By Olumide Abimbola
In the last blog, I discussed the second-hand clothing industry in Europe. In this, I am going to discuss what happens to the pieces of second-hand clothing once they get to developing countries. Like in the previous post, I will use examples from the place that I know best – West Africa.
Bales of secondhand clothing in a warehouse in Cotonou, Benin
After the pieces of clothing have been cleaned, sorted and baled in Britain or Germany, they are bought by West African second-hand clothing merchants. The pieces of clothing are normally packed in bales, and the price of the bales varies according to the quality of the content.
Many of these merchants would have at some point visited the offices of the exporter to make sure that the quality of the second-hand clothing is good enough for their market. They would also have agreed on the cost of bales of second-hand clothing. Once a cost has been agreed upon, the West African merchant sends the money to the exporter and in about a month or two his consignment of second-hand clothing would arrive at the port of his country.
Used clothes for the poor or design-conscious university students?
Many people often think that the only reason Africans buy second-hand clothing is because of poverty. This is actually not true. As a university student in Nigeria, I remember that many students who want designer labels would normally buy from second-hand clothing shops. It is widely known that because of the high cost of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein shirts, clothing sellers rarely import them into the country. What one would find instead are cheap imitations, which are normally low quality products imported from Asia. The quality of the imitations are often so bad that once one sees them one would immediately know that it is not the real thing. Young university students therefore prefer to buy the ones that are sold in second-hand shops. There, they are sure that they are buying ‘original’, because even if someone else has used them, they come from Europe where, they assume, only originals are available. In fact, someone told me that the fact that they have been used and are still in very good shape proves their quality.
Opening a bale
I also remember that some students used to sell those pieces of clothing on the university campus. They would pay the traders who sell second-hand clothing in the market to be allowed to pick the best pieces of clothing from the bales – these would normally be designer labels. After picking, they would wash and iron them before bringing them to be sold on the university campus.
Some traders who sell used clothing with designer labels also sell them at shops in the parts of Lagos where banks, telecoms and oil companies have their headquarters. Those shops are normally patronised by young, corporate office workers who also want to buy good quality clothing but cannot afford to patronise the few shops that sell imported designer labels from Europe and North America.
Also, I know of many mothers who say that they buy second-hand clothing for their children because they do not think it makes much sense to buy new clothing that the children would quickly outgrow.
Bestseller: the bra
One item of second-hand clothing that is always in high demand is bra. Exporters in Europe say that they cannot fully satisfy the demand for them, and importers in West Africa say that it is the first thing to sell out in any consignment they import. When I asked women who buy second-hand bra why they do so their answer was very simple: the quality is normally very good and they are normally affordable.
As you have seen, some of the pieces of second-hand clothing that are collected, sorted and baled in Europe and North America are bought by second-hand clothing merchants from West Africa. These merchants sell them to retailers, who in turn sell them to consumers. Also, the reason that West Africans buy second-hand clothing varies. Of course, many people buy second-hand clothing because they are poor and cannot afford new clothing; but many others buy it because they believe that in a country where most of the new clothing comes from Asia, the second-hand clothing shop is the only place where they are sure to find good quality clothing or original designer labels.
Next week, I will discuss the argument that the international trade in second-hand clothing kills local textile industries. Using the example of Nigeria, I will examine whether this is true or not.
Olumide Abimbola recently defended a PhD dissertation on the international trade in second-hand clothing at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle/Saale. He did fieldwork on the textile recycling industry in Britain, and the second-hand clothing markets in West Africa. He blogs at http://www.loomnie.com