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Used Clothing is Big Business

Norwegians export more than double as much second-hand clothes as 10 years ago, altogether 20,000 tonnes in 2011. Perhaps your used trousers or tight top will find a new owner at the second-hand market in Uganda?
Artikkelen er mer enn to år gammel. Ting kan ha endret seg.
Norwegians export more than double as much second-hand clothes as 10 years ago, altogether 20,000 tonnes in 2011. Perhaps your used trousers or tight top will find a new owner at the second-hand market in Uganda?

klærogfolk denneOwino Market in Kampala is on of the biggest second-hand clothing markets in Africa (Photo:Anne Kari Garberg)

It took you 4 hours to dig them out of the closet and stuff them into plastic bags. Two pairs of trousers you bought on sale but never used. Three sweaters from H&M that lost their shape after one washing. Skirts, t-shirts and shorts. They are out of the overcrowded closet. Moreover, you have lugged them into the car and driven them across town to a clothing bin. Order in the closet and solidarity in practice. Right?

Norwegians’ purchasing power has increased, but the price of clothing has remained stationary. As a result, the Norwegian consumption of new clothes has increased considerably. According to Virke, the Enterprise Federation of Norway, in 2011 we imported clothing for NKR 16.2 billion. Norway’s 5 million inhabitants bought 82,021 tonnes of clothing; this is the largest amount ever registered and more than double as much as 20 years ago.

At the same time that we are buying more clothes, we are also throwing away more used clothes. Much still ends up in the rubbish bin, but Norwegian households’ textile refuse has been at a stable level the past 5 years, and the second-hand clothes are increasingly finding their way into clothing bins and then out of the country.

More Second-Hand Clothes than Ever
Norway’s export of second-hand clothes has increased strongly since the beginning of the nineties and in 2011 passed 20,000 tonnes yearly. That is 12,000 tonnes more than in 2001 and more than all our Nordic neighbours. We no longer darn our socks; we don’t take in or out our dresses, and we don’t replace zippers. We buy new, and we buy a great deal. But what happens to the old clothes we no longer have room for in the closet?

We say goodbye to the clothes when we close the hatch of the clothing bin. After our farewell the clothes start a long journey. Even though many Norwegians buy second-hand, only a small proportion of the clothes is recycled here.

A large portion of the clothes is reborn in Africa. Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania are among the largest importers of second-hand clothes from Europe and North America. In 2010 these three countries together imported close to 300,000 tonnes second-hand clothes and textiles valued at more than NKR 1.2 billion. Another big importer is Uganda. Last year the east-African country on Lake Victoria bought more than 54,000 tonnes of second-hand clothes for more than NKR 250 million.  

If you believe that the clothes you turn in are given away for free in some village in Africa, you must, in other words, think again. In Africa trade in second-hand clothes is big business.

Employs Thousands of People
Today hundreds of thousands of people work in the transport, repair, distribution or sale of second-hand clothes in Africa. One of them is Christine Nakiganda. Her workplace is Owino Market, which is located in the centre of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Owino is a teeming, chaotic network of long, narrow passageways between thousands of market stalls that sell everything from food and vegetables to homemade irons. And last but not least: enormous amounts of second-hand shoes and clothes.

ChristineNakigandabevegelseLike many others Christine Nakiganda earns a living selling used clothing (Photo:Anne Kari Garberg)I met Christine Nakingada at her stall someplace in the middle of this throng. Right now she is standing in the middle of a huge pile of children’s and baby clothes. Behind her is a whole wall of dresses on white hangers.

“I like my job,” Christine says while sorting garments with rapid movements. Boys’ clothes to the right; girls’ clothes to the left. She relates that she has worked with second-hand clothes for almost 12 years. Now her stall has a favourable placing in the market, and she has many regular customers. Earlier she sold mostly ladies’ wear, but during the past few years she has specialised in clothes for children and babies, she explains.

Christine purchases the clothes she sells in 50-kg plastic bags from Asian wholesalers. Some of the bags she sells on to other sellers at the market; the rest she opens and sells herself.

“The first thing I do when I open the bags is to sort the garments into first-class, second-class and third-class clothes. Those in good condition and fashionable are first-class; those I sell at a higher price, of course,” she explains.

Some times the bags are marked. It may say that they contain bras, ladies’ clothes or children’s clothes, but Christine never knows the quality in advance. “You can be really unlucky and get a bag with very old clothes; then you earn very little,” she says.

But Christine is grateful for her job: “In the 12 years I have worked here I have earned enough to pay the children’s school fees. I have even built a house,” she relates happily.

Second-Hand Clothes Sales Hierarchy
Olive Umutesi is my guide in Owino Market. She is a young radio journalist who lives and works in Kampala. She buys her clothes at Owino, and as we trawl further down the narrow passages she describes the many links of second-hand sales. A little further into the market we meet Rasto Kyalema, a young man in the middle twenties. In contrast to Nakiginda, he does not have his own stall. He sells singlets, tops and blouses from a small table which, after the morning’s violent rain showers, is balancing on slippery wooden boards in the middle of a puddle.

Rasto relates that he uses agents who connect him with wholesalers, from whom he in turn buys clothes. Beneath him in the hierarchy are those who do not have either a stall or a table to sell from but travel around in rural districts or the outskirts of cities and carry their goods with them.

I look through the pile of tops and see many familiar labels: H&M, B-Young and Zara. Rasto believes they are all “my size” and tells me I can have a peach-coloured top for 20,000 shillings, ca NKR 50. I stand fascinated by the sight of a top from Vero Moda that I think I owned a few years ago.

Rasto is satisfied with the last bag he bought. Many of the clothes were fashionable, he recounts. But he has also been unlucky: “Once I got a bag with many cotton nappies. That time I earned almost nothing,” he says, while the other sellers around him laugh heartily.

Who Died?

In Ghana they call second-hand shops “broni wa wo,” which directly translated means “a white man has died”. In Somalia they are called “huudhaydh,” which means “who died?”. In Uganda second-hand clothes have the more neutral name “mivumba,” which means “used”.

“Nobody looks down on you if you dress in second-hand clothes here,” radio journalist Olive Umutesi, my guide for the day, assures me.

At the two shopping centres Garden City and Oasis Mall in Kampala there are a couple of clothes shops that sell new clothes. Everyone in Uganda uses “mivumba”, even the upper classes, Olive explains. She does not feel that it is demeaning to use clothes that others have given away.

The only thing Olive does not buy second-hand is underwear. The Ugandan authorities have, like the authorities in Ghana, Rwanda and Zimbabwe, introduced a ban on the import of second-hand underwear, but the ban is not complied with. This is obvious when you wander through the market; there are small mountains of bras and boxer shorts everywhere.HMnærtH&M, Zara, Topshop, B-Young and Vero Moda. You can find many well known brands in Owino Market (Photo:Anne Kari Garberg).
“There is a market for it. The poorest people buy second-hand underwear too,” Olive explains.

While we continue trawling through the market I constantly see garments I recognise. Converse shoes, a big pile of tops and dresses from H&M and a raincoat with the inscription British Petroleum. I tell Olive that I previously thought the second-hand clothes that were sent to Africa were distributed free. She explains that this is a general belief in Uganda too:

“There is scepticism and distrust upwards in the system. The sellers think the wholesalers run off with the money, and the wholesalers believe the importers get paid for something that is given away free in Europe,” Olive relates. She nevertheless believes that it is positive that the clothes are sold and thus people are employed:

“Unemployment among young people is very high in Uganda. Many struggle to find a livelihood. Transporting or selling second-hand clothes gives people a livelihood,” she explains.

“But can the poorest people afford to buy second-hand clothes?”

“Most can afford something. But the very poor in the rural districts often have bad clothes. Some wear rags,” Olive relates.

Related story: Used Clothing Has Taken Over