NAIROBI – The chaotic used clothing markets in the towns and villages in and around Kenyan capital Nairobi could not seem further removed from the bright lights of COP27. I didn’t attend this year’s event in Egypt (Greta had it right: it’s a greenwash-fest) but an industry contact who did sent a photo of the menu at one of the various cafes dotted around the event. €14 for a small, plain burger (with no fries!), apparently. In Kenya, that will buy you roughly 175 kilograms of clothing donated via the country’s very own secondary second-hand clothing recycling scheme (of which more below). Different worlds indeed.
Naturally fashion-funded NGO Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) was in attendance at COP27 where it hosted a trio of events aimed at addressing – among other things – “actions needed to encourage and foster circular systems.”
At COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, GFA and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced they have partnered to launch the ‘Fashion Industry Target Consultation’ which is, ‘seeking public input on cohesive and measurable fashion industry impact targets’.
There are already a laughable number of such initiatives in fashion. Our industry is world class at writing ‘to-do’ lists and so it should be – it has been writing them for more than a decade. As these lists have become longer and more overwhelming, the industry appears to have become gripped by a kind of collective inertia. The result is a kind of Groundhog Day of well-meaning people outlining the same problems at the same events using the same, clichéd management speak year after year.
Top of fashion’s to-do list should be to visit the East African state of Kenya, where the visual results of an unwillingness to tackle its negligent, inefficient business model are laid bare. Fashion’s bigwigs should consider staging a sustainability conference in Nairobi. Seriously. A guided tour of Kenya’s second-hand markets as well as some of the villages around them, where Western clothing litters the environment, often piled high in huge mountains, might give pause for thought.
Last week I wrote about how Switzerland had used tracking devices to trace second hand clothing as it zig-zagged its way around the world.
I wanted to follow this up by speaking to people who work on the front line of the huge second-hand clothing market in Kenya. Kenya is fashion’s final destination. Used clothing arrives here but never leaves. If it cannot find a home or if recyclers cannot find a way to re-use it somehow, it gets landfilled or alternatively disposed of.
Kenya is being flooded with poor quality clothing from the Global North. The latest figures I could find showed that in 2019, Kenya imported 185,000 tons of used clothing, which equates to around 8,000 containers. The trade came to a halt during the pandemic, so we have no figures for after then, but we do know that, according to Kenya’s main government statistics agency, used clothing imports were 100,000 tonnes in 2013. This supports anecdotal evidence that the trend is upwards.
Many believe Kenya is becoming a dumping ground for clothing which is fit for nothing but landfill.
Used clothing arrives at countries such as Kenya and Uganda via East Africa’s ports. Containers are opened and bales transported to warehousing before heading for large ‘mitumba’ markets such as Gikomba. Clothing then fans out to smaller markets and street sellers. Ultimately, what cannot be sold is dumped, littering slum areas including Dandorra, site of a huge landfill.
Greenpeace believes 30-40 per cent of clothing arriving via these channels cannot be sold. It’s trash, essentially. We’ve heard a figure of 30 per cent being mentioned in various reports over the years, and the people I spoke to in Kenya said this sounds about right.
To find out more about what is happening on the ground we spoke to Alex Musembi and Elmar Stroomer, co-founders of Africa Collects Textiles (ACT).
ACT was founded in Nairobi in 2013, where it has implemented a model for collecting and processing used textiles. ACT – a limited company not an NGO – carries out multiple functions traditionally done by separate businesses in the Global North. These include collecting, sorting and, where possible, upcycling old clothing into sell-able new products.
In Kenya, the majority of people wear used clothing, with some estimates suggesting 80 per cent of Kenya’s residents wear second-hand clothing from the Global North.
As more old clothing enters the country, and with a lack of end-of-life solutions in place, Kenya is becoming increasing overwhelmed. ACT was established in a bid to start getting to grips with this problem.
ACT has developed a used clothing collection network in Kenya which now includes 38 drop-off points, with another 14 in Lagos, Nigeria. 36 local women are now earning a living reselling locally sourced second-hand clothing on the outskirts of Nairobi, while ACT’s upcycled products can be found in 13 shops spread out over Kenya as well as in The Netherlands and Switzerland and online in the UK. These products include rugs, toys and a range of other items, several pictured in this piece.
An estimated 70 tonnes of used textiles have been diverted from landfill so far, and ACT has ambitions to grow its capacity to 250 tonnes per year by adding mechanical recycling machinery, including cutters and shredders, this being the first step towards fibre recovery and textile-textile recycling.
This could potentially lead to the creation of 100 additional jobs in areas such as textile waste picking, handling, sorting and recycling in addition to the 50+ which have already been created.
When I spoke to Alex Musembi he seemed on the one hand optimistic that the company he co-founded has shown what can be done with a little perseverance, hard work and no small amount of ingenuity. Used clothing can be a resource, even when it has reached its terminus in countries such as Kenya.
At the same time, he is also at pains to point out that there is a ceiling on what can be achieved when clothing quality levels drop below a certain threshold, and the tide of imports becomes simply too great.
“The sad reality is that because of the materials used and the poor design, Africa has become a dumping site for poor quality clothing from the US and Europe,” he tells me. “This must stop, it has gotten out of hand.”
“The issue of textile waste is a big, big problem for Kenya. The volumes are increasing and the quality is getting worse. It’s a double-whammy. 30 per cent of what is imported is pure trash. You see clothing from all the well-known western brands floating in the rivers of Gikomba and Dandora.”
We talk a lot about badly designed clothing in relation to recyclability and I was interested to get Musembi’s take on how he defines poor quality. He told me: “Let’s begin with recyclability which goes back to the design stage. We see low grade synthetic clothing arriving in Nairobi which is useless after 2-3 washes. It falls apart, it is trash.”
This low-quality feeds right through the value chain. Companies like ACT are often being asked to make wine out of water, while being given no help by the fashion industry which continues to pump out complex poly-cotton-elastane fibre blended garments which in many cases have little or zero economic value beyond the first buyer.
All of this is despite protestations to the contrary, for there is a clear disconnect between what fast fashion is telling us and what we are seeing in the ground in Kenya.
Here’s what H&M has to say on the issue of design: “At H&M Group, we are committed to becoming a circular business. To make this transition we need to design products that last longer, are easier to recycle and made from safe, sustainably sourced or recycled materials.”
H&M says it has developed a tool called the Circulator which, it says, “supports designers through a new product development process.”
On circularity, Zara-owner Inditex says: “Circularity goes hand in hand with great design. Our designers are trained in sustainability, while embracing new ideas, constantly experimenting and remaining true to our free-thinking culture.”
Then we have the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which counts many of fashion’s biggest names among its funders. The Foundation talks a lot about the need for fashion to design for circularity. It has even produced guidelines on this issue, including a book which, EM says, won “two prestigious global design awards,” in 2022.
Are fashion brands following these design guidelines? I asked Alex for the names of some of the brands whose clothing now litters the rivers of Nairobi, fit for nothing but the incinerator. He won’t mention them here but, suffice to say, many are Ellen MacArthur members.
Greenpeace did a major study on used clothing entering Kenya, and in terms of brands, this includes names from right across the board. This is more than just a fast fashion problem.
And yet Kenya is in a tricky position. If Africa tries to ban second hand clothing imports – which some believe is the only way to help Kenya’s own textile industry – the US could the withdraw AGOA (Africa Growth and Opportunity) Act which provides African products tax-free entry to the US. The US holds all the cards here, especially given that Kenya, along with other African states, still harbours ambitions to re-build its once-thriving textile industry.
Musembi makes the point that the mess and pollution being created by the glut of clothing entering Kenya is expanding. “There is an assumption that the mess is just in one place,” he says. “Its everywhere! We simply don’t have the infrastructure here to deal with it.”
Musembi would like to see more financial backing from further up the value chain to support organisations like ACT in their efforts to clear up fashion waste.
The only such efforts we have seen so far on that front are when earlier this year, Chinese fast fashion brand Shein launched an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) fund to which it will dedicate US$50m over the next five years. As part of this, the business will work with the OR Foundation, a US and Ghana-based not-for-profit organisation that supports second-hand clothing retailers and up-cyclers in Accra’s Kantamanto Market in Ghana. Shein will provide funding of US$5m to the OR Foundation over the next three years.
Some might say US$5m is a drop in the ocean but consider this: ACT purchases used clothing from its collection points for around 10 Kenyan Shillings per kg. In British money, that’s about 7 pence.
These guys are working miracles out here with the most threadbare of resources. A few million dollars can go a long, long way. Moreover, while Shein’s donation might be conflated with greenwashing by some, which other brands have stepped up to the plate on this issue? Other fast fashion’s major players have been around for much longer than Shein and have turned a completely blind eye to this issue.
Fashion brands might argue that it is not they who ship all this clothing to Africa. Elmar Stroomer points out, however, that it is they who designed and created non-recyclable products, it is they who do not recycle them themselves and it is they who take by far the largest cut along the value chain. They should therefore foot some of the bill for tackling this problem.
He adds: “But there are also other stakeholder involved who drive this or benefit from it, such as Global North city councils, collectors, sorters/exporters and African importers, resellers. We are all part of it in one way or another. It is a rather complex system with many dependencies, it has good and bad sides, and it will not be easy to change overnight.
“With ACT we are building an alternative that also works for Kenyans/Nigerians, while protecting our planet from fashion waste. By creating a local 2nd hand system, funds remain inside the countries and through upcycling, value and much needed jobs are created locally. We devise ways to sell back materials to The Global North, but then in a much better shape.”
Let’s go back to that claim of 30 per cent of all second-hand clothing entering Kenya being trash. European recyclers don’t agree with this figure. When I asked around it was difficult to get a firm handle on whether this is exaggerated.
Is Africa genuinely being used as a textile dumping ground? Are sorters in Europe and the US placing trash clothing in containers heading for the African continent?
When I put this to Stroomer he said: “I cannot say that sorters in Europe or elsewhere deliberately put waste in these containers. But I can imagine it would be tempting. Because wearable clothes are worth 1-3 euros per kilo and non-wearable much and much less, sometimes it costs money to get rid of. I can also imagine sorters have specific targets to meet, which could be more and more challenging to hit as the quality of clothes has come down in recent years.”
He added: “Then, sorting in the Global North happens so quickly. I believe a sorter has 1 or 2 seconds to make a decision as to whether something is wearable or not. So, they can miss a hole, a stain and surely will not wonder whether the fabric or style will fit its future context. And probably some sorters are more ethical than others.”
Stroomer says that European clothing is generally the best fit for the African market. There is a lot of Chinese clothing entering the country these days and this is often too small or does not fit correctly on locals. He sends me some images (pictured below) which show clothing from America that is clearly way over-sized and in poor quality. Downcycling or incineration would be the only option for such garments although efforts are made to upcycle some into, for instance, rugs.
Like others I spoke to, Stroomer thinks the fashion industry should provide more support for end-of-life solutions as well as producing clothing which is easy to recycle. “We need global EPR and a waste tax on clothes,” he says. “With adequate funding we could bring African cities up to speed when it comes to textile collection, sorting and recycling. Ultimately, we need to invest in textile collect, sorting and recycling, because whether it will be worn or not, it should not end up in the river or landfills,” he said.
“The avalanche of cheap, fast fashion clothing with high synthetic content is also storing up problems such as microplastic pollution being released into Kenya’s rivers.”
Also worth noting is the amount of Western clothing being burned in the open environment, many examples of which are documented by the recent Greenpeace report. Are these CO2 emissions and toxic fumes being factored in by fashion brands when they document their carbon footprint as part of their SBTI targets? We probably know the answer to that.
Lily Cole, a British model and actress who has now become a climate activist, was talking on one of fashion’s panels at COP 27. There, she said: “There is a systemic problem in [the fashion] economy that is not incentivising circularity and recycling to happen.”
Speakers on the same panel spoke in a similar vein but none of them touched on the rather obvious point that maybe – just maybe – it’s not about how much clothing we recycle but how much we produce in the first place.