Guest blog by Leandra Gebrakedan
When I worked as a manager in a charity shop I noticed a few regular customers buying clothes to put into barrels to send home to Africa. Sending clothing in barrels is a long tradition, as customers pay for the cubic space and not the weight. I wasn’t aware of the scale of second-hand clothes being exported, until I read an article in The Guardian.
The article stated that in February last year the East African Community (EAC), an intergovernmental organisation, proposed a ban on imported used clothes and shoes. Why did they do this? The aim is to encourage local production and development within member countries as – I was surprised to learn – East Africa imported $151m of second-hand clothing in 2015, most of which had been collected by charities and recyclers in Europe and North America.
East Africa imported $151m of second-hand clothing in 2015, most of which had been collected by charities and recyclers in Europe and North America
The EAC suggested phasing out imports in the next three years.
However, the newspaper The East African reports that this depends on the five countries’ heads of states all agreeing to a common industrialisation policy. It adds that the proposal suggests a ban would only come in after an increase in local textile production.
To boost their economy and improve the manufacturing industry, the Tanzanian government have begun massive training of tailors in the country. The training is in anticipation towards the proposed banning of second hand clothes.
Although Ethiopia, where I was born, is not part of the EAC I hope they follow Tanzania’s lead and invest in more people being trained in making traditional clothing. This would be good, as at present traditional clothing in Ethiopia is very expensive and most local people can’t afford it. It is really beautiful, consisting of cotton fabrics with strips of hand-embroidered multi-coloured patterns, worn mainly during special events such as weddings, and referred to as ‘Habesha’ clothing, with some of the priciest garments selling for 15,000 Birr (US$730). The ankle length dress is usually worn by Ethiopian women at formal events. It is made from cotton by specialised weavers.
Having volunteered with Labour Behind the Label, I am fortunate to be aware of the conditions of the garment factories in many developing countries. With a new stream of factories being built outside of Bangladesh following the international outrage of Rana Plaza, some investors moved their factories and manufacturing to East Africa (Ethiopia being my main point of interest, as I was born there).
With more investment in local, traditional clothing, the price will decrease and become more accessible, and with more work opportunities the need to work in the factories will decrease as more women will move from factories and train to become traditional weavers. Another benefit of course is keeping the traditional clothes available for future generations, as they are so beautiful.