The Mainstreaming of Second-Hand Apparel

As a result of ongoing inflation, more Addis Ababans seem to be resorting to second-hand stores, which are increasingly crowded with individuals who otherwise may not have thought to visit. Secondhand shopping takes up the customers’ time even if it could appear like a decent escape from the inflation-stricken pricey new garments, since many Thrift. Second hand products market is a huge industry globally generating income for millions and millions in taxes for governments. Faced with brutal inflation, Ethiopians are proud no more to visit second hand shops and to visit them more often. In this article, EBR’s Eden Teshome gives regional and global perspective on the growing second hand market particularly in the capital.

Sara Alemayehu, a 21-year-old Student at Addis Ababa University from Dire Dawa, frequently purchases clothing items and shoes from secondhand shops as she has always been used to them.

“I enjoy looking nice and if used clothes weren’t on market, I wouldn’t have been able to dress up and look as good as I typically do,” Sara told EBR. The proud thrifter is not able to afford brand new clothes and accessories—quite costly these days for someone like her with little income and financial aid from family members. “So, I suppose secondhand stores are my go-to place.” This practice—now commonplace in Ethiopia—is also termed thrifting or thrift shopping.

While one might not always find their desired fit or design—as the products do not come in multiple sizes like regular shops—the clothes, bags, and shoes sold in thrift shops are generally of higher quality, according to Sara. Second-hand stores offer more than just lower prices; they also offer better style, quality, and uniqueness.

Thrift clothing has a multitude of different names in different countries. In Ethiopia, it is referred to as ‘bonda’, translated into bundle, as the clothes sold come in bundles of hundreds of clothes tied up together. The term ‘selbaj’ is also used. Secondhand clothes are common not just in Ethiopia but all over Africa. In Zambia they are termed ‘salaula’, a Bemba word meaning selecting from a pile in the manner of rummaging. In Lagos, Nigeria, it is called ‘kafa ulaya’, meaning the clothes of the dead whites. In Zimbabwe, the term ‘mupedzanhamo’, translated to where all problems end, is used. In Accra, Ghana, they are known as ‘obroni wawu’, equivalent to a dead white man’s clothes—in similar fashion to Nigeria. These names tell a story of their own.

The used clothing sector is a multi-billion-dollar industry worldwide. According to some estimates, the African continent receives close to 70Pct of the clothing donated globally. As part of a complicated global supply chain, donated clothing that cannot be sold at thrift stores in high-income nations is instead sold in bulk to industrial fabric and garment recyclers. After that, the apparel is sent to sorting factories, often located in eastern Europe or the Middle East. These are graded and sorted before being divided into bales. The bales are subsequently sold once more to wholesalers around Africa.

Most used clothing from the global West is shipped in shipping containers of between 550 and 600 45-kilogram bales. Importers, primarily from the Global South, purchase these bales featuring a wide range of packing lists and are unable to choose and pick—they take the fully-packed bales.

In the East Africa Community (EAC) bloc alone—Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda—used clothes and shoes worth over USD150 million are imported, mostly from the US and Europe. About 19.5Pct of all direct used clothes exports to the region come from the US.

According to a 2017 USAID estimate, the sector employed 355,000 people and generated USD230 million for EAC countries while supporting the lives of 1.4 million residents, in total. Further studies show that processing, cleaning, mending, re-styling, and distributing used clothing generates a sizable number of jobs. Several emerging economies have industries centered on the sorting, processing, and re-exporting of used clothing.

It should be highlighted, however, that employment in the informal second-hand clothes industry does not come with social or legal protection, in contrast to employment in the legitimate sector. Given that the quality of worn clothing is deteriorating in the countries where it is exported, there may also be worries regarding the long-term viability of livelihoods in the second-hand clothing trade.

There is further and deeper opposition to the thrift sector. Academics have drawn attention to the complexities of this multibillion-dollar industry and the ways in which the commodity promotes poverty. The leaders of Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi have thus announced significant tax increases on used clothing imports since 2016. The force in which the leaders acted created the anticipation that no used clothing would be allowed into the nations. However, due to ensuing trade disputes, the majority of the countries were forced to discontinue implementing the prohibition.

The pushback employed two basic categories of arguments. First, it’s generally accepted that the rise of secondhand clothing in the 1980s and 1990s contributed to the downfall of local textile industries in several African nations. Secondly, it is implied that wearing used clothing goes against African pride and is insulting. Nevertheless, used clothes continue to be incredibly popular on several countries on the continent.

The sale of thrift apparel is a global and expanding industry. Fashion authorities in developed countries have identified it as a trend, whereas in less developed nations it is viewed as an accessible kind of apparel for people struggling with expenses.

Even the cheapest brand new clothing available in local shops is beyond the means of many Ethiopians. And now, the previous trend of finding used clothes only through street-side vendors has now changed. Users can now thrift shop at well- designed and located shops throughout Addis Ababa. However, these shops frequented by middle-class urban customers are playing the middle-price game between street vendors and shops selling brand new clothing.

Still, most residents find used clothing to be relatively reasonable. It has also created a revenue source for many with lower incomes, leading to the creation of economic opportunities in the informal sector. Many vendors informed EBR that despite the difficulty of selling on the streets due to its illegality owing to tax and public nuisance issues, doing so is assisting many Addis Ababa residents to dress nicely and affordably. They also add that many shops claiming to sell brand new clothing rather wash, iron and sell second hand clothes as new—taking in a huge and undue profit.

In capital, a young woman named Caris Biru runs three different thrift stores and has been in this line of work for more than five years. A few years back, prior to the current influx of secondhand businesses in the city, Caris recalls her shop being the only one in Addis.

She says she has a variety of customers from all ages and socioeconomic status. In her numerous shops around Addis, Caris claims that the clothes offered at her shop are different from the those sold in typical shops that sell new clothes which are usually imported from China.

“What makes them special is that they come only in one pair and you don’t find them everywhere,” Caris says.

The fashion and textile industries benefit from used clothing’s high fashion factor and sustainable edge. The 1980s saw a rise in the acceptance of secondhand clothes. Prior to mass-produced fast fashion, second-hand clothes were connected to poverty and poor social status. It was a disposable commodity that could be rapidly purchased.

In recent years, used clothes in Ethiopia—especially in Addis—have changed from being something people bought out of financial restrictions to something they are willing to spend extra for. This is mostly as a result of people wanting to stand out and not see others wearing the same thing as them. Worn clothing is fashionable right now and can be a way to express oneself and stand out from the crowd.

The global market for used and resold clothing was projected to be worth USD96 billion in 2021. In the next few years, it is also expected to increase quickly to more than double in size between 2021 and 2025 to reach USD218 billion.

Atlaw Alemu (PhD) is an economics Lecturer at Addis Ababa University. He has strong opinions on the whole issue. “Both the local market as well as labor force will be displaced by these imported goods from other countries, which means that we are opening up employment chances for foreigners elsewhere. Even though it has a temporary advantage for those who are economically weak, we must ask why, as a nation, we are unable to match their expectations. If there is such high demand, why can’t we create similar products?”

In the long run, it has an impact on the economy since, by now, as a country, we ought to be creating a variety of clothing. Had locally produced goods been reasonably priced and available in the nation, nobody would want to buy worn clothing.”

Atlaw adds that “instead of bringing in second-hand clothing, we should be working on import substitution as a country. We shouldn’t have been spending the foreign exchange for this purpose. The market for used garments may have been eliminated had the items made here been sufficiently competitive. However, if the goods produced here are expensive and of poor quality, the trend of accommodating using various techniques like contraband will continue.”

Indeed, there is the wide belief that thrift clothing is mostly entering the country through contraband routes and traders. Still, one certain thing is that the Ethiopian consumer—like many others on the African continent—will continue to demand access to the same brands, styles, and quality as the rest of the world, even if it means taking on the trend of purchasing used clothing. Financial struggles and uniqueness are here to stay. EBR

10th Year • Sep 2022 • No. 110


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