How That Zara Top You Bought Is Hurting Africa’s Economy

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We all love a good sale at Zara or H&M, but it’s killing Africa’s economy. Fast fashion has played a major role in spurring along a consumer culture rooted in impulse, affordability, and timeliness. The global impacts of the runway-to-retail industry are profound; wreaking havoc on Africa’s textile industry, and being called the second largest polluter in the world.

A Look at the Runway-to-Retail Industry

The textile industry is one of the most profitable and important sectors in the global economy.  With the rise of fast fashion, clothing is expected to represent more than half of total textile use in the world.

Fast fashion companies have been able to compress their manufacturing cycles through producing cheaply made, and cheaply priced products, making it easier for us to throw away clothes and replace them with new items. In fact, over the past 15 years, clothing sales have increased while the time we keep those items has dramatically decreased.

How and when did this all happen?

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

One of the world’s largest apparel retailers, Zara, is considered to be the pioneer of fast fashion, starting its fast production model in the 1990s, soon after other retailers used it as a blueprint.

Today, that “fast fashion” business model has completely dominated the industry, mostly due to clever marketing tactics: consumers are able to spend less but buy more. Runway design also plays a quintessential part in this business model. As consumers demand the trendy items of clothing seen during Paris, Milan, and NYC Fashion Weeks, the textile industry is driven to supply cheaply manufactured material as quickly as possible.

And if you’re someone who’s constantly buying new clothes, you’re probably also getting rid of a lot of your “older” clothes. Donating *seems* like a good idea right? Wrong, turns out donating clothes isn’t as altruistic or harmless as it may appear.

Are Sustainability Efforts a Scam?

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation discovered that in 2015 alone, 73% of garments produced ended up in a landfill, while less than 1% was recycled, globally! Apparently, donation and sustainability efforts are quite murky and complex. Here’s why:

  1. If charities cannot sell their donated items within a specific timeframe, they are resold to for-profit brokers in various countries
  2. Once the goods arrive overseas, a wholesaler will ship bundles of clothing off into various markets, either to be resold locally or repurposed into industrial use

According to NPR, 45% of all donated clothing ends up in the hands of for-profit brokers, with 70% of that ending up in Africa. Second-hand clothes are often cheaper and more abundant than locally produced clothing. Kenya alone, for instance, imported a whopping $133 million worth of worn clothing from Canada, Europe, and China in 2017, practically wiping out their homegrown textile industry completely.

So why do these clothes end up in landfills? As purchasers attempt to resell their items, they are often unaware of what products they are receiving, or even the quality level. If the quality isn’t great, the materials get tossed in the dump – and since this happens quite often, traders lose lots of money and create piles of garments in landfills.

This means that, on average, developing countries are importing waste textiles more and losing profit majorly – suffocating both their economies and their environments.

This played a pivotal role in countries like Rwanda opting to generate their textiles independently, due to the consistently low quality of donated products from fast-fashion retailers – solidifying the country’s exit from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), the flagship US trade legislation that allowed for duty-free access to some exported products in qualifying African countries. Many Rwandans were less than thrilled at the announcement of the ban, especially because the used-clothing market employed a little over 20,000 people and was worth $17 million by 2016. President Kagame acknowledged that Rwanda’s economic growth may suffer for some time, but that it is a necessary sacrifice until Rwanda is able to grow and establish their industries.

Farmers in Burkina Faso, the largest cotton producer in sub-Saharan Africa, have identified that the cotton they produce seems to only gain real value once it is exported to outside countries, like China, and turned into fabrics, threads, and garments. Those garments are then sold globally (in stores like H&M, Topshop, or Zara) used, donated, and end up BACK in Africa, only to get thrown away! A representative of the African Cotton and Textile Industries Federation (ACTIF) shared it does take more time and resources to manufacture clothes in Africa. So Africa’s overall cost in manufacturing is double, while their production is half in comparison to countries like China or India.

With global firms moving part of their production factories to places like Ethiopia (i.e. H&M, and other PVH Corporations), textile investors and companies are able to jumpstart the factory production trend in Africa, catalyzing both production and employment rates – a definite assistance in reviving such viable industries. However, investors admit that wages for local employees are generally lower than in China, so much work is left to be done.

Slowing Down Fast Fashion

As calls for corporate consciousness begin to rise, initiatives for change are emerging. Consumers have started a trending discussion on innovative sustainability. This has resulted in organizations, like the United Nations, considering negotiations to end the global fashion industry’s destructive manufacturing process.

African designers are starting to do their part as well, with programs like the African Fashion Fund encouraging a creative economic hub through introducing sustainable manufacturing and production processes into the continent. There is also a push to promote diverse African talent while remaining environmentally-friendly.


So what can you do?

Buy less, buy second-hand, keep your garments longer, and find cool, sustainable ways to up-cycle your pieces. When shopping for new pieces, be intentional about the purchase, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it something I need?
  • Will it go out of style after a season?
  • Will it last for years to come?

Anything you can do to slow “throwaway” culture will make an impact.

There are also few organizations you can support like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its effort to Make Fashion Circular.

For Further Reading:

NPR. “The Global Afterlife of Your Donated Clothes.” 

CBC. “Here’s where your donated clothing really ends up.” 

The Guardian. “How Second-Hand Clothing Donations are creating a Dilemma for Kenya.” 

DW. “The Rediscovery of Africa’s Textile Industry.”

BBC. “How the US and Rwanda Have Fallen Out Over Second-Hand Clothes.” 

African Renewal. “ Battling the Damaging Effects of ‘Fast Fashion.’ 

United Nations. “UN Launches Drive to Highlight Environmental Cost of Staying Fashionable.” 

Photo Credit: Lauren Fleischmann
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Ellen Haile
Ellen Haile

My hair falls between the 4A to 4C category, so I’m always looking for the best manageable styles. I live for big, stretched hair, so I often keep it blow dried and call it a day.

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