Sweden’s Minister for Environment and Climate Change visits ‘Trashion’ Ground Zero

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Romina Pourmokhtari, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change for Sweden has visited one of the major scenes of environmental crimes in Kenya caused by fast fashion which was depicted in the Trashion report and documentary. This report and documentary was released to the public by Changing Markets Foundation, Clean Up Kenya and Wildlight in February 2023 and showed that up to 40 percent of clothing exported from the United Kingdom and the European Union were such of low quality that they immediately became waste. This report and documentary has received widespread global media coverage including from media agency AFP France, El Pais of Spain, The East African and NTV Kenya from Kenya, Deutsche Welle (DW), Switzerland’s biggest newspaper Le Temps, among others.

The scene the Minister visited is a section of Nairobi River, along Gikomba market, the hub of imported Second Hand Clothing in Kenya. This section is a recipient of tremendous textile waste from the activities of Gikomba market and is Ground Zero for fossil fashion.

Kenya imports around 200,000 tonnes of Second Hand Clothing every year, with a majority of these ending up at Gikomba market as the first port of call. Unfortunately most of these clothing are having a devastating impact on the environment as the Trashion report was able to show. This impact starts at Ground Zero where there is an industry of repurposing of the imported SHC that has developed over the years. This repurposing is a blunt reminder that the Second Hand Clothing exported to Kenya can not be sold as they are and have to be repurposed. Mostly, the repurposing is done on adult clothing that are either torn or some parts are stained or the cloth is too big. For example, you will observe tailors converting adults hoodies into children trouser pants. But also oversize clothing are trimmed to fit Kenya’s styles. This leads to tonnes of clothing cut offs being dumped into Nairobi River everyday as there is non-existent waste management in the market. The textile clothing have over time created a massive layer like carpet on the river banks for the clothing waste that are unable to be washed downstream by the river water into the Indian Ocean. Walking on this part of Nairobi River banks feels like treading on sponge and its easy for feet to cave in with missteps.

If you walk into Gikomba, you will see some people trying to fashion the textile cutoffs into mobs, a powerful sign of resilience and innovation, but their efforts are only a drop in the ocean, because Ground Zero is not just a recipient of cut offs, but also of whole clothing that can’t be sold in the market or are unable to make it to the thriving rags industry.

This is what the Minister from Sweden was exposed to by walking along the section of Nairobi River. Later she held an informal dialogue with those who had accompanied her, at a once illegal dumpsite but now a rehabilitated public park near the river.

Polluted Nairobi River with cloth Waste generated by down cycle of imported Second hand clothes from Gikomba market in Nairobi City. Photo by Clean Up Kenya / Changing Markets Foundation

The Minister, was accompanied by, Caroline Vicini, the ambassador for Sweden to Kenya, Clean Up Kenya Founder and Patron, Betterman Simidi Musasia, and representatives from Mitumba Consortium Association of Kenya and officials from the private sector representing waste management. Business Sweden also took part in this trip, to evaluate how Sweden can partner with Kenya to pioneer circular solutions to waste and fashion.

Romina Pourmokhtari is the highest foreign government official from the European Union to visit Gikomba and is part of a growing list of officials including EU ambassadors to Kenya and international media who have recently visited Ground Zero, with some of the visits being facilitated by Clean Up Kenya.

The Trashion report established that countries in the Global South, including Kenya are Ground Zero for fast fashion, which is fueled by fossil fuels. The report showed that sorting of Second Hand Clothing in export countries was increasingly failing and the clothing sent to Kenya was unsuitable, some being climate or culturally inappropriate, damaged, some small or oversize, some unfit for local styles, and some of the clothing covered in vomit, stains or otherwise damaged beyond repair.

These findings have been denied by Mitumba Consortium Association of Kenya who have released a rebuttal report claiming the trade is having a negligible impact on the environment. Their claims are also being aggressively supported by organizations like Taka Taka Solutions, a private waste management business based in Nairobi, who claim clothing waste in Nairobi is only about 2 percent. It is not clear why Taka Taka Solutions is ’emotionally’ invested in this topic, given in the past they have received glowing reviews for their work in waste management in Nairobi.

However, even with all these denials, the visuals of a polluted Nairobi River with textiles is something that you can not unsee once you visit Ground Zero.

It is important to note that the Trashion research methodology specifically looked at clothing in imported bales from the United Kingdom and the European Union and not percentages on landfills which are part of other waste streams including organic waste, plastics, among others, which could be informing Taka Taka Solutions assertions.

The visit by the Sweden’s Minister comes on the backdrop of increasing interest by the multi lateral community to dialogue the impact of clothing on the planet. At UNEA 6, there were some discussions on this problem. Romina Pourmokhtari spoke at one of these meetings and announced that France and Sweden will put up a proposal at the next Conference of the Parties (COP 30) to have textiles included in the Basel Convention. This is important since clothing is now increasingly being made from plastic materials like polyester by up to 70 percent. The Basel Convention controls international shipments of plastic waste and this will be the first time textiles are being proposed to be included. She further said textiles should also be included in the Global Plastics Treaty which is currently under development.

Speaking at the informal engagement with the Minister at Ground Zero, Betterman Simidi Musasia reiterated that the purpose of the Trashion report and documentary is not to see a prohibition of Second Hand Clothing exports to Kenya like other countries in East Africa including Rwanda have done, but to improve the quality for the imported clothing by stopping textile waste trafficking, but ultimately, the Extended Producer Responsibility fees which are set to be collected by the European Union countries ‘must follow the clothing’ when they leave the EU. These fees would then help in managing the end of life of clothing in countries such as Kenya.