Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Capitalism profits from the rag trade

Around the developed world many thousands altruistically donate their unwanted used clothing to charity. But a number of countries Africa are fed up with the onslaught of second-hand items they receive from Western non-profits and wholesalers, and want to ban such imports altogether. The global wholesale used clothing trade is valued at about $3.7 billion. Suppliers like Global Clothing Industries, for example, solely send and ship used clothing, shoes and other items overseas. GCI exports to 40 countries in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and North and South America. Even nonprofits like Oxfam and Salvation Army aren’t giving away secondhand clothes for free. When supporters drop off unwanted goods, those organizations often deliver donated clothing to the developing world and sell them to traders. They, in turn, sell the items in their local markets

In 2014, a handful of East African countries imported more than $300 million worth of secondhand clothing from wealthy countries. The used items have created a robust market in East Africa and thereby a decent amount of jobs. But experts say the vast amount of these imports have devastated local clothing industries and led the region to rely far too heavily on the West. Uganda alone imported 1,261 tons of worn clothing and other items from the U.S. last year. And secondhand garments make up 81 percent of all clothing purchases there.

In March, the East African Community (EAC), which is made up of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda, proposed banning all imported used clothing and shoes by 2019. The goal is to stop relying on imports from rich nations, boost local manufacturing and create new jobs. However, the law is unlikely to pass. There is resistance from the U.S., which unloads hordes of secondhand clothes all over the world, and from sellers in East Africa whose livelihood depends on these shipments, as well as from experts who think an outright ban won’t be enough for these countries to restore production at home. Deborah Malac, U.S. Ambassador to Uganda warned that enacting it would “negatively impact” the benefits Uganda gets from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which aims to expand U.S. trade and investment with sub-Saharan Africa in order to stimulate economic growth in the region. That law also gives African countries duty-free access to the U.S. apparel market. To qualify and remain eligible, each country must make an effort to improve its rule of law, human rights and respect for core labor standards.

Once these discarded clothes hit East African shores, they sell for extremely low prices: For example, a pair of used jeans can be as little as $1.50 in the Gikomba Market, East Africa’s biggest secondhand clothing market, located in Nairobi, Kenya.  Rock-bottom prices make locally made clothes look too expensive by comparison, Joseph Nyagari of the African Cotton & Textiles Industries Federation told Think Progress last year. “The average cost of a secondhand garment is between five and 10 percent of a new garment made in Kenya, so local industries can’t compete,” he said.

In the early 1990s, Kenya had about 110 large-scale garment manufacturers. By 2006, that number dropped to 55, the study found. 10 years on, and East Africa is still limited in its production of clothing and textiles. Kenya currently has just 15 textile mills, according to Fashion Revolution, a U.K.-based group that promotes sustainable clothing manufacturing. The Uganda Manufacturers Associations has about 30 garment and footwear producers among its members.

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