ethique — a Senegal-based social enterprise project by non-profit Oxfam. The project, started 2006, engages with the old clothing business. Excerpts from the interview:

What is the volume of second-hand clothes coming to Oxfam and being exported to Africa?

Most of Oxfam’s second-hand clothing trade to Africa is run by Frip Ethique. Frip is the local term for used cloth, so it means ethical second-hand fashion.

About 30 per cent of the clothes sent to Oxfam's recycling hub Wastesaver in Batley, West Yorkshire (UK), are shipped to Senegal — that’s about 2,000 tonnes a year. The clothes are bought by Frip Ethique at market rates, sorted by its employees and then sold to local traders who have stalls in Dakar’s second-hand clothing market. These clothes are suitable for the hot climate. 

A few containers are exported to Ghana. It very much captures the African market. Since there are no real textile industries as such in Senegal, there comes no question of damaging the local industry. The country’s laws welcome old clothing business and it has changed workers’ lives for the better: They get a fair wage, steady employment, health care and pensions — unusual in Senegal.   

The primary market for second-hand clothing business of Oxfam is the UK. We get these second-hand clothes because we have 610 chains of shops around high streets in the country. These shops also sell second-hand books.

None of the clothes donated to us end up as landfill thanks to Wastesaver.

Is Senegal the only country in Africa you export second-hand clothing to? 

Besides Senegal, Oxfam also exports clothing to a company in Ghana. The global non-profit has a strict ethical policy to export only to countries where we have a net beneficial or neutral effect. We do not export to countries which ban the trade in second-hand clothing. 

In places where the trade in second-hand clothes does not undermine a viable textile industry, we believe the sale of donated second-hand clothing can provide people with affordable clothing and a means of working their way out of poverty. 

How do you see the cycle of used clothing moving from developed world to Africa?

I see these cycles of donated clothes reaching to Africa in very positive way. When I asked people in Senegal why they purchased second-hand clothes over new ones, their response was similar to what we get in the UK.

Most of the new clothing comes from China or Bangladesh. Either they spend high cost for clothes that are not good in quality or they spend less and get range of options. It is more individual, about “my personality-my character”. In the second-hand clothing market, every item is unique and none of their friends will have the same. Around 70 per cent population of Senegal uses second hand clothing.

Is it an issue of dignity as raised by few African Countries?

We introduced Frip Ethique in Senegal because we were welcomed by local authorities. The trade has helped hundreds of thousands of people as they are making their living out if it. It allows people to get clothes quite cheaper, which mean that they have more money to invest in other priorities of their families.

Further, the buyer has the liberty of choosing new clothes from China or an old one from UK. It cannot be said it is compromising their dignity, rather it gives them more options.

A few developed countries like the US are taking action against African countries and pushing them to take the old clothes. How do you see this?

It is quite worrying. It is entirely the decision of a country to accept or reject old clothes. It is their sovereign right and the pressure put on Rwanda by the US and other East-African countries is wrong in every term. We, at Oxfam, are quite clear that we will not sell old clothes to any country, which do not permit us.

How do you see the need of circular economy?

It is incredibly important. There is a movement in the UK which is pushing people to buy less and look for things which could last longer. The movement also promotes repairing clothes, and making adjustments, reviving and reusing old clothes. There is very strong perception against modern disposable items.

At Oxfam, we always push for and we are finding renewed interest of people in sustainable items. The scale of consumption in developed countries is just not sustainable. Oxfam works in more than 70 countries and many of the communities are suffering due to climate change. Oxfam represents the idea of a circular economy.

Is there any impact of imported used clothes on local textile industries?

There might be some. But, in general, if a country tries to improve its textile industry, it would focus more on exports — like the case of Bangladesh or Cambodia. I do not think there is any impact on the local industry due to the import of old clothes.

Oxfam has a strict ethical policy only to export to countries where we believe we have a net beneficial or neutral effect. We have commissioned research that has confirmed this is the case. We know that thousands of street sellers, mostly women, are making sustainable livelihoods out of repairing, washing and selling this clothing. In places where the trade in second-hand clothes does not undermine a viable textile industry, we believe the sale of donated second hand clothing can provide people with affordable clothing and a means of working their way out of poverty.

Furthermore, the money we raise from this trade — and the rest of the profit from our clothes business — is spent on our programmes and we therefore believe the benefits are significant. 

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