Used clothing— variously termed as “clothes of dead white people” (Kenya), “clothing of calamity” (Mozambique) or “clothes in a heap” (Malawi)—is a billion-dollar global industry.
According to some estimates, almost 70 percent of garments that are donated in Europe and North America end up on the African continent. But the used clothing industry is facing increased pushback.
Many countries, including Malawi, are debating the pros and cons of continuing to rely on imports of second- hand merchandise. The pushback against used clothing has rested on two broad sets of arguments.
First, some argue that the popularity of used clothing contributed to the collapse of the domestic textile industry in Africa in the 1980s and 1990s.
Political leaders thus point to the need to support the domestic garment industry, where priority is accorded to locally sourced raw materials such as cotton. Second, the continued usage of used clothing is portrayed as undignified and eroding African pride.
My colleague Kaja Elise Gresko and I have been studying the used clothing industry (kaunjika) in Malawi for the past couple of years. We have visited local markets and shopping malls and interacted extensively with street vendors, shop keepers, wholesalers and consumers in Blantyre, Limbe, Zomba and Lilongwe.
We found that used clothes and shoes are often considered to be of far better quality than brand new items sold in local markets. And many customers are even willing to pay a higher price for used merchandise than new items.
For households with low purchasing power, especially in rural areas, kaunjika provides an alternative for those who cannot afford to purchase new garments sold in local markets.
After clearing customs, stocks of used clothing travel down the supply chain. Items considered to be of the best quality are typically sold off quickly. High-and middle-income consumers, who have developed ties with vendors, are tipped off when an unusually good batch of clothes arrives.
Items that vendors cannot sell to higher-end consumers in the cities (e.g. due to style and quality) without incurring a big loss are typically re-sold to other vendors operating in more rural areas.
Malawian consumers also cite fashion trends and the “uniqueness” of imported merchandise. This is particularly the case for the youth who crave “the latest fashion” that may not be available in retail stores.
But kaunjika is also an important source of livelihood. The buy-in costs for local vendors is very low, which in turn creates economic opportunities in the informal economy for groups with limited resources to access startup capital.
Several vendors told us that despite starting their businesses with limited funds, they had gradually been able to expand their operations and generate new jobs.