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‘Return to Sender’: Overconsumption in the Global North should not be an African problem

The global waste trade is a prominent environmental and social justice issue. And while second hand clothing that comes to Africa from the Global North, at a cost, is not technically classified as waste, an alarming percentage of it is completely unusable and goes straight into landfills.

The used clothing industry is complex but in a way that isn’t favourable to developing countries. The market took off in the late 80s and early 90s when ‘liberal’ economic policies and programmes caused competition in the local garment industries. Backed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, they compromised the higher tariffs that protected homegrown garment production, causing factories to shut down when they could match the exceptionally low cost of imported clothing.

Second-hand clothes filled the gap as an affordable quality option- edging out new clothes from China that weren’t as durable or fashionable. In the beginning, the average person could bank on access to low-cost durable clothing that wasn’t far behind the fashion cycle. But over time and with the boom of fast fashion, quality stopped being a guarantee and more and more useless clothing has found its way to the continent.

Useless to the buyer, useless to the seller

How? Through a manipulated donor to new owner pipeline. When individuals in the Global North donate clothes, the charities or thrift shops that receive them sift through them. In this process, they keep less than a quarter of the items (the absolute best that the selection has to offer) and sell the remainder per kg in sealed 45kg bales. The standard 12-meter containers that transport the clothing can hold up to 550 bales-equivalent to about 25 tonnes of clothes.

These clothes have been pre-selected and pre-sold such that local traders have no idea the type or state of the clothes they are receiving until they open the bales. Over time this practice has taken second-hand clothes from an industry that supports the average person, both buyer and seller, to a not-so-covert transfer of textile waste. We are basically paying them to take on their textile waste headache. A headache that frenzied consumerism and fast fashion is only making worse every year.

Why isn’t every African country following Rwanda’s example?

Given that second-hand clothes are now costing us more than they are worth, countries still accept them because of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade program. AGOA is a bilateral trade agreement where the United States trades millions of dollars’ worth of used clothing to beneficiary countries essentially tax-free and they export duty-free products to the United States in return.

Despite this, six East African countries formed a pact in 2017 to increase tariffs on imported used clothing from the US with the eventual goal of an outright ban by 2019. But the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), filed a petition with the United States government against limiting clothing imports. Claiming it would have a disastrous economic effect by causing American job insecurity and violating AGOA terms.

Fearing the loss of the perceived economic growth and trade partnership benefits that AGOA would provide, EAC countries with the strong exception of Rwanda, backed down. Rwanda, however, fiercely forged forward despite threats and trade bans from the US. Since then, it has become increasingly evident that AGOA falls short of the expectations to improve both the levels of diversification and competitiveness in SSA economies and in fostering economic independence. It seems that AGOA is less about altruistic economic intentions and more about economic dominance and enforcement mechanisms.

‘Return to Sender’ is an artwork installation depicting the environmental toll of textile waste

Kenyan collective ‘ The Nest’ is presenting an artwork installation titled ‘Return to Sender’ from June 28th at Documenta 15, a world-renowned quinquennial contemporary art exhibition in Kassel, Germany.

The collective details that the installation “is supposed to evoke a massive sprawl of waste. The structure will be constructed of used garments, called mitumba in Kenya, fashioned into bales to take up tens of square metres in an otherwise pristine public recreational space. It occupies what is otherwise public, communal, recreational space, and is intended to be visually distressing to force confrontation of the real issues.”

A representation of how pervasive textile waste from the Global North has become, ‘Return To Sender’ “echoes the true breadth of the uncontrolled consumption in the Global North, and the stringent regulations that overtly force the movement of these materials to the Global South, to become the business and headache of less industrialized nations to deal with, as both waste and non-waste. An inordinate amount of textile waste comes to Africa—up to 40 percent of each bale of imported second-hand clothes is completely unusable and thus taken straight to landfills—also forcing the folk who trade in them to incur high overheads on the risk of a useless bale.”

The installation will be accompanied by thematic ambient sounds recorded at various second-hand clothing markets across Nairobi and a video piece named ‘Return to Sender – Delivery Details’ that will explore the complicated situation of mostly second-hand textile waste in Kenya and Africa, through the viewpoints of different contributors.

The entire exhibition will run for 100 days.

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