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The old clothes madness: Doing bad things with donations

The wheel with new clothes is turning faster and faster. While there used to be a new collection for every season, up to 24 collections are now in stores each year. So that the wardrobes do not overflow at home, the Germans bring their no longer worn clothes to the used clothes container. The flood of used clothes has swelled by 20 percent since the mid-1990s - and it continues to grow. "In Germany, around a million tons of textiles are put in used clothing collections every year. That really is a huge amount," says Thomas Ahlmann from FairWwertung. Over 130 non-profit collecting organizations for used clothing have come together in this umbrella organization.

Such donations are great - they help those in need and protect the environment because the clothes are recycled! The only thing is that there aren't that many people in need in Germany. Less than ten percent of the discarded clothing is used by charitable organizations in whose name the collection containers are set up. Commercial used clothes collectors buy the rest.

According to Greenpeace, over 100 billion items of clothing are manufactured, worn briefly and thrown away every year

From the donation to the goods

The German Red Cross, for example, earns around 13.5 million euros annually through the sale - it is used for charitable purposes. At the same time the clothing donation has become a commodity. A tiny fraction - between two and four percent - is in such good condition that it is sold in second-hand shops in Germany or Western Europe. Most of the turnover is made with him. Another 40 percent are exported in various qualities. About ten percent end up in the garbage. The rest is recycled and made into cleaning rags.

The disposal of the inferior textiles is a subsidy business that has to be subsidized through the sale of the better pieces. For the commercial providers, the effort seems to be worth it. The demand for used clothing from Germany and other industrialized countries is great. The clothes go to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and especially Africa. Our donation creates jobs as a commodity - in the sorting plants, in transport and in trade in the countries themselves.

Clothing donation that will benefit Africans?

And it continues to do good, because for many people, second-hand clothing is the only way to buy textiles cheaply, at least that's what fair valuation says. In the rural regions of Africa in particular, it is of great importance for the basic supply of clothing. "There are now numerous studies that show that the local textile industry cannot meet the growing demand locally," says Susanne Pohl from the German Red Cross .

But it's not about neediness at all, says Friedel Hütz-Adams from the Südwind Institute. The used clothes "go first to the African countries that are solvent, that has nothing to do with neediness". The Congo's imports of used clothing are very low, even though there are millions of internally displaced people there. "They can't pay, so only relatively few and rather poor quality old clothes go there. And when a country like India with the largest number of poor has an import ban on old clothes - and the Indians don't run around naked either - then it shows that the current used clothing trade has little to do with satisfying the needs of the poor, "says Hütz-Adams.

Work - but the wrong one

So much for basic services - and the jobs? Wouldn't it be better if the African countries produced textiles themselves instead of importing used clothes? "The number of people who live from the second-hand market in textiles, i.e. tailors, salespeople and so on, is far greater than the number of job opportunities in the textile industry," says Susanne Pohl from the German Red Cross.

In Africa, people don't seem very convinced that importing used clothes creates so many valuable jobs. Many countries would prefer to set up their own textile production. They have been producing cotton for decades, but it is then exported as a raw material and processed elsewhere. This was also due to the used clothing compressed into bales, which flooded the African market and thus destroyed the once existing local production of fabrics and textiles. This was confirmed in 2012 in a small question in the German Bundestag.

The old clothes, pressed into bales, are waiting to be recycled

Hütz-Adams said that he had often heard those affected in Africa complain about the unpopular competition: "The African producers see the whole thing as - in contrast to Chinese goods - very unfair competition. They say that donated goods are given away free of charge and because of that These donations are given for free, they have a price advantage on the market that you can no longer catch up with self-produced goods. " For many producers on the African continent, old clothes were the fatal blow in the 1990s, although other factors such as inadequate infrastructure or an insecure energy supply also contributed to the decline in domestic production, according to Hütz-Adams.

Ahlmann from FairWwertung considers the new goods from cheap countries to be the real problem. "Basically, it makes sense if raw materials are processed where they are created," he admits. There are also efforts in Africa to rebuild its own textile and clothing industry. But in every African country there is not only second hand but also a market for new goods, which is dominated by new Asian goods, as it actually is in Europe. "

Import bans on clothing donations

Nevertheless, many countries in Africa seem to see second-hand goods as a major problem for the domestic market. Years ago, some countries banned the import of second-hand clothing, including Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa. In 2016, the East African Community (EAC) also dared to step forward and announced that it would stop imports of old clothes, shoes and leather goods by 2019. Until then, they want to increase import taxes every year.

When asked why the African countries do this when old clothes are supposedly no competition, Ahlmann replies: "We at FairWektiven say that this is a political question that African countries have to answer for themselves." Susanne Pohl from the Red Cross also says succinctly: "It is often the case that this is often seen by their own governments as a question of dignity. Each government has to decide for itself."

The deputy head of the Kenyan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, James Mureu, however, believes: "Such a ban would promote the domestic textile industry." Even if it would be difficult to meet demand from local production at first. Currently, only around 15 percent of the cotton produced in East African countries is processed locally, the rest is exported, says the East African Business Council. The association therefore also advocates gradually abolishing the used clothing trade.

In the USA, where around one billion US dollars are spent on old clothes every year, the alarm bells were ringing. The world's largest exporter of used clothing threatened a trade war and the African countries buckled - with the exception of Rwanda.

Under pressure from the USA, Kenya has backed out. Our old stuff continues to be sold at the Gikomba Second-Hand Market in Nairobi.

Rwanda leaves

In order to strengthen the domestic economy, Rwanda increased the tariffs for the import of used clothes twelve times in 2016, and since then ten times as high tariffs as before have been due for the import of second-hand shoes. The result: Since June this year, Rwanda's textile industry is no longer allowed to export duty-free to the USA under the AGOA trade agreement.

In the short term, the gap created by a lack of second-hand clothing will be covered by goods from Asia, "says Mukwaya Rodgers from the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA)." In the long term, however, we believe that we can take over part of this market ourselves ", he says," it is important for us to expand our textile industry. "

In Rwanda, the textile industry is still developing cautiously. Some local producers welcome the ban on second-hand goods. Once there are enough local producers, they could also be competitive, says Ritesh Patel of the Rwandan manufacturer Uterxwa. But it is still difficult to produce the clothes cheaply enough for buyers in Rwanda and neighboring countries.

Especially in Asian countries like here in Cambodia, the masses of cheap clothes are still being produced

And the environment ???

In the end, there is still the ecological argument. After all, almost half of the second-hand clothing is recycled instead of directly ending up in the garbage. But many collections can only be sold because they are so cheap. Their fuel is polyester, according to the environmental organization Greenpeace. 60 percent of clothing is now made from petroleum-based synthetic fibers, the production of which emits three times more climate-damaging greenhouse gas than cotton. Microfibers made of polyester pollute water and are particularly explosive because of their effects on marine life, complains Greenpeace. In addition, polyester is often mixed with natural materials, which means that the fabrics are hardly recyclable.

Hütz-Adams finds the environmental argument presumptuous anyway: "We buy the new things, but when it comes to the ecological aspect, that doesn't mean that we should wear the things for as long as they actually have a lifetime, but that should then others do. "

The farmers who have planted cotton in Africa with poorly paid work can still be happy that they get such cheap second-hand basic equipment through our discarded clothes.