31 August 2016 by Steve Eminton

Used Clothing Exports and East Africa

In this special report, Dr. Einir Young and  Jalia Nabukalu Packwood of Bangor University, take a look at the market challenges and development issues facing used clothing exports and East Africa. The Textiles Recycling Conference in London will hear more about this market (see the conference website for more details).

In March 2016, the heads of state of the East African Community (EAC) agreed to phase out the importation of used textiles and leather products from third countries within three years (by 2019), with the view of promoting vertical integration of the industries in the textile and leather sector within the EAC.

When looking at this decision from the outside, one has to wonder why the EAC leaders came to such a conclusion given that almost 80% of the population of some EAC countries such as Uganda purchase used clothes and the trade employs thousands of people who would otherwise be without work. It isn’t clear how it will be possible to grow the new textile and leather industry in the EAC as the appropriate infrastructure to support the sector’s growth is limited.

East Africa

East Africa is currently at the centre of discussion about used clothing imports


This directive and previous EAC policies aimed at stopping the trade in used textiles is not good news for the UK textile recycling sector or that of Europe, America and other exporting countries. UK charities, textile sorters, processors and traders have been affected as a result of a reduction in demand and falling prices per bale.  This in turn threatens the progress made in the UK and Europe in reducing the volume of textiles sent to landfill sites.

The immediate and natural response to the ban is for the governments and industry representatives at the receiving end to robustly challenge the decision and through every means possible try to persuade the EAC leaders not to go through with it. The preferred option of the UK/Europe side is that the ban would be lifted and the tough EAC policies on used textiles & leather products relaxed so that the trade can continue smoothly. This is a logical approach if our main concern is ‘business as usual’, and to safeguard the used textile trade sector and associated employment in UK and other exporting countries at any cost. It is also logical to point out to the EAC that there is a huge risk to the livelihoods of thousands of their own citizens who rely on the used textile trade too.


And therein lies the rub. The leaders of the EAC know the consequences to their domestic used clothes trade but still propose to go ahead with the ban. We need therefore to take a step back and consider why, despite strong arm tactics and threats of retaliation, the African leaders would consider it worth risking thousands of jobs in a sector that has kept many from absolute poverty?

We can argue that the used textile trade plays a very big role in protecting the environment by diverting clothes from landfill and to an extent reduces the pollution associated with the manufacture of new textiles.  But how is this perceived by the leaders of the EAC? Are we seen to be attempting to protect our own environment by exporting our problems to them?

Yes, we can point to the employment opportunities associated with the textile trade in the EAC but are they seeing a different story? Might they be thinking that the availability of many low grade jobs is in some way hindering innovation, entrepreneurship and the economic development of the EAC? Are the young people who graduate from tailoring schools every year without jobs because the indigenous textile and new clothes sector is suppressed by the used clothes trade?

Are the existing tailoring skills associated with altering or creating new garments from used clothes undervalued and could the informal market be formalised to better utilise the skills of women and young people? What is hindering the creation of high value jobs and innovation the EAC so desperately needs to attain its development goal of moving from low income to middle income status? Is the used clothes trade merely a scapegoat?

Economic development

Regardless of the challenges associated with the ban, and whether the perceptions alluded to here are real or not, the underlying reason behind the political decision is that the EAC leaders have a genuine desire to ensure quality economic development for their countries, which will provide the leverage required for them to progress from being low income countries to becoming middle Income countries, at the very least.

East Africa is an important UK market (picture: LMB)

East Africa is an important UK market (picture: LMB)

If we are to ensure the long term sustainability of the UK (and European) used textile trade, all those involved in the trade (including the retailers, who have a vital role through their purchasing powers) need to come together to explore ways for the exporting countries and the EAC to work together as equal partners in ways that are mutually beneficial and inspire the desired development in the EAC.

Phasing out the used textile and leather products trade may not be the best way forward for EAC to achieve its goals. So what positive steps can we take to persuade them to change their mind? Complaints that it is going to impact negatively on us are, not surprisingly, falling on deaf ears. Using threats is likely to be counterproductive.

We need to consider how to collaborate with the EAC to ensure that the trade in used textiles and leather products promotes the sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic, social and environmental development providing decent work within the EAC and the exporting countries (reflecting the aspirations of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 8).

There are serious questions to be answered. Whose interests do we really want to protect? Are we looking at the banning of used textiles from a purely selfish perspective and is the challenge to the ban based on self-interest? Is the position we are taking to protect the trade fair enough to both the exporting countries and the EAC? Have we really considered the EAC’s point of view even if according to our logic it may have many flaws?

‘Work together’

In an ideal world all stake holders in the used textile sector would work together to ensure that their business/ trading strategies consider the short term needs of the sector without compromising its long-term needs and continuity. We also need to think of sustainable ways to prevent problems that threaten the sector from happening in the first instance and/or recurring. e.g.  How can exporting countries engage with other importing regions of the world to make it more attractive for them not to pass similar bans to those imposed by the EAC?

Integration, collaboration and involvement are critical to ensure the sustainability and continuity of the used textile sector/trade. All stakeholders, through policies, strategies and approaches, need to clearly consider how their work impacts on other people or businesses including the countries they export to. Meaningful collaboration between the relevant bodies and stakeholders is required to encourage beneficial synergies that will enable the trade to be conducted fairly and with positive benefits to all trading partners maximised.


The authors of this article are: Dr. Einir Young, Director of Sustainability at Bangor University and Jalia Nabukalu Packwood, Sustainability Officer at Bangor University.


Dr Einir Young will be presenting at the Textile Recycling Conference on the 5th of October in London, and she will be talking more about this subject. For more information about the event, please email: katie.s@environmentmedia.co.uk or visit the conference website.



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