Every year, tonnes of second hand clothing is donated to different charities around the world. This clothing is sorted by the charity organisations and whatever is decent and resellable, ends up in the op-shops. But what about the rest of it? And what happens to the clothing that end up in the stores, but never gets sold? In case you have never noticed, op shops also rotate their stock in accordance with the seasons.

Unbeknown to many people, this excess second hand clothing (or our rejects) gets shipped from us and dumped into developing countries, such as Uganda and India. The clothing is purchased by dealers who then on-sell the merchandise to consumers in the local markets. These markets are huge and they work every day to try and make a living off the clothing we no longer need.

Photo source: The Guardian

It doesn’t seem so bad and at least the life of the clothing is being extended, rather that just going directly into landfill. Much like the international aid debate– whether we are hurting rather than helping developing countries with our giveaways- people are worried about just how these donations are affecting the economies of these countries. On one hand, local people who sell the used garments at market are employed and rely heavily on this source of income.

On the other hand, local textile industries have been destroyed. And let’s face it. We aren’t donating these clothes to poor people out of the goodness of our hearts, because we are worried they don’t have enough clothing or are running around in rags. We are donating because we have too much stuff we don’t wear and don’t need. We just did a major wardrobe clean-out to make room for the next lot of outfits that we want to cram in there. But we feel good about ourselves because we didn’t just chuck it out.

Bales of second hand clothing

Second hand clothing in Africa

East African countries are even going so far as to proposing a ban on second hand clothing imports. This is so they can rebuild their textile industry. In the short term, the loss of the second hand clothing industry will obviously result in a loss of income for these market traders, but the idea is that the governments will be able to revive their textile industries and create better jobs that are a strong point in their national economies.

Tanzania has been the first country to introduce this ban, making the announcement last month. The ban will be effective as of 2019 and in the meantime, the government has set up training programs for local people to give them the skills to work in clothing and footwear manufacturing facilities. These will also be opening as part of the plan to revive the country’s manufacturing industry and grow their economy.

Second hand clothing in India

Our old clothing is also shipped to India, where is it unravelled and recycled back into thread. The workers in remote villages often have absolutely no exposure to the western culture. Often, they have never even seen a western person, and are shocked at what we consider to be rubbish. “I feel like all the clothes are practically unworn,” comments one of the women workers in the short documentary, Unravel. Men, women and children spend their days sorting through our discarded clothing, imagining the type of people who had once owned these pieces, dreaming that westerners are beautiful, fascinating people and speculating why we would discard so many clothes. “Maybe they just don’t like washing their clothes,” says one of the women.

Freetown Fashpack: A unique spin on second hand clothing

Australian, Jo Dunlop, shows another side to the African second hand clothing industry in the documentary series, ‘Freetown Fashpack.’ After visiting Sierra Leone, she discovered how, despite all the conflict and the daily challenges, the people there are actually extremely resourceful and brave when it comes to their sense of style and fashion choices. They pride themselves on standing out and being an individual, rather than following trends, like we are accustomed to.

Looking beautiful in upcycled clothing
Australian Jo Dunlop with one of the Freetown Fashpack ladies

In Sierra Leone, the second hand markets are called ‘Junks’ and the people consider them to be a treasure trove of endless style possibilities. They see our discarded clothing and are able re-imagine it, using their creativity and sewing skills to transform it into something completely new.

A Sierra Leone man proudly showing off his second hand style



Where to go from here…

We can’t keep pretending we don’t have a problem with over-consumption by continuing to dump our unwanted clothing in developing countries. Our behaviour and mentality towards clothing needs to change. We take it for granted that clothing is so cheap and accessible, seeing it into a disposable item, rather than something of value. Recycled textiles and upcycled fashion needs to become the norm of the fashion industry. Developing countries need to be given the opportunity to re-establish their own textile industries and their own identities. Only then will we have a truly sustainable fashion industry.


Second hand clothing: Where your clothing rejects really end up
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