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Can Rags Create Riches? Used Clothing in Kenya

By Kate Holby

Ruth is quickly sifting through used clothes at Daraja Mbili, an open-air market in Kisii, Kenya. Like any seasoned shopper, she knows what she is looking for and wastes no time debating. She does, however, spend a lot of time bargaining over the price of tight-fitting jeans and an Abercrombie T-shirt. Ruth is looking to buy clean, stylish clothes to sell in her small shop just a kilometer up the road. All of Ruth’s clothes are used, but as she points out, they look just as good as new. Well, sort of.

Ruth is on the receiving end of the disposable clothing culture. She operates in a quasi-aid economy where clothes are donated to Western charities, then packed into bales and sold to Kenyan importers. The clothes are sold to wholesalers who sell to retailers who then sell to people such as Ruth.  

This food chain of used clothes primarily begins with free and donated clothes. Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, traces the path of these clothes, beginning with the Quincy Street Salvation Army in Brooklyn, New York. This Salvation Army serves as the main distribution center for eight Salvation Army locations in Brooklyn and Queens, and processes an average of five tons of used clothing a day. According to Cline, the clothes have one month to sell before they are taken off the hangers and compressed into half-ton bales. The Quincy Street Salvation Army compiles 36 bales, or 18 tons of clothing, every three days.

These bales are then sold to the Trans-Americas Trading Company in Clifton, New Jersey. The company advertises, “Your nonprofit can raise money” right on its website. Working with the same quick decisiveness as Ruth, 85 employees sort through 16.8 million pounds of clothes each year in Clifton. This clothing is then sold to exporters, who bring the clothing to countries like Kenya.

From the U.S. shores to Kenyan “stores,” what effect is this cheap, used-clothing having on Kenya’s society and economy? Some argue that the used clothing trade, or “mitumba,” as it is locally known, has undermined Kenya’s textile industry. Indeed, the figures are hard to ignore. In the mid-1980s, the Kenyan textile industry employed about 30 percent of the national manufacturing labor force, and was the fourth largest contributor to the country’s GDP. At its peak in 1984, the textile industry was the second largest employer after the civil service. Now the textile industry employs less than 20,000—far below the 250,000 it once employed. According to the Kenyan Cotton Development Authority (CODA), there were once 77 cooperative factories processing cotton; now there are only 10 cotton cooperatives. There were once 54 textile mills, now only 15 remain.

But the decline in the Kenyan textile industry is as old and multilayered as the clothing it imports. The decline in the industry came with the trade-liberalization policies in the early 1990s, allowing for greater competition from Asian clothing and textiles. Locally produced clothing couldn’t compete with the quality and price of these imported goods. A drought from 1995 to 1997 and the mismanagement and corruption of the Kenyan Cotton Board pushed the industry to collapse.

Used clothing was initially introduced to Kenya in the late 1980s and early 1990s in response to regional wars and the number of refugees needing cheap clothing. The global trade in used clothing took off in the 1990s. While the data on the used clothing industry are slim, a 2005 Oxfam report conservatively estimates the global trade in second-hand clothes is about $1 billion annually.

And a growing trade means growing employment. Simone Fields, who extensively researches the industry in Sub-Saharan Africa, estimates that in 2004 the used clothing industry employed around 5 million people in Kenya. Kenya suffers from overpopulation and unemployment. The unemployment rate now stands at around 40 percent. One wonders if the Kenyan textile industry had continued to grow naturally at its mid-1980 pace, would be able to employ around 5 million people today. Would Ruth have a job if it weren’t for the used clothing industry?

The used clothing industry is like a pesticide—suppressing the textile industry from sprouting, while allowing other industries to flourish. Without the pesticide of used clothing, the textile industry would probably not grow very tall—but right now it is not growing at all. And like a pesticide, the used clothing industry comes with toxic costs.  

There are environmental, economic, and moral costs to old T-shirts. Clothing may be first manufactured in Bangladesh and shipped to the U.S. where it is worn a few times before it is then trucked across the U.S., put on a ship to Kenya, and then trucked throughout that country.  There are mounting emissions by our mounting donations of clothing. With all of this transport, one must ask, Is the concept of “buying local” reserved for only rich Westerners? Should we be exporting more sustainable concepts rather than old T-shirts that were worn at youth soccer games?

Economically, the used clothing industry have created millions of informal jobs and given Kenyans access to affordable, quality clothing as the cost of living rises. But it has also cost Kenyans jobs that would have been created with a more vibrant domestic textile industry. The Kenyan government recognizes this loss in industry, and plans to build a Textile City with the sole goal of job creation. This city would attract textile manufacture and source their material externally in an effort to revive the industry. The Ministry of Industrialization and Enterprise development plans to create more than 200,000 sustainable textile jobs by 2016. The ministry recognizes the need for sustainable job creation in a way that those donating clothes do not.

They say one person’s trash is another’s treasure. Is Western clothing waste Kenya’s treasure? Walking through the small village of Tabaka, in western Kenya, I noticed a small child wearing a T-shirt that read “Kiss My Lips,” and another young boy, with no shoes on, wearing a pink T-shirt that said “I spent my summer flirting.” Their mothers had bought the shirts for the quality, unaware of the meaning. People in the U.S. had bought these same shirts for what they said, not necessarily caring about the quality.

This disconnect in perception speaks to the larger disconnect in how the West views Africa as a vessel of aid. The West needs to realize that disposable clothing is not sustainable at home, and that a charity economy is not sustainable abroad. While the used clothing industry might create some low-income jobs, it is no way to build an economy. This industry does not build infrastructure: it creates no factories, it creates no cotton mills, it does not drive the building of roads and bridges. Many countries, such as the U.S., consider textiles a building block to other industries. And even now, the U.S. fights to maintain its own textile industry. So maybe giving the shirt off your back isn’t such a great idea after all.



Kate Holby is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Kate Holby]


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