France’s attempts to impose an EU-wide ban on the export of used clothes will be watched closely by dozens of African countries, that receive millions of tonnes of used clothes each year.

On Thursday (14 March), the French national assembly approved a new law that would gradually impose fines of up to €10-per-item of clothing by 2030, as well for a ban on advertising for such products.

On the same day, the environment ministry in Paris told Reuters that it would push for an EU ban to be discussed at a meeting of EU environment ministers on 25 March, with the support of Sweden and Denmark.

“Africa must no longer be the dustbin of fast-fashion,” stated the ministry.

Trade data from the United Nations shows the EU exported 1.4m metric tons of used textiles in 2022. A European Environment Agency report in 2023 showed that Europe dumps 90 percent of its used clothes in Africa and Asia, warning that clothes can cause pollution in African countries where items that cannot be resold end up in dumps.

Though France appears to be framing the new law through the prism of combating textile waste and the environmental damage it causes, a ban on second-hand clothes exports would have a major effect on African states.

Economists contend that cheap second-hand clothing imports stall the growth of the local textiles industry. Having increased policy space to promote regional manufacturing and supply chains is one of the main demands of the EU for both the African Union and individual African states. There are also concerns about the quality of clothes that come from Europe, the United States and Asia.

On the flipside, the market also offers livelihoods for thousands of market stall sellers across the continent. Africa consistently imports around $1bn [€0.92bn] of used clothes, accounting for around 30 percent of the global market.

Following the national assembly vote in Paris, Chinese fashion giant Shein said that the bill would “worsen the purchasing power of French consumers, at a time when they are already feeling the impact of the cost-of-living crisis”.

The East African Community was embroiled in a lengthy trade dispute with the US over clothing imports (known as Mitumba in Swahili) between 2016 and 2020 after agreeing to phase out second-hand clothing imports.

The eight-country EAC argued that a ban would boost domestic clothing manufacturing.

In response, however, the US Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association petitioned the Trump administration that a ban would violate the terms of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which offers tariff and quota-free access to the US market for African exports.

As a result of the pressure from Washington, only Rwanda implemented the agreement, and was suspended from AGOA, while Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda — who account for over 25 percent of Africa’s used clothing imports — decided to drop the ban.

The second-hand clothes market in Kenya is substantial, with the country importing 185,000 tonnes of used clothes per year, and the industry became a campaign issue ahead of the 2022 presidential elections in Kenya, when opposition leader Raila Odinga, proposed an import ban.

William Ruto, who narrowly defeated Odinga for the presidency, accused his opponent of targeting the country’s small businesses that sell imported clothes and other goods.


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