Greenpeace Germany went to Kenya and Tanzania to witness the problem of imported textile waste in these countries and to find out about some of the many local initiatives trying to counter it through their own means. However, its latest report, ‘Poisoned Gifts: From donations to the dumpsite: textiles waste disguised as second-hand clothes exported to East Africa,’ which was released last week, reveals that the activists found most of the clothing was of such poor quality that it goes straight to the dumpsite. 

“Nowhere is the failure of the fast fashion linear business model more visible than in the countries where many of these cheap clothes end up once their short lives are over,” Greenpeace said in a statement on its website, “on huge dump sites, burnt on open fires, along riverbeds and washed out into the sea, with severe consequences for people and the planet.” 

The report comments that in Germany alone, about one million tonnes of used clothes are collected every year, with the volume growing year on year by 20%. Only a small amount of used clothes are resold in the country where they were collected: about 10–30% in the UK and similar proportions in the US and Canada, says the report. 

Most of the used clothing ends up being exported overseas to join a global second-hand trade in which billions of old garments are bought and sold around the world every year, Greenpeace say. 

However, the non-profit claims that this report demonstrates how textile waste is often “disguised” as second-hand clothing and exported from the Global North to the Global South, to avoid the responsibility and costs of dealing with the problem of disposable clothes, with these used clothes, and even new ‘overproduced’ clothes, often reported and recorded as “reused.” In fact, nearly half of them end up in dumpsites, rivers or are burnt in the open, Greenpeace says. 

Greenpeace Germany said it recently campaigned for a ban on the destruction of unsold and returned goods being integrated into the German circular economy law in 2020, including a transparency obligation requiring large companies to publicly disclose the number of products they discard and destroy, including textiles. 

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Pressure from many environmental groups including Greenpeace has now resulted in a new EU textile strategy released in March 2022 which plans to introduce a ban on the destruction of products and proposes a transparency obligation. 

The Greenpeace report goes on to say that the common narrative that donating clothes is a circular means of dealing with clothing waste, is raising questions.

The report says: “The trade has been called “charity”, “recycling”, “diversion” and now many people call it “circular”, but none of these labels is accurate. Simply moving clothing from one place to another does not make it circular. Where initially these clothes would end up in dumpsites in the West, they now end up in dumpsites in Africa.” 

The report also notes that African countries taking a stand against this trade have also run into difficulties. In 2016, the East African Community (EAC) agreed to a complete ban on used clothes imports by 2019. The argument behind the ban was to give a boost to local textiles manufacturing and help the economy. However, the ban was challenged by the US as a blockage of free trade and threatened possible trade penalties, including losing eligibility for duty-free clothing exports to the US market, under the US African Growth and Opportunity Act. 

Raising tax on imported clothing has also created issues. Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania found that consignments of used clothes were lying uncollected at the port of Mombasa after importers failed to comply with new duty requirements. 

Greenpeace says that 150–200 tonnes of textiles a day finds its way to African countries as waste, and with up to 69% of the fibres used in clothes synthetic (mainly polyester) they are therefore oil-based and non-biodegradable. Microplastic fibres from the waste also leach into the environment and end up in the human food-chain, Greenpeace claims. 

The report concludes that with no infrastructure to dispose of these massive amounts of textile waste, and official dump sites overflowing, this leads to textile waste being dumped along rivers or at settlement borders. Some of it is burned openly, which can lead to health problems for the people living nearby and clogging of rivers and drains can lead to floods. 

Decomposing clothes can also release methane, and synthetic fabrics like polyester and lycra can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. In addition, many clothes contain hazardous chemicals, the report says. 

Greenpeace says that it is no longer enough for brands to only focus on cleaning up their supply chains; and is urging global fashion brands to step up their efforts to stop the huge end-of-life impacts of their products. In addition, Greenpeace says that the EU needs to ensure that its plan to ban the export of textile waste and promote long lasting, durable and repairable clothing of good quality is fully implemented through various regulations, which must also be urgently adopted as a global treaty.  

This new report follows on from Greenpeace urging regulation on fashion supply chains last November (2021), when the non-profit said there are signs of a “new race to the bottom” in its Self-Regulation: A Fashion Fairytale report which concluded that self-regulation was ‘failing to solve the problem.’