You know those clothes you plan to give away to the Salvation Army/Goodwill in the holiday spirit of cleaning out your closet? The charity probably won’t be able to sell them to anyone in the States. Mostly because it is already inundated with the literally tons of secondhand clothing donations that come in every day, not to mention the spike it takes in over the Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Christmas, and New Year period. Textile recyclers will take the bulk of your donation off the charity’s hands, then sell it to rag merchants who go on to sell it to African entrepreneurs. These African businessmen and women then retail the used clothes to a ready market.
In Ghana, these secondhand retail points are known as “bend down boutiques” in reference to the fact that buyers have to stoop to browse the bins of clothes for sale, spread out on the ground. Ghanaians call the clothes in the bins “obroni we wu” or “white man’s deads” and in Togo, they are also nicknamed “dead yovo” or “dead white person” for their assumed former white owners. But in Kenya and Tanzania, they are known for their sheer volume—“mitumba” or “bales”—a good indication of their impact.
Between 1989 and 2007, the U.S. exported nearly 7 billion pounds of used clothes to over 100 countries. These clothes are Tanzania’s number one import from the States. With recyclers netting an approximate $2 per pound for wearable clothing, and even the dregs fetching in the neighborhood of 25 cents per pound, the global trade in secondhand duds is a multi-billion dollar industry.
According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, America exported over $605 million worth of used clothes in 2011 alone. The market is so lucrative, SavannahNow.com reports, some charities and for-profit clothing recyclers are engaging in a donated clothing war, with the latter looking to cut charities out as drop-off middlemen.
This booming market disproportionately favors the American and European players—and in many ways, undermines the ability for an Africa-based fashion industry to grow. With most Africans living on less than $3,000 a year, designers, seamstresses, tailors, and retailers based on the continent are competing with the low prices of used clothes. Add the fact that imported secondhand threads enable African fashion-philes to rock the global styles they see touted on countless blogs and in international fashion magazines, and the competition becomes steeper.
Though more and more fashion weeks are sprouting across Africa with Vogue Italia and Mercedes Benz sponsoring high-profile events in Ghana and South Africa respectively within the last few weeks, the lack of a widespread buying infrastructure where retailers buy and distribute designers’ wares make it difficult for more than a handful of African fashion industry stakeholders to thrive.
So what’s the solution? Should you donate those clothes to Goodwill after all?
New York-based journalist Abi Ishola visited Ghana and Nigeria to report on the issue. In her opinion, African governments need to subsidize the homegrown fashion industry, from designers to retailers to exporters. “China…has come in and they’re counterfeiting a lot of the wax print and… selling them at cheaper prices,” she observed, explaining they can do this because the Chinese government subsidizes their fashion and exports. “So it’s easier for the Chinese to, you know, not charge as much as the designers in Ghana or in Nigeria.”
Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, says part the solution lies in promoting the craft—and value—of fashions specific to different regions. “What we’re seeing even in the United States is, ‘Oh wait, yes we are able to walk into a store and buy a $5 dress,’ but,” Cline continues, “we lost all of these incredible craftspeople, and people with so much knowledge and skill.” Cline adds, “In America where we’ve gotten to the point where that history has almost virtually been erased and now we’re trying to reconnect with it, hopefully, in other countries it won’t go that far before someone says, ‘Wait, this heritage needs to be preserved. This knowledge is important.’”
Aisha Obuobi, founder of the wildly popular Ghana-based fashion label Christie Brown, would agree with Cline. “Although our clothing has a modern/contemporary feel, the whole idea is to infuse African elements in each piece… this is something that can’t be found in “secondhand” clothing.” She says designers and all stakeholders in a successful African fashion industry need to understand that the African market is not the American or European market, and treat it accordingly. “It is important to observe and understand the African consumer’s buying behavior and retail needs and tailor our products, services and merchandising efforts.”
With so many Africans earning wages below the poverty level, the main consumer need is affordable price. Obuobi says, “Being able to mass produce is really what will drive down the cost / retail prices of the clothing. Once that takes off, I am certain that will birth retail outlets that can easily support lower income consumer needs.”
To that end, Nora Bannerman, CEO of Ghana-based Sleek Garments, has opened a factory in Accra with the capacity to mass produce garments at competitive prices. This needs to happen en masse across Africa with the support of government and private sector investment.
In the meantime, Ishola says go ahead and give that old coat to Goodwill. Even with all the challenges, your donated clothing has potential to benefit the African economy. Textile recyclers say the secondhand clothing trade has created over five million jobs in Kenya alone. In Nigeria, where the government has banned the import and retail of secondhand clothing in a move to protect their homegrown fashion industry, the trade thrives on the black market, also creating jobs. One used clothing trader told Al-Jazeera, “If you close [the] Nigerian border today, within two, three weeks, the Republic will be shaken.” He said the countries that supply the secondhand traders with the illegal clothes would feel the pinch too. “The revenue they get from Nigerians who import these goods in this country goes a long way.”