Kenyan textiles traders have reacted angrily to a proposed EU ban on second-hand clothes exports following the first discussions at an EU environment ministers meeting in Brussels earlier this week.

Denmark, Sweden and France are proposing that the EU apply the Basel Convention to used clothes, banning exports of hazardous textile waste and requiring prior informed consent to be obtained before importing textile waste.

“The export of textile waste from the EU to developing countries causes significant environmental, social, and health problems. The EU has to put an end to this practice,” Denmark’s deputy permanent representative to the EU, Soren Jacobsen, told the Environment Council meeting on Monday (25 March).

Many economists contend that second-hand clothing is a barrier to African industrialisation and supply chain development in textiles, arguments which led the eight-nation East African Community to agree to ban second-hand clothing imports in 2016, although the plan was later abandoned.

However, thousands of businesses across the continent make a livelihood from the market.

“Nobody is giving us trash by force. What we are buying is good quality clothes, and if a supplier wants to sell us trash, we would be happy to refuse their consignment,” said Teresia Wairimu Njenga, who chairs the Mitumba Consortium Association of Kenya.

The industry is aware that an export ban would pose an existential threat to its future.

Last year, the Mitumba association commissioned research which claimed that the second-hand clothing trade in Kenya provides two million green jobs and supports 20 million livelihoods.

Wairimu Njenga has previously complained of “wildly inaccurate misinformation circulating in Western media about the second-hand clothes trade”, adding that this had created a “false prevailing narrative that has demonised our trade and put millions of jobs and livelihoods at risk on the false altar of protecting the environment.

“Rather than being a threat to the environment, second-hand clothes are a crucial pillar in global endeavours towards reuse, a circular economy and sustainability in the textile sector,” she added.

The French environment ministry is leading the campaign for a ban after French lawmakers 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. Europe currently dumps 90 percent of its used clothes in Africa and Asia.

Kenya imported 177,386 tonnes of used clothing in 2022, a 76 percent increase on the amount imported in 2013, according to the United Nations trade data. Ghana, Senegal, and South Africa are other major markets for used clothing in sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa imports $1bn [€0.93bn] a year of second-hand clothes, accounting for 30 percent of the global market.

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