By Sarah Kent, CNN
(CNN) — In 2018, fashion designer Bobby Kolade moved from Berlin back to Uganda’s capital Kampala with the ambition of creating a home-grown fashion brand using Ugandan cotton.
Things didn’t work out quite the way he imagined. Though the raw material is one of the country’s key export crops, Uganda’s textile industry has struggled since the 1970s. The country had just two textile mills that could process cotton fabrics.
So Kolade turned to something that was available in abundance: second-hand clothes. In his Kampala studio, old clothes are washed, picked apart and transformed into paneled dresses and patchworked sweats for his Buzigahill brand. Under his tongue-in-cheek “Return to Sender” concept, those designs are then sold back to the countries that originally discarded them.
It’s a subversive move designed to highlight and reclaim a local clothing industry that has suffered from a flood of second-hand clothes and cheap imported textiles from countries like Turkey and China.
But Kolade’s efforts to build a new kind of fashion ecosystem operates on the fringes of a broader and increasingly politically fraught global debate over what happens to fashion’s growing waste footprint, and who ends up paying for it.
The politics of second-hand fashion
Late last month, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni announced a plan to ban used clothing imports to the East African country in a speech, saying the trade stifles the development of the local textile industry.
“I have declared war on second-hand clothes to promote African wear,” the President said during the opening of 16 factories at an industrial park late last month, according to Ugandan newspaper Daily Monitor.
Every year, millions of hand-me-down T-shirts, jeans and dresses make their way from donation bins in the US and Europe to East Africa. It’s a trade that supports tens of thousands of jobs in both exporting and importing countries, where second-hand markets host an ecosystem of retailers, cleaners, tailors, upcyclers and other related jobs.
But the flow of goods — mostly from countries in the Global North to those in the Global South — has also been politically contentious for decades, largely on the grounds that it threatens domestic industries. The Philippines has prohibited imports of used clothing since 1966, while more countries, from Indonesia to Rwanda, have followed suit in the last decade.
This isn’t the first time Uganda has made moves to control the controversial trade. In 2016, the East African Community, a regional economic grouping of seven partner states that includes Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda, agreed to complete a prohibition on used clothing imports by 2019. But amid pressure from the US, which threatened to pull countries’ access to preferential trade terms, Rwanda was the only country to follow through.
“There is genuine concern about the implications second-hand clothing has on the industrial sector and jobs and value addition in the region, especially in the textile industry,” said Corti Paul Lakuma, a research fellow and head of the macroeconomics department at Ugandan think tank The Economic Policy Research Centre during a phone interview.
Increasingly the waste created by these imports is also an issue — if not always part of the political conversation. Fast fashion’s explosive growth over the last 20 years has created a surging supply of unwanted old clothes that environmental groups like Greenpeace say has become unmanageable.
Exports of used textiles from the European Union tripled between 2000 and 2019 to hit nearly 1.7 million tons a year, according to the European Environment Agency. Nearly half ended up in Africa. At the same time, the quality and value of the clothes shipped abroad has deteriorated, turning the second-hand trade into a proxy waste management system, advocates say.
Roughly 40 percent of everything that passes through Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana — one of the world’s largest secondhand clothing hubs — is not fit to sell and ends up in landfill, according to The Or Foundation, a nonprofit that works with the Kantamanto community.
But banning the trade raises its own complexities. According to the Uganda Dealers in Used Clothing and Shoes Association, there are a huge number of jobs directly and indirectly involved in the second-hand clothing supply chain. Orders are typically placed well in advance so a sudden prohibition would leave traders out of pocket. Many consumers also rely on the second-hand trade for affordable fashion. And even without used clothing, domestic industries would still struggle to compete with cheap imports from China.
“We don’t believe a harsh and immediate ban is the answer to the complex issue of second-hand clothing,” said Kolade in an interview. “If the second-hand clothing business is being banned to make way for our local industry to grow, we’re only interested if regional, natural fibers are being woven.”
Changing the conversation
Whether Uganda’s proposed ban will be implemented remains to be seen. With no tangible action plan, it’s likely nothing will happen said Lakuma. None of Kolade’s partners are seriously worried, he said.
Even if a ban were put in place, enforcing it could prove a challenge. In countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, which have had prohibitions in force for years, the trade often still operates.
Nonetheless, the move is the latest sign that what happens to old clothes is becoming an increasingly contentious political issue.
The European Union has made tackling the issue of fashion waste a central pillar of its plan to “green up” the textile industry over the coming years, while states including California are considering policies that would make brands more accountable for what happens to clothes at the end of their life.
Advocates say that opens an opportunity to start a conversation around how to develop new industries linked to the circular economy in the countries that already manage most of the world’s clothing waste by default. In the meantime, The Or Foundation’s co-founder and executive director Liz Ricketts worries that second-hand clothing bans are a distraction that both damage existing jobs and ignores the fundamental issue of overproduction that fuels the trade.
“It is clear that the second-hand clothing trade is broken because the firsthand clothing trade is broken,” said Ricketts. “If we have crap clothing coming into the system then there will be crap coming out of the system.”
This article was originally published by The Business of Fashion, an editorial partner of CNN Style.
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