SUE TURNER recommends a book exposing the racket whereby ‘second-hand’ garments are flooding the markets in impoverished countries
Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-hand Clothes
by Andrew Brooks
(Zed Books, £14.99)
IN ANY market in sub-Saharan Africa, you can see designer labels among the piles of used clothing on display. This second-hand trade is the major source of clothing for the majority of local populations and most of it comes from Europe and the US.
The Waste and Resources Action Programme, backed by the British government and the EU, estimates that over 80 per cent of used clothing in Britain is sold in developing economies abroad, with only 10-30 per cent purchased in charity shops in this country.
Britain is the largest exporter in the world after the US, with Poland, Ghana, Pakistan, Ukraine and Benin its top markets. According to the UN, the global second-hand clothing trade in 2013 amounted to 3.9 million tons — the equivalent to 7.5 billion pairs of jeans — and it was worth $4.3 billion (£2.8bn).
In Clothing Poverty, Andrew Brooks packs a great deal of such detail into a fast-paced and readable book. His aim is to show how new clothes are manufactured and sold, how fast fashion and recycling are linked and how the mass export of used clothes to Africa and elsewhere damages local economies and perpetuates poverty.
Brooks gives a global and historical perspective on the production of new clothing, highlighting the ecological damage that the cultivation and processing of cotton produces, as well as describing workers’ conditions in all aspects of production.
He deals at some length with China, now the world’s biggest textile producer, whose cheap new clothes also help to suppress African production.
And he shows how the international trade in second-hand clothes is so lucrative that private companies in Britain and the US imitate the style of charities in their advertising so people will unwittingly donate to them.
The detrimental impact on an indigenous textile industry caused by used clothes flooding the market is exemplified by Ghana, where it contracted by 80 per cent between 1975 and 2000, while Nigeria’s textile workforce has almost vanished. While some countries have passed laws to restrict imports, clothing is nevertheless smuggled in overland.
Frequently citing Marx and emphasising the role of capitalism and colonialism, past and present, Brooks exposes the limited ability of ethical consumption to enforce change. “Buying Fairtrade may be intended by the consumer to be an individual progressive act,” he writes, “but does little to disrupt relationships between capital, labour and nature.
“Liberal-minded citizens in the global North can indulge their consumption habits without calling for large-scale structural changes that could threaten their privileged position in global society.”
While he does not ignore the need to make personal choices to shop less and shop differently, he emphasises the importance of formal political action locally and internationally, as well as unionisation — globally only around 10 per cent of garment workers are in independent trade unions.
There is only one solution to this growing impoverishment. As Brooks states: “As long as capitalism continues, the only way to address the unequal relationships of exchange is for clothing workers to own their means of production.”