The EU sent in 2021 more than 112 million items of second-hand clothing to Kenya. At least 37 million had been manufactured with synthetic materials, according to research by Clean Up Kenya and Wildlight for Changing Markets Foundation, an organization that advocates sustainable production and trade. In total, Kenya received roughly 900 million garments from all over the world, of which more than 56 million were dirty or unusable.
Several citizens, thinking they are acting for a good cause, donate to NGOs or sort for recycling. The reality, however, is quite different. The authors of the report base their findings on the analysis of 4,000 used clothing items found in second-hand markets in Kenya, which they have checked against data from the country’s customs records.
The solution is not to shut down the used clothing trade, but to transform it. This hedonistic industry needs rules and limits.George Handing-Rolls, head of campaigns at Changing Markets Foundation
Tons of clothes, produced by the addiction to fast fashion, end up every year directly dumped in landfills in African countries, forming a landscape of colossal mountains of toxic plastic. They are what Kenyans call “fagia” or junk clothes, waste that is causing serious health and environmental problems.
Exporting plastic waste from the EU is restricted. According to Euronews, such trade will soon be banned in the bloc. The report discovered that more than one in three pieces of used clothing shipped to Kenya not only contained plastic but were of very low quality. They couldn’t be reused and became landfill.
“The solution is not to shut down the used clothing trade, but to transform it, as this hedonistic industry needs rules and limits,” said George Handing-Rolls, head of campaigns at Changing Markets Foundation. “Recycling companies cannot be allowed to hide behind their empty promises. They should be banned from exporting junk clothing.”
According to data from the consultancy McKinsey & Company, the cost of clothing in EU countries, as a proportion of household expenditure, has fallen from 30% in the 1950s to 5% in 2020. This fall in prices has contributed to consumers buying 60% more clothing than they did 15 years ago. The European Environment Agency estimates that each EU citizen throws away an average of 15 kilos of textiles a year, while keeping them half the time.
One of the factors that explains this reduction in costs is precisely the increase in synthetic materials, cheaper than natural ones, such as polyester and nylon for the manufacture of garments. According to petrochemical industry experts, their use has quadrupled since 1980 and today accounts for 69% of the total textile fibers used in the manufacture of clothing.
The Changing Markets Foundation found that countries such as Germany, Belgium, France, the UK, Poland, the UK, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Estonia, and Ireland accounted for roughly 95% of all second-hand clothing exports from the EU to Kenya. According to Euronews, Germany was the top exporter with more than 50 million clothing items. Over 25 million were waste and close to 17 million were plastic based.