Importing and exporting secondhand clothes (“SHC”): a good thing?

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

The UK generates the second largest volume of second hand clothes (“SHC”) donations in the world after the USA. It is not generally well known that only 10 to 30 percent of the huge volume of SHC donated in the UK are on-sold in the UK. In common with many developed countries, the UK exports the large majority of its SHC to developing countries, with major recipients including Poland, Ghana, Pakistan, Ukraine and Benin.

Globally, the trade in SHC is with over 4 billion dollars annually- a value dwarfed by the multi-trillion dollar value of the entire global clothes industry- but the trade faces an uncertain future as many recipient countries consider bans to protect their local textile industries, and there is increased interest in the issue of air miles relating to global transportation.

SHC has created its own industry in some African countries, for example in Senegal, where 24,000 people are employed in import, sorting and resale of SHC. The employment created is regarded as less secure than the jobs they displace in the local textile industries, which is one of the main drivers for countries like Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Burundi to have stated a policy aim of reducing clothing imports from the US and UK.

The contrary view is that the import of SHC benefits the consumer in developing countries. 90 per cent of Ghanaian consumers buy second clothes. While developing countries like Bangladesh and Burundi are well suited to to producing clothes for export to developed countries, the SHC trade provides a useful source of clothes for the domestic market. Given the ever decreasing cost base of the industrial East Asian economies, domestic production of textiles in developing countries would inevitably be under competitive pressure in spite of the SHC trade.

While SHC export uses resources in terms of transportation, there is evidence that attitudes to clothing in developing countries as a non-disposable item means that clothing exported from the UK will enter a system of resale and reuse, ultimately as rags, rather than ending up as landfill. The younger generation in developing countries does seem to be changing its view on this, however, just as has happened in the UK.

It is important for the UK consumer- and the producers of fast fashion clothing - to be aware that the creation of an increasing volume of SHC has a wider social and environmental impact in countries around the world which UK charities and developing countries are still grappling with.

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