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Opinion: 'We can't export our way out of our fast fashion addiction'

Caitriona Rogerson highlights the social and environmental cost of the second-hand clothing trade on African countries.

Caitriona Rogerson

THE WORLD IS producing, consuming, and throwing away more clothes than ever before. 

Clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, with more than 150 billion garments produced annually.

Europeans are particularly guilty in this regard, throwing away 2 million tonnes of textiles each year. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned.

  • The Noteworthy team wants to investigate if we are doing enough to tackle fashion’s throwaway culture in Ireland. Support this project here

Many of us also donate our unwanted clothes to charity shops and clothing collection banks – but do we really know what happens after we lighten our load?

Globally, only 30% of collected clothing are resold on domestic markets due to poor quality and low resale value. The rest are baled up and sold to textile merchants who ship them overseas to sub-Saharan Africa to sell in countries like Kenya, Ghana and Senegal.

Caitriona Rogerson Fast Fashion 1 Dandora dumpsite in Nairobi is East Africa’s biggest landfill site and among the largest in the world. Source: Caitriona Rogerson

Economic and social cost

While exporting our used clothing to the Global South increases the lifespan of garments, provides access to cheap clothing for low income communities, and creates new local economies, not all of the impacts are positive.

The influx of vast quantities of cheap second-hand clothes from the West has largely killed off once vibrant local textile industries, drastically reducing the numbers of people employed in textile production. 

Kenya’s own textile industry employed over half a million people a couple of decades ago, from cotton farmers to weavers to tailors – today that number is less than 20,000 while over 140,000 tonnes of used clothing are now imported via each year, mainly from Europe, the US and Canada. 

The environmental cost is also stark. In addition to the increased carbon footprint of shipping clothing across the globe, only 70% of imported garments can actually be resold in host countries. Two-thirds of the remainder are cascaded to lower-value goods and one-third is dumped. 

Source: TheEEBchannel/YouTube

Environmental impacts

Although each bale of imported clothes is graded – from A-rated bales containing clothes that are in near-new condition to D-rated bales which are rags – quality varies, and buyers do not know the condition of clothing contained in the bales until they are purchased. 

According to Kenyan buyers interviewed for a 2020 documentary on clothing waste, up to 50% of clothes in the bales are of such poor quality that they cannot be resold and are burned or landfilled.  

Many receiving countries lack adequate waste & recycling infrastructure to deal with textiles, and so the West’s unwanted garments ultimately end their lives in overflowing landfill sites and blocked waterways in the Global South.

Some countries are taking action to crackdown on the problems. In 2018, for example, Rwanda became the first country in East Africa to impose a ban on the import of second hand clothes, opting to prioritise the recovery of its own textile industry.

However, as long as those in more affluent parts of the world continue to buy and discard clothes at our current rate, we will continue to shift the burden of our fashion waste to countries with the least capacity to deal with it.

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We need to radically transform our fast fashion economy in order to improve clothing design, collection, and reprocessing in order to promote a circular economy rather than a linear system of extraction, consumption and waste.

We can no longer export our way out of our fast fashion addiction.

Caitriona is the producer and director of Textile Mountain, a short documentary filmed in Kenya and Ireland to highlight the social and environmental cost of the second-hand clothing trade.

FAST FASHION INVESTIGATION

Do you want to know more about Ireland’s throwaway fashion culture?

The Noteworthy team wants to delve into the role of Irish companies in the fast fashion industry and what authorities are doing to tackle the fast fashion problem.

Here’s how to help support this proposal>

About the author:

Caitriona Rogerson

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