France, Sweden, and Denmark Propose Ban on EU Second-Hand Clothing Exports

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In what would look like a big blow to the global second-hand clothing cartel, France, along with Sweden and Denmark, are making a bold proposal to ban the export of second-hand clothes from the EU, reports Reuters. The goal is to curb the flow of used textiles to countries where they often cause pollution and overwhelm local waste management systems.

For years, the second-hand clothing trade has been a lifeline for communities across Africa. Market vendors, thrift store owners, and up-cyclers have woven their livelihoods around this industry, giving millions of people a source of income and providing affordable clothing to the populations. But here’s the rub: 1.4 million metric tons of used textiles are shipped out of the EU each year. Where do they end up? Often in African countries, where they overwhelm local waste management systems and pollute the environment. Some of the cloths, between 20 to 40 percent, according to a research done in Kenya by Changing Markets Foundation, Clean Up Kenya and Wildlight, are shipped in as waste to begin with, and cannot be re-worn without repurposing. The research also established that tonnes of these clothing ends up being sold as industrial rags where they may be used to wipe a machine once, before ending up on the dumpsite, or are simply discarded into Nairobi River. Similar researches from Ghana also show the devastating impact of second hand clothing on the environment and on communities.

Kenya’s Senator Hamida Kibwana, has termed this sending of low quality clothing to Kenya as ‘dumping’ and has requested for a ministerial statement in the Kenyan senate for the same.

The uncontrolled sending of second-hand clothing to African countries is largely driven by the fashion industry, once a symbol of creativity and self-expression, now has morphed into a voracious monster relentlessly churning tonnes of clothing that is leaving behind a trail of environmental devastation. Some of the brands like H&M, Zara and Shein, are introducing thousands of new items every year, driving overproduction and over-consumption.

In a statement about the ban proposal to Reuters, the French Ministry for Environment has said, “Africa must no longer be the dustbin of fast-fashion.”

France will table the proposal at the Environment Council meeting in Brussels on March 25, 2024. It is not clear whether this proposal will receive the support of other EU countries, some of which are sorting hubs for the second-hand clothing and may be abetting the textile waste trafficking.

Environmentalists and sustainability advocates across the world are welcoming France’s proposal. They argue that reducing the export of used clothes will encourage responsible consumption and promote circular fashion practices. By keeping textiles within the EU, the hope is to minimize waste and encourage recycling and upcycling.

However, the millions of Africans who depend on the 10 US Billion dollar trade will be concerned with the ban as this is very disruptive. The blame should however be placed at the heart of the key players which involves charities, recycling companies, exporters and destination country importers who often behave like a cartel. First, they have managed to convert a goodwill gesture of donating cloth into a billion dollar industry, often benefiting themselves. The charities for example, through this trade, sell donated clothing to those in poverty abroad and use the proceeds to fund their programs in rich countries. Secondly, the cartel aggressively resists any scrutiny in to the industry and have failed to recognize the ecological impact of the trade.

Minister for Environment and Climate Change for Sweden, Romina Pourmokhtari, (second right) recently visited Nairobi River to see the impact of clothing on the environment

In reacting to the proposal by France, Clean Up Kenya Founder and Patron, Betterman Simidi, who was part of the international team that designed and executed the investigation that finally opened the lid on this issue and brought it to the attention of the global media and policy makers and recently accompanied the Minister for Environment and Climate Change for Sweden, Romina Pourmokhtari, to observe the devastating impact of the clothing on Nairobi River, has stated, “Looks like France has chosen the easy route. In our engagement with policy makers from Europe, there is a feeling that they are not interested in designing Extended Producer Responsibility regulations for textiles where the EPR money follows the clothing when these are shipped out of Europe as second hand clothing. Perhaps the policy makers see this as a political problem to design such a law. Our position has always been that the second-hand clothing industry is an important part of the circular economy as it extends the life of clothing and we support the principle of the EPR money following the cloths. We, however, welcome this proposal by France, as a catalyst step in driving discussions that can culminate in holistic global policy to reduce the impact of clothing on the planet.”