The global used clothing industry recently received some much welcome news from Kenya. It appears its Government has reversed a decision to try to ban imports of used clothing by 2019.
Instead, Kenyan industrialisation secretary Adan Mohamed is reported to have said that retaining the flow of used clothing into the country will allow both importers and local producers to remain in business. Through the transition of market forces, the Government would like used clothes to compete with clothes that are produced within Kenya and across East Africa.
If Kenya were to introduce a ban, it would affect negatively not only global exporters but the economy of Kenya. It is clear that its government wants to develop manufacturing jobs and it has stated goals to improve its economic wealth.
We would like to take the opportunity that this decision has brought to work with the Kenyan authorities and other agencies to develop proposals that help the country to create formal jobs in the textile recycling sector and develop manufactured products using recycled fibre technologies.
While this is welcome news, it seems that other countries of the East African Community are still intending to go ahead with the ban – we hope that they change their mind.
The textiles sector also needs to get to grips with the development of future markets for used clothing and textile recycling, because we will not be able to rely so heavily on exports. The market is becoming much more crowded as China becomes a dominant global player. In 2010, the country accounted for only 0.9% of global exports of used clothing.
By 2015 this had sky-rocketed to 6.4% and it is now not far behind the big three (UK, Germany and the US). The reality is that, if the Chinese export only half as much used clothing per head of population as the British currently do, then that amount would be greater than the size of the entire global market today.
Whether this will actually happen is not clear, but it is almost inevitable that China will become the largest exporter in the world and this will squeeze our markets. The UK needs to be future-proofing its markets now, which includes developing new recycling markets, embedding circular economy principles and promoting the idea that people should be buying and wearing more used clothing.
Alan Wheeler is director at Textile Recycling Association