Controversial: used clothing exports to Africa

The export of used clothing from Europe to Africa is controversial. Various East African countries announced that they would impose an import ban on imports of used clothing from 2019.

We spoke about these topics with Anton Vaas, the managing director of Aktion Hope, a long-standing partner of the SEZ.

The main argument against exporting used clothing to Africa is that it destroys the textile markets of the importing countries. What is the truth of this accusation, Mr. Vaas?

This discussion arose in the early 1990s, primarily through a study by Südwind. But that's not entirely true. There was an African textile industry in the 60s and 70s, but it was never internationally competitive. It was hit very hard by the liberalization of African markets in the 1980s.

What is the state of the African textile industry today?

There are still textile factories producing clothing for domestic markets. But this is more traditional clothing made from fabrics with traditional patterns. This traditional clothing is more often bought for holidays because it is simply too expensive for everyday wear. It's no different for us either. And textile exports do not represent serious competition for this traditional clothing.

African clothing markets today are primarily dominated by low-cost and low-cost Chinese imports. The markets are flooded with new goods, but they are of low quality. Some of the textiles also contain substances that are harmful to health.

And what role do old clothing imports now play in the African markets??

It is now assumed that the export or trade of used clothes tends to have income-generating effects locally in Africa. A lot of items of clothing have to be ironed on, most of them are sewn around. This creates jobs for people with low incomes, such as seamstresses. We assume that in East Africa alone, for example, several hundred thousand jobs depend on the trade and processing of used clothing.

Why then the import ban that the East African Community decided on two years ago when so many jobs depend on the used clothing business?

The argument was that they wanted to build their own industry. At first it sounds logical and it was grist to the mill of those who criticize the export of used clothing. But if you take a closer look at how this decision came about, you quickly see that the whole thing came about under pressure from the Chinese, who want to secure their sales markets for new goods.

In fact, the import ban has already been partially reversed because it simply ignores people's reality. Many used clothing dealers protested against these regulations. There were also considerations that in the event of an import stop, the used clothes would cross the green border and customs revenue would then be lost for the East African Community.

Will the import stop come in 2019 or will it be suspended for now?

Rwanda is still adhering to this import ban; all other countries in the East African Community, namely South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi, have suspended it.

What can we consumers here in Germany do to ensure that the old clothes that go to Africa actually have value?

The quality of donated clothing has been declining for years because the trend is towards fast fashion, because people who buy clothes today consistently only buy according to fashion. Fashionable appearance, latest collection, less quality. Today people actually buy according to their mood and clothing has degenerated into a purely disposable item. And there is our appeal as a development policy organization to consumers to buy clothing more consciously, to buy high-quality clothing and to wear this clothing for as long as possible. And not just after the first season or after wearing it ten times to put it in the clothes container. Clothing must be worn for as long as possible and be of high quality so that it can be used sensibly.

When we sort the clothing we collect, less than half of the donated clothing can actually be reused as clothing. More than half are no longer acceptable from a quality perspective. It must be further processed into secondary raw materials, which is also ecologically important and correct. It's good that these textiles exist for this. But you would have to start much earlier - consume less, wear clothes longer and buy higher quality clothes so that this pile of old clothes doesn't arise in the first place.

How does Aktion Hope differ from other non-profit collectors?

Aktion Hope is the only nationwide collector in Baden-Württemberg that has subjected itself to the criteria of the umbrella organization FairWertung. FairWertung is a nationwide association of over 130 non-profit organizations that have adhered to the strictest standards in the collection and sorting of clothing. All sorting operations are externally audited. Attention is paid to social standards in sorting, environmental standards, import and export regulations are checked - and, very importantly, the proceeds generated from the trade in used clothes are donated exclusively to charitable purposes.

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