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Feature: Dressing professionally

For those of us living in developed countries, textile recycling makes perfect sense. It frees up space in our wardrobes for this season’s influx of fashionable items and provides an outlet for our fashion mistakes. Moreover, as clothes cost us significantly more than the cans or papers we also dutifully separate out, it gives the donor an increased feeling of wellbeing knowing that they have done their bit.

However, as these clothes reach their destination, is our recycling vigilance translating into a positive effect or could it be stifling local production? A new report examines concerns that second hand clothing (SHC) imports could be undermining industrial textile/clothing production in recipient countries.

Written by Sally Baden and Catherine Barber and commissioned by Oxfam, The Impact of the Second-Hand Clothing Trade on Developing Countries explores the impact of SHC with a focus on west Africa. Worth more than $1 billion each year, the SHC trade represents a small proportion of the total global trade in clothing – less than 0.5% of its total value. According to the report, however, for many sub-Saharan African countries it is a dominant feature of the clothing market, making up more than 30% of the total value of imports and more than 50% in volume terms.

Although the report acknowledges that SHC imports have been a factor in undermining industrial textile/clothing production and employment in west Africa, it is unclear whether the industry would revive if the
imports stopped – not least because of cheap Asian imports which are competing with local production. In addition, the growth of domestic industry is hindered by unreliable and expensive infrastructure, the cost and availability of materials, and inadequate training and management.

Despite these concerns, the report is clear that the benefits of the SHC trade far outweigh any negative side effects. It states: “The trade has clear consumer benefits. This is especially true in countries with low purchasing power and for poorer consumers, although in many
sub-Saharan African countries it seems that almost all socio-economic groups, for example 90% of Ghanaians, are choosing to buy SHC.

Affordability is the key reason why people buy these goods. Fashion and consumer preferences also seem to be shifting away from ‘African’ style to more ‘Western’ style clothing.”

Impact

It is not just people’s fashion needs that the trade is supporting but their livelihoods, having an impact on hundreds of thousands of individuals. The report continues: “These include jobs in trading, distributing,
repairing, restyling and washing clothes. Oxfam’s research in Senegal estimates that 24,000 people are active in the sector in that country. It is not possible to make exact comparisons with employment generated by domestic production, but it is known that around 1,355 people work in formal sector textile/clothing
industries in Senegal and 62,000 in informal textile/clothing production.”

The report recommends that northern non-governmental organisations working in the export sector can make their trading practices more ethical by extending their involvement further along the supply chain. Positive contributions can also be made by making SHC available to consumers in rural areas where they currently do not benefit from the trade, and using the proceeds from S

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