Trashion: The stealth export of waste plastic clothes to Kenya

February 2023 Report
Trashion: The stealth export of waste plastic clothes to Kenya

Executive summary

Our report exposes the hidden export of plastic waste to the Global South, fuelled by the growing production of cheap, synthetic clothing made by brands in the Global North. Despite restrictions on plastic waste export around the world, an overwhelming volume of used-clothing shipped to Kenya is waste synthetic clothing, a toxic influx which is creating devastating consequences for the environment and communities. Our estimates suggest that in recent years over 300 million items of damaged or unsellable clothing made of synthetic – or plastic – fibres are exported to Kenya each year where they end up dumped, landfilled or burned, exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis.

As the production of clothing has skyrocketed in the past two decades, an increasing proportion of clothing is made from cheap synthetic fibres. Synthetics account for 69% of all fibre production and have become the backbone of fast fashion. The Global North is using the trade of used-clothing as a pressure-release valve to deal with fast fashion’s enormous waste problem.

Our previous research exposed the links between synthetics and fast fashion and has taken us from the oil wells and refineries of polyester production to the brands lack of action on fossil-fuel-derived fibres. Now we finally reach the end of the runway for fossil fashion: The used-clothing trade on its inexorable journey to becoming waste.

The report and investigation is accompanied by a short documentary highlighting the stealth export of waste plastic clothes to Kenya:

Watch the documentary

Key findings

The report finds that the system of used-clothing trade is currently at breaking point. It finds that export of used clothing is, to a large extent, the export of plastic waste, burdening communities and the environment in the receiving countries.

  • Although exporting of plastic waste is restricted under the Basel Convention and to be banned in the EU, our assessments suggest more than 1 in 3 pieces of used clothing shipped to Kenya contains plastic and is of such a low quality that it immediately becomes waste. In 2021, over 900 million items of used clothing is estimated to have been exported to Kenya. Of these, up to 458 million used clothing items are estimated to be have been waste, and up to 307 million of these are likely to contain plastic-based fibres.
  • People employed in the trade report that the amount of waste (unsellable used clothing) in bales arriving from abroad has increased significantly in the last few years, reflecting the increase of cheap, disposable fast fashion.
  • Traders that we interviewed are caught in a lottery where 20–50% of the used-clothing in bales they buy is unsellable. EU- or UK-based used-clothing exporters are packing bales with clothing unsuitable for the destination country, due to being damaged, too small, unfit for the climate or local styles, and sometimes even with clothing that is covered in vomit, stains or otherwise damaged beyond repair.
  • Sorting at the source is failing, as it results in exporting companies skimming off the high-quality clothing for resale in Europe, while the rest is sent outside its borders. Despite this fact, the export of used clothing goes through substantial inter-European trade, likely for grading and sorting purposes, before being re-exported to its final destination. The investigation also revealed that some countries, such as Pakistan, act as sorting hubs due to lower labour costs, a fact that muddies the data and may be giving a false picture of clothing reuse and recycling from Europe.
  • High volumes of imported lowest grade used clothing, colloquially referred to as fagia, were found strewn around markets or dumped in the Nairobi River, 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.
  • Baltic Textile Trading, owners of Think Twice, were found to have sold tonnes of unsellable used clothing to fagia traders, who cut these into pieces which are then supplied as industrial rags and later used as industrial fuels, further contributing to air pollution and emissions.
  • We found clothing from several global fashion brands among the fagia, dumped on landfills or burnt, including Guess, H&M, M&S, Next, Old Navy, Ralph Lauren and Superdry, among others.
  • Many recycling companies are known to be involved in the used-clothing trade, and many of these are members of high-profile sustainability initiatives alongside fashion brands. For example, JMP Wilcox is part of Fashion for Good’s 2021 Sorting for Circularity Campaign, and East London Textiles, JMP Wilcox, Nathan’s Wastesavers, and Savanna Rags are all signatories of WRAP’s Textiles 2030 initiative. Many of these initiatives and recycling companies make lofty claims about driving greater circularity, reducing waste or diverting textiles from landfill. These however sound hollow in light of the levels of waste clothing being exported by many of the same companies, which in turn is creating serious consequences for the environment and communities in the Global South.
  • A large proportion of used clothing ends up dumped on continuously growing landfills in Kenya and polluting the Nairobi River, polluting the watercourse 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. In this way, waste synthetic clothing represents a less-recognised but substantial element of global plastic pollution.
  • Recycling companies are often masking the trade of used clothing as a way to reduce waste and help the Global South by suggesting the clothing is re-worn or recycled. However, globally enough used clothing is sent to Kenya for 17 items of clothing per Kenyan annually, up to 8 of which are too damaged, stained or inappropriate to be used. Not only does the sheer volume constitute a surfeit of clothing on Kenya, but as 20-50% of this is waste clothing, it will end up significantly contributing to waste and plastic pollution.

With this investigation, we reach the end of the line of an enormously labour-intensive and fossil-fuel-reliant supply chain that produces fast fashion from cheap materials and finally disposes of it in the least responsible way possible. Abdication of responsibility for waste is not an accidental outcome of the fast-fashion system; it is integral to it. It is also clear that it cannot be effectively addressed by tokenistic voluntary schemes or symbolic projects. Clearing up the mess that the fashion industry has created and ensuring the sector is pulled onto a more sustainable track will require comprehensive legislation.

We are now at a critical crossroad. In its Textile Strategy, published in March 2022, the European Commission promised a significant overhaul of the fast fashion business model. Upcoming policies at the EU level create a critical opportunity to ensure that brands and retailers, which are profiting from cheap fast fashion, take responsibility for their fashion waste. Through well-designed Extended Producer Responsibility, producers must be made financially responsible for the management and cost of end-of-life treatments of the products they place on the market, which includes sorting. However, we also must redesign the system, as it will not be possible to recycle our way out of this problem. While the EU must propose design criteria to encourage that products be reusable and recyclable from the start, and mandate recycling and reuse targets for the sector, we must also adopt measures, such as plastic taxes, to deal with cheap synthetics, which have become a major driver of the fast fashion industry. Strong EU legislation on the end-of life management is also the only way to put an end to the export of waste plastic-based clothing to the Global South, which as our investigation shows, is already at the breaking point and cannot be allowed to deteriorate further. The report includes a set of policy recommendations.


You might also like...