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Executive Director Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART)
Secondhand clothing is being perceived as unwanted products from developed countries that are being dumped on the African market. Please comment.
Billions of pounds of secondhand clothing are in demand and being purchased globally, while very little, if any, of apparel manufactured in developing countries is sold within those countries. The secondhand clothing that American exporters ship into the African market is prepared and selected specifically to meet the price and quality demands of African populations and are not unwanted goods 'dumped' in that market.
In fact, the secondhand clothing industry helps close the loop on post-consumer textile waste, and the real story is that individuals in Africa continue to demand the clothing and footwear that provide them the greatest utility. Keep in mind that many of these people live on as little as $1-$2 or less per day, and would be hard pressed if they had to rely exclusively on higher-priced new apparel as opposed to quality, affordable, secondhand clothing.
What is your take on East African Committee's (EAC) decision to phase out secondhand clothing by the year 2019?
The ban directly contradicts requirements that African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) beneficiaries work towards eliminating 'barriers to United States trade and investment' and promote 'economic policies to reduce poverty'. SMART seeks the reversal of the EAC's ban and the roll back of the recently increased duties in EAC member nations no later than the next EAC Heads of State Summit expected to be held this month. Should the EAC fail to reverse their decisions, SMART will pursue an out-of-cycle review of their AGOA eligibility and duty-free access to the US market with the aim of promoting economic, humanitarian and environmental welfare for the people of the EAC and the US.
In addition to the impact on the US, the proposed ban will have devastating economic impacts throughout the EAC, costing hundreds of thousands perhaps even millions of jobs. Although concrete numbers can be hard to find due to the variable nature of the industry, one need merely walk through the various markets or used clothing centres in Kampala or Nairobi to see the kind of highly meaningful employment that secondhand clothing imports create in the East African Community. Indeed, researchers and officials estimate that buying, selling, repairing and/or altering secondhand clothing and shoes generate hundreds of thousands if not millions of jobs in the EAC, providing East African workers the ability to support themselves and provide for their families. Eliminating these jobs will force these entrepreneurs and others into poverty at a time when these countries cannot withstand any additional economic hardship.
Does importing secondhand clothing really affect the textile manufacturing industry of East Africa, according to you?
Globally, there is no evidence to support the claim that the import of secondhand clothing negatively affects the local textile manufacturing industry. On the contrary, there are a number of countries including Pakistan, Guatemala and Honduras where the secondhand clothing and new textile manufacturing sectors coexist harmoniously. The decline of the East African textile manufacturing industry specifically can be attributed to a number of other factors not related to the secondhand clothing industry as we outlined in our recent joint statement with the UK-based Textile Recycling Association.
Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that very little, if any, of apparel manufactured in developing countries is sold within those countries; it is specifically designed to be sold to the Western markets. As Oxfam points out, new clothing businesses in developing countries can make more money producing clothing for export to wealthier countries in Europe and North America than selling them locally. Most, if not all, textiles manufactured in Africa are exported for sale in developed countries, including the US and UK, as opposed to being sold where they were created.
Finally, to our knowledge, few countries in East Africa currently have a robust textile manufacturing industry in place, yet by banning secondhand clothing from the US, they would forego tens of millions of dollars in custom duties each year, with little or no opportunity to replace that lost revenue. The development of the domestic textile industries within the EAC countries is worthwhile and should be supported. However, those activities should not preclude the availability of much needed, affordable, quality secondhand clothing. They create vast numbers of jobs and substantial tariff revenue, and provide those with limited resources the opportunity to clothe themselves. Eliminating access to secondhand apparel will not help grow the domestic textile industries - it will only create severe economic hardship and will open the door to a deluge of cheap Chinese and Asian imports and illegal smuggling.
Is there a market for secondhand clothing in developed countries like the US and the UK? Are you taking any measures to expand the market in the developed nations?
At SMART, we see a very active thrift and consignment market in the US with the continued growth of our members like Savers, the largest thrift retailer in North America with 333 locations and 22,000 employees. We also have many members who sell to thrift and consignment shops throughout the US as well as abroad.
Recent research indicates that the resale market will continue to climb. US based online secondhand retailer ThredUp's 2016 Resale Report projects that the total US resale market will outpace all e-commerce and retail sectors over the next 10 years and reach $25 billion by 2025, with offline thrift sales holding steady at $12 billion through 2025.
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