Europe dumps 50 million items of plastic clothing in Kenya a year

4 Apr 2023 Blog

Urška Trunk – Campaign Manager at Changing Markets

As consumers are increasingly demanding environmentally responsible clothing, and Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing is on the rise, fashion brands are more and more trying to show that their products and practices are sustainable. Terms like “green”, “eco-friendly”, “made to be recycled” are cropping up on fashion products, websites and company’s mission statement. However, our recent research has uncovered that in light of brands’ lack of action on fossil-fuel-derived fibres, such statements are markedly painted with greenwash.

The report, Trashion: The stealth export of plastic waste, shows what the end of the runway for fast fashion looks like, when used, unwanted clothes are exported to the Global South. It presents findings from an on-the-ground investigation in Kenya, which receives a significant volume of used clothing from the EU and the UK. The report finds that the system of used-clothing trade is to a large extent export of plastic waste, which is creating devastating consequences for the environment and communities.

According to our investigation, over 900 million items were sent to Kenya from around the globe in 2021. Out of these, nearly 150 million items came from the EU and the UK (112 million and 36.6 million respectively).
Traders of used clothing in Kenya report that the amount of poor-quality clothing bound to become waste is increasing, reflecting the rise of cheap, disposable fast fashion. They are already caught in a lottery where 20–50% of the used-clothing in bales they buy is unsellable. That is because used-clothing exporters are packing bales with clothing that are either too damaged, too small, unfit for the climate or local styles, or sometimes even covered in vomit, stains or otherwise damaged beyond repair.

Although the Basel Convention restricts richer countries dumping non-recyclable plastic waste in less wealthy ones, and exporting of plastic waste is to be banned in the EU, our assessments suggest more than 1 in 3 pieces imported to Kenya are damaged or unsellable clothing containing synthetic fibres, such as polyester, nylon and acrylic. In other words, staggering 300 million items end up dumped, landfilled or burned, exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis, with 50 million coming from the EU and the UK.

A large proportion of these are dumped on continuously growing landfills in Kenya and polluting the Nairobi River, and eventually entering the ocean. As the lion’s share of dumped clothing contains synthetics, the impacts of microplastic leaching and environmental contamination of water and soil are likely to be significant.

Some items are even being used as fuel, such as for roasting peanuts, causing locals to inhale smoke from the burning synthetic clothing with the risk of damaging health impacts.

What lies beneath fashion’s enormous waste problem?

Fast fashion, a model of rapid production of cheap, low-quality products, is leading to a mountain of clothing being thrown away each year. This system is fuelled by the growing production of cheap, synthetic clothing made by brands in the Global North. Since the early 2000s, when polyester overtook cotton as the most used fibre, increasing proportion of clothing is made from cheap synthetic materials. As a result, the production of clothing skyrocketed. Synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon and acrylic currently account for two thirds (69%) of textiles, and this is expected to grow to nearly three quarters (73%) by 2030.

Fast fashion and the rise of polyester: world fibre production by fibre type 1980-2030

Despite even policymakers starting to recognise a clear link between fossil fuel based fibres and fast fashion, the fashion industry remains blind to the fact that this is a significant problem. Our analysis of policies and strategies of 55 of the world’s biggest fashion brands revealed that the industry shows no sign to move away from its addiction to synthetic fibres.

Is there a solution on the horizon?

Kenya is just one example illustrating what happens to our clothes at the end of their life and exposing a system that is at a breaking point. Our report also shows that used-clothing trade has turned out to be a less recognised but substantial element of global plastic pollution.

In the absence of legislation, the Global North will continue using the trade of used clothing as a pressure-release valve to deal with fast fashion’s enormous waste problem. The good news is that the EU is developing a batch of legislations to start regulating the sector. In the Textile Strategy, published in March 2022, the European Commission set out to put fast fashion out of fashion.

We are now at a critical crossroad. The upcoming policies at the EU level create an opportunity to ensure that clothing is more sustainable by design, and brands and retailers, which are profiting from cheap fast fashion, take responsibility for their fashion waste.

Among these legislations, the European Commission is considering an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme as a regulatory measure to enforce the polluter pays principle and make producers responsible for the management and cost of end-of-life treatment of the products they place on the market.  An EPR system can also ensure that when clothes are sent for reuse to third countries, they are properly sorted to ensure that any low-quality textiles are retained in the EU and, instead of shipped away out of sight, out of mind.

In order to address fashion’s waste problem from the get-go, the upcoming legislation also needs to set strong eco-design criteria. That means that clothing is made to last longer, is more likely to be reused and recycled and would lead to a reduction in waste shipped abroad.

In its bid to crackdown on greenwashing, the European Commission already put forward a proposal for a Directive on Green Claims. This means that companies will need to provide much more information before their claims see the light of day. This will hopefully put an end to the Wild West of false claims that have so far gone entirely unchallenged.

In view of upcoming legislation, true sustainability will be a competitive advantage for fashion brands, while those dragging their heels will lose out. Investors continue to play a key role in this process by maintaining pressure on the fashion industry to be transparent and accountable across its entire supply chain, and embrace sustainable solutions.

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