Despite a government ban on selling second-hand clothes in Africa’s most populous country, it’s estimated that 80 per cent of Nigerians dress in illicit, used garments.
The ban, ostensibly designed to protect local textile producers, is one of several imposed by African countries who are angry about being flooded with donated clothes from the wealthy world.
Despite the ban Katangowa market in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub, is the largest used clothing market on the continent. The Moment newspaper in Nigeria describes it as the “Wall Street of second-hand clothes”.
The garments are moved into Nigeria illegally from neighbouring countries, Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow reported.
While selling clothes can help put food on the table for vendors in Katangowa, they are not the main beneficiaries of the trade, according to recent research.
“In terms of a percentage mark-up for doing very little, the wholesalers get the biggest chunk,” David Simon, a professor at the University of London who has studied used clothing markets across Africa, told Al Jazeera.
Wholesalers in the destination country unload bails of clothes, usually purchased from western aid organisations by the ton, sort the product, and then sell it to other middlemen or market vendors for a significant mark-up, the professor said. They are also responsible for “massaging” contraband clothes through customs.
Simon, however, does not believe used clothing markets are the main factor in undermining domestic textile production in West Africa.
“Trade liberalisation since the 1980s, under structural adjustment programmes [policy changes demanded from international financial institutions], and negotiations in the World Trade Organisation had the impact of reducing barriers to the import of cheap new clothing, mainly from China,” he said, arguing that trade policy is probably the largest contributor to the decline of domestic manufacturing.
For the most part, economic debates about the effect of used clothes in displacing domestic production are probably moot, because lax enforcement allows used clothes to enter West Africa markets on mass, regardless of the law.
Internationally, a quarter of all garments sold — an estimated one billion pieces of clothing — are thrown away every year. That’s about 500,000 tons of clothes, the weight of the world’s tallest building.
“Many relatively poor or absolutely poor people prefer second hand western clothing [over new Chinese or Indian made clothes] because it is often of a better quality and it has associations with the western cultural imperative; it matches what they see on TV “
– David Simon, University of London
Environmentally this causes major problems, as growing the cotton used in one t-shirt can require 2,500 liters of water or 8,000 liters for one pair of jeans.
“We really believe that by buying second hand clothing shoppers can reduce their carbon footprint,” said Fee Gilfeather, head of marketing and trading with Oxfam, an NGO which runs community-based used clothing projects in West Africa and the UK.
Nigerians aren’t alone in enjoying second-hand attire. Used clothing exports from wealthy OECD countries to the Ivory Coast are estimated at 13,066 tons, according to the UN Comtrade database while Ghana imported 79,963 tons.
“Ten thousand garments go into landfills every five minutes in the UK, that is something we really want to change,” Gilfeather told Al Jazeera.
“Moving unwanted clothes from one part of the world to another is good for the environment.”
Shoppers in Katangowa, however, seem to be making their purcahses based on style, rather than sustainability.
“It isn’t just the poor who shop here,” one market trader told our correspondent. Actresses from Nollywood, Nigeria’s filmmaking hub, frequent the market looking for unique outfits, the trader said.
“Many relatively poor or absolutely poor people prefer second hand western clothing [over new Chinese or Indian made clothes] because it is often of a better quality and it has associations with the western cultural imperative; it matches what they see on TV,” Simon told Al Jazeera.
“In our research in Mozambique, we found that street traders quite often conceal new clothing in amongst displays of used clothing,” he said. “That tells us something.” Vendors often scratched up new Chinese shoes to make them look like used western shoes, Simon said, probably because western shoes are considered “aspirational” by some consumers.
As long as consumers have these aspirations, and traders want to turn a profit, it seems unlikely the used clothing trade in Nigeria and other countries will stop anytime soon, regardless of government policy.