Exporting Second-Hand Clothing to Developing Countries: Pros and Cons

Export Value and Volume of Second-Hand Clothing Is Decreasing

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The import and export of second-hand clothing are a big business. In fact, in the United States alone, the second-hand apparel market is worth in the area of $24 billion annually. But is it a socially justifiable practice?

This has become a big question when it comes to environmental and sustainability concerns with respect to fashion and clothing. The export of recycled clothing to developing countries for reuse is an important component of the textile recycling industry. One question that impacts this practice is whether nations of import will ban the practice.

The Case for Donating Clothing

People may not realize that when they donate used clothing in countries such as the United States or the UK, the majority will find its way into foreign markets.

The question is whether local garment industries are damaged by the import of cheap used clothing from developed nations. Ultimately, this is an issue that is championed by textile trade associations on behalf of member companies, and one addressed by trade policy internationally.

A study published by Oxfam suggests that in spite of damage to the overall textile production industry, the import of second-hand clothes (SHC) is overall a beneficial practice. According to the study:

  • While second-hand clothing represents only a very small proportion of the global clothing trade, it represents more than 30% of imports and over 50% by volume of clothing imports to many sub-Saharan countries.
  • SHC provides clear consumer benefits; for example, more than 90% of Ghanaians buy SHC.
  • SHC imports provide livelihoods to hundreds of thousands of people in developing nations, including the employment of 24,000 in Senegal alone.
  • While SHC imports have contributed to the erosion of industrial textile and clothing production in West Africa, they would inevitably be prey to increasingly inexpensive imports from Asia which compete with local production.

Given their cheap labor pools, developing countries like Cameroon, Ghana, Bangladesh, and Benin can produce high-quality garments cost effectively and export to developed countries. Many cannot afford new clothing, and so the imports of used garments provide affordable clothing for everyday use. In addition, the import of such clothing has created a new domestic garment import and sales industry involving inbound logistics, transportation, and retailing to markets and other retail sales points. In such countries, 60-80% of clothing purchased is of the used variety.

Risks to Establishing Domestic Clothing Industries

The point of view that used garment imports do not harm the domestic industry is not held universally, however. The Oxfam study suggests that some nations should look at flexible import restrictions to promote specific domestic competencies. In recent years, several countries have debated on import restrictions for used clothing in hopes to provide local garment manufacturers better opportunities.

In fact, the trade of exported second-hand clothing is decreasing, and there will be increased pressure on the fast fashion industry to find better garment recycling options.

In summary, while research strongly suggests that the export of second-hand clothing is a positive trade practice for both exporting and importing nations, several importing countries are now taking a different perspective. This shift may give producers cause to reassess the merits of fast fashion.