A pathway to a sustainable global used textiles economy

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Allow me to declare at the onset of this article that I love the idea of cloths donations. The circularity of cloths is a wonderful idea. Siblings pass down their clothing to their younger ones as they outgrow them. People lose or add weight, and then they first pass their clothing to family and friends, then strangers. A couple of years ago, on the first anniversary of the death of my father, we had a family meeting to inherit his cloths. I also buy second-hand clothing and sometimes these are better quality than new ones.  

So, the idea that I’m part of a mob that wants to collapse the global second-hand clothing industry are ridiculous. I’m an impact environmental campaigner based in Kenya and we campaign against all issues to do waste. Previously we have run aggressive public facing campaigns against the plastic corporate, which has contributed to the policy interventions being witnessed both locally and internationally today. The development of an Extended Producer Responsibility regime in Kenya and the development of a Global Plastic Treaty are examples.

For many years, however, the impact of clothing on the planet is something that has always fallen under the rudder and has not received much needed advocacy or policy attention. For example, in 2023, following the release of the Trashion report and documentary, we wrote to UN Environment (UNEP) seeking for a statement as to whether the United Kingdom and the European Union were breaching the provisions of the Basel Convention by exporting textile clothing waste under the guise of second-hand clothing to Kenya in contravention of international law. The UN environmental agency wrote back to state that they did not have a policy brief on the subject and had not done any specific research into the matter.

Yet the cloths we wear are having tremendous human, societal and environmental impacts – from production to end-of-life. These impacts include human rights violations of garment workers through the prevalence of low wages, forced and child labor, and dehumanizing work conditions. Then we have impacts on water. It is estimated for example that it takes around 2700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt – according World Resources Institute – enough to meet the average person’s drinking needs for two-and-a-half years. Garment factories also cause a lot of water pollution through release of hazardous chemicals and toxic fabric dyes into water bodies. And we have not even touched clothing now being increasingly made from plastics by up to 70 percent, and how these contribute to microplastics, and the linkage with oil, and the contribution to the climate change crisis.

These issues are now being made worse by the ultra-fast fashion industry, which has led to the massive overproduction of cloths in the history of man. Often, these clothing are cheap and low quality and some are disposable after only a few wears. It is estimated that we produce between 80 to 150 billion clothes every year. The exact number is unknown. Shockingly, 40 percent of these clothing, according to The Guardian, or about 60 billion garments, are never even sold in the first place. Brands like H&M, Zara and Shein have been nominated most times as leading the pack in this overproduction. These brands have, however, refused to publish the exact number of items they produce. This lack of transparency is truly heinous.

That’s not all, this ultra-fast fashion industry, is causing another problem. As more and more people buy more and more cloths, especially in developed countries, they dispose of what they have, in most cases in a well-meaning gesture of donations. A billion-dollar industry has thus been created around these donations as these cloths are sent to less developed countries, mostly in Asia and Africa, where they are wreaking havoc on the environment, as several studies have demonstrated. The quite recent and impactful investigation, carefully executed by the Changing Markets Foundation, Clean Up Kenya and Wildlight was able to finally bring this issue to the global limelight, which now leads us to the proposals like the ones that have been made by three EU countries, namely Denmark, Sweden and France and supported by Austria and Finland, to subject textile waste to the rules of the Basel Convention.

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was adopted on 22 March 1989 and entered into force on 5 May 1992. It is often lost to many that this convention was birthed following public outcry amplified by the work by civil society and the media following the discovery, in the 1980s, of deposits of toxic wastes sent from developed countries to poor countries. An example is the infamous Khian Sea waste disposal incident where a ship carrying incinerator waste from the United States dumped part of this on Haiti beaches. Because of the non-governmental organization Greenpeace vigilance to inform the Government of Haiti of what the waste was, the ship would then quickly leave the territories of the country and wander at sea with the remaining load for several months attempting to dump these in several other countries before dumping at sea under a changed ship’s name.

Similarly, the Basel Convention has since added plastic waste to its categorization of hazardous waste subject to transboundary restrictions, at the fourteens Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention in 2019, following a similar pattern where because of the work of civil society and the media to highlight the problem, a public outrage ensued, leading to the categorization. In all these cases, these policy interventions came after great cost to the environment and society.

It is no coincidence then, that the European Union, is now considering making the proposal to subject textile waste to the rules of the Basel Convention. This follows a public outcry following the work done by Changing Markets Foundation, Clean Up Kenya and Wildlight to unmask the secret transboundary trade of plastic waste in the name of second-hand clothing trade ending up in Kenyan rivers and dumpsites. While the definition of textile waste will be widely discussed in coming months, make no mistake, this proposal by the EU, targets the international trade of second-hand clothing and you can expect radical changes in the near future.

Environment Council meeting of EU Ministers for Environment where the proposal was made to subject textile waste to the rules of the Basel Convention on 25th March 2024

As the dust settles on this timely announcement at an Environment Council of European Ministers on 25th March 2024, let me make five recommendations that can save the global second-hand clothing economy.

  1. Preserve the intent of donations

We must work very hard to preserve the intent of those people who donate cloths. When people make cloths donations, their intention is that these should be accessible to others free of charge. They are not expecting that their donations will be profiteered on. That’s why donors trust charities with their gifts. But of course, the donors also understand that there are costs incurred by the charities in processing these gifts to make them available to those in need. That’s why they have accepted that the clothing can be resold at an affordable price to offset these costs. The donors have even accepted that the charities may make a small profit on the donations, trusting that these organizations will honor the donors’ altruism by utilizing the proceeds from the sale of these clothes to support charitable endeavors. Unfortunately, the charities have dropped the ball, and a different group of actors have embedded themselves into the value chain, often as profiteers, lacking the ethos that underpin charitable giving. Many of these charities have also been shortsighted. While they financially benefit from cloths donations, they do little charitable work in destination countries.

2. Decouple second hand clothing trade from profiteers

The next step we must do is to remove profiteers from the second-hand clothing value chain. These includes the corporate textile recycling conglomerates and the importers in the receiving countries. These entities have birthed a profit-driven behemoth that uses charitable donations for commercial gain. This cartel has shown that they are also not willing to conduct their business sustainably. By disengaging second-hand clothing from this cartel, we can realign the system with its original humanitarian and environmental mission to extend the life of clothing and uphold the ethos of generosity embedded in clothing donations and thwart the exploitation of goodwill. We must dismantle this exploitative enterprise.

3. Empower charitable organizations to be the guardians of second-hand clothing economy

In the new second-hand clothing economy, while preserving the intent of donors, we need to also empower charitable organizations to become the custodians of the second-hand clothing economy. Where recycling companies are involved, they should only be peripheral service providers, for example, providing collections, cleaning and sorting services.

It is a pity in the current economy, that cloths are categorized into grades, with the worst grades being sent to poorer countries, in a form of systemic racism and colonialism. When individuals donate their cloths, they don’t anticipate that their garments will become items of discrimination in a sorting facility.

To ensure equitable access to quality clothing across all races globally, we must democratize this trade by abolishing the current grading system. The only relevant criteria for grading should be whether the garment is wearable, recyclable, or has reached the end of its usable life. Transparent sorting guidelines need to be developed, standardized, and made publicly accessible.

With Extended Producer Responsibility fees being available for collections, cleaning, sorting, among others, we might even be able to see good quality second hand clothing being made available to all people of the world more affordably.

Something else to consider is we must dismantle the used textiles laundering system, where cloths are sent to other countries to be sorted and graded because of cheaper labour.

Only organizations certified as charitable should partake in this trade, ensuring that revenues flow back into humanitarian endeavours. A minimum of 30 percent of these proceeds must be dedicated to investments in receiver countries, bolstering initiatives aimed at curbing the ecological footprint of clothing consumption.

4. Build a Global EPR system that rewards sustainability

We also need to build a robust global Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system for textiles. It’s commendable to see several countries taking steps in this direction. However, global standardization must follow. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) must transcend national borders to confront the global migration of second-hand clothing. Funds garnered through EPR mechanisms in donor countries, intended for managing responsibility of producer through the textile lifecycle, must trail the clothing as it traverses borders. This guarantees that producers and importers bear the financial burden throughout the product lifecycle, irrespective of geographical boundaries.

Prior to dispatching second-hand clothing to receiver countries, it is imperative to establish sturdy and functional Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) systems in those countries. Sending countries should ban the exports of second-hand clothing to countries without these systems. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) should spearhead the formulation of standardized guidelines for EPR formulation and implementation, ensuring uniformity and effectiveness worldwide. Sending countries should be obligated to channel a minimum of 30 percent of the EPR fees to receiver nations, as end of life management fees.

5. Slay the demon of fast fashion

Finally, we must slay the demon of ultra-fast fashion and decouple it from fossil fuels. We can start by encouraging consumers to adopt a mindset of mindful consumption by advocating for buying fewer, but higher-quality clothing. We need to emphasize the importance of considering the environmental footprint of clothing and the benefits of reducing overall consumption. But ultimately, we must cultivate a global governance framework where overproduction is heavily taxed with the proceeds going directly to environmental protection. By embracing these imperatives, we can navigate the current turbulence and forge a path towards a more just, sustainable, and ecologically harmonious future for the second-hand clothing industry that ensures it serves both people and planet with integrity and compassion.

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, if we cannot radically reform the international second-hand clothing trade to serve humanity and the environment, I’m happy to see borders being permanently closed to this trade, and countries selling their own second-hand clothing in their own countries so that we continue the wonderful idea of donating cloths, which extends the lifetime of cloths, addresses clothing poverty, and benefits the environment.

Because, consider this scenario, if a ship docked on the shores of Felixstowe Port in Suffolk in the United Kingdom, and it was suspected that it was filled with containers full of second-hand clothing from Africa, there would be an overwhelming public outcry. This would probably lead to a meme being widely shared on social media, wondering whether the freshness of a lettuce would outlast Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in office! But somehow, we are told by a bunch of colonist profiteers, enabled by African bootlickers, that Africa must accept to receive bales of second-hand clothing stashed with 40 percent rubbish and ignore the visible impact of this trade on our environment. If you ask me, this is bullshit!

IMPORTANT NOTE: Together with campaigners Janet Chemitei and Ruth Okinyo, we have started a petition at CHANGE.ORG to sustainably reform the second-hand clothing trade in Kenya. This petition will be delivered to key Kenyan authorities in coming days. You can help our textile advocacy work by signing the petition today here or support our work here.

Betterman Simidi Musasia

Founder & Patron, Former CEO, Clean Up Kenya

Betterman is a sustainable public sanitation advocate and a pollution control evangelist. In 2015, after becoming extremely tired of seeing all the trash in Kenyan neighborhoods and hearing the authorities fake promises to clear the mess, he sold his trucking business to establish Clean Up Kenya. Today, the organization is a leading national sustainable public sanitation advocacy brand. In September 2020, he stepped down as Clean Up Kenya Chief Executive Officer and currently serves as Founder and Patron.