Second hand clothes - Demand worldwide

The export of second hand clothes and their influence on local economies and industries has been under discussion for the last fifteen years. At the focus of attention are the sub-Saharan states as they are the main importing countries. The discussion about second hand trade started during the nineties and has been continuing on up to the present, though in the meantime views and essential conditions have changed.

In order to get to know how the people involved look at their situation. FairWertung launched a so-called dialogue program: “Second hand clothes in Africa”. From this time on, repeated market studies as well as interviews have been carried out.

The results of this dialogue program as well as further investigations are the basis for the following reflections. In this way FairWertung hopes to contribute to a more profound analysis of second hand trade for clothes.

01 New textiles mostly come from Asia

In a globalised world economy, production sites and sales markets are becoming increasingly uncoupled from one another. Production takes place where incomes are low, consumption, on the other, hand, where earnings are highest. This of course concerns the textile market as well. Today most textiles come from Asia, where small wages are paid for production and the working conditions often are very bad. In the so-called “Free Production Zones”, working conditions are especially drastic. In several African countries, clothes are manufactured in such “Free Production Zones”, but not for the local market; they are exported to Europe or the USA. This explains the massively increasing significance in the discussion about minimum social standards in production and the sale of textiles.

02 Germans buy increasingly more clothes

For the last few years textiles in Germany have been becoming cheaper and cheaper in relation to people’s earnings. Therefore, people are able to buy more and more clothes. Fashion and low prices count for the consumer, but not so much the quality. Consequently, the amount of clothes thrown away continues to grow. In 2007, textile collections amounted to 750,000 tons. This amount shows that people increasingly throw away good clothes, leading to the diagnosis of growing “throw-away mentality”. One way to counteract this would thus be to put more emphasis on quality instead of quantity.

03 Growing demand for second hand clothes

Because clothes can be bought so cheap in Germany and Western Europe people get used to throwing them away far too early, whereas in all other parts of the world the need for clothes is growing, in particular in low income countries like in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and the African continent. For people living there, but especially for those living in the rural areas of Africa, the only way for many to be properly dressed is to buy second hand clothes. New clothes are unaffordable.

04 Markets for both new and second hand clothes are available

In most countries, both new and second hand textiles are offered to different customers and their different needs. Nevertheless, a great deal of new clothes coming from Asia are made of synthetics and therefore not suitable for the climate. For this reason, customers often prefer to buy second hand clothes, as they do not wear out so quickly and are more comfortable to wear.

05 The production of clothes in Africa suffers from the lack of the appropriate structure and insufficient capital

The assumption that fewer imports of second hand clothes or even a complete stop of these would automatically lead to an increase in local textile production is wrong. Rather local production is hampered because of the lack of capital and unfortunate conditions like shortage of electricity or missing spare parts. Furthermore, the amount of locally manufactured clothes is too small to fulfil the actual demand of the population. There are special branches manufacturing for special needs such as school uniforms, for example. Therefore, in the view of world aid policy, local industries have to be established at least for some markets.

06 Second hand clothes help save resources

Firstly, second hand clothes are worn for a longer time and secondly they save resources, because cotton as a raw material has to be transported over long distances before clothes can be manufactured. Another disadvantage is the huge amount of water needed for production and the contamination by chemicals. Therefore, the wearing of second hand clothes should be reinforced and supported in every respect. It even makes sense to export second hand clothes to other continents rather than to recycle undamaged and good clothes. There would be no ecological or economic profit if we did so, as costs for collecting and sorting second hand clothes are very high.

07 Second hand clothes create jobs

All over the world collecting, sorting and the sale of second hand clothes ensure a living for many people. In many importing countries, the trade of second hand clothes provides the opportunity of earning money, especially for women and young people without any qualifications. As small trade is a rather informal sector of commerce, unfortunately no reliable data are available. Clearly, second hand trade has an effect on the tailoring branch, because tailors are specialised in altering second hand clothes or using them to create new styles.

08 How we dress is a personal decision

In many countries, we can observe a change in people’s dressing habits. The mass media like television, magazines, the Internet and even the offering of second hand clothes have a strong influence on this. In African countries, fashion also seems to be gaining more and more importance. Second hand clothes offer the chance to follow fashion trends even although people’s budgets might be low. In everyday life, African people wear second hand clothes, traditional clothing prevailing on ceremonial occasions. As the style of clothing depends on personal taste, people feel that nobody should interfere and the discussion Germans lead about second hand exports is considered unnecessary. They do not need any directives.

09 Unfair and illegal practices in second hand trade

Unfortunately bad practices in second hand trade have been observed, e.g., illegal imports, unrealistically low duty fees or even unpaid duty on imports, as well as smuggled goods and corruption in general. They have a negative effect on national economies. These manipulations constitute a threat for second hand trade agents, tailors and textile manufacturers. It is therefore important that all the already existing controlling instruments and standards be applied and developed further.

10 Humanitarian aid transport also constitutes exports

Unlike the second hand commercial trade, humanitarian aid with clothes has a rather positive image. But aid supplies are also exports and influence the importing countries. Duty free aid supplies have the disadvantage of reduced public revenues. Furthermore, this will lead to a market distortion in the importing countries if clothes that have been imported as humanitarian aid are sold at local markets. This often happens when supply is not adjusted to the specific needs of the recipients or the receiving organisation wants to generate their own funds by the sale of humanitarian supplies. In this way, aid supplies may have a negative dumping effect on the local economic cycles of the importing countries.

11 Responsibility of consumers and collectors for the textile chain

Just as in the case of production of new textiles, the recycling of second hand clothes is a global phenomenon, there thus being a need for high environmental and social standards. As far as second hand textiles are concerned, the (non-profit) collection organisation plays a key role, because it is its decision regarding who will receive the collected clothes. The collection organisation is also legally responsible for where and under what conditions the collected clothes will be properly sorted and waste properly disposed of. For these reasons consumers should give their used clothes only to organisations that fulfil this responsibility.