Mitumba versus new clothes: Which are a bigger polluter?

Traders selling Second-hand clothes. FILE PHOTO | NMG

The textiles industry has earned a bad reputation on environmental conservation.

Kenya relies heavily on second-hand apparel imports (mitumba) that proponents say is safe for the environment because the reuse of the clothes from the US, Europe and Asia significantly reduces the carbon emissions and cuts water usage.

Again, they add, the country does not need to produce more textile because the environment-conscious consumer has been embracing secondhand and recycled clothes.

But textiles manufacturers are pushing for the increase of volumes made in Kenya, especially apparel exporters.

There is a dilemma as industries globally factor in supply chain carbon emissions. What about the raw materials involved in textile manufacturing creating toxic pollution and increasing carbon emissions? What about the heaps of unsold second-hand products choking and polluting rivers?

At Nairobi’s Gikomba market, secondhand clothes are in heaps, some sold while the rest become dead stock. Some will be resold to recycling entrepreneurs and other “useless pieces” disposed of as waste, mostly into rivers and dumping sites.

Purity Wambui, who has been doing business at the Gikomba market and imports apparel from Europe, says the waste is insignificant because they sell all they have bought.

“Even the last piece of item has to be sold sometimes at Sh20, so there is no dumping,” she said, arguing that she imports her secondhand clothes herself and if the supplier gets her poor quality items, she drops them.

But what happens to the low-quality ones? Only a few of the garments are refurbished and cut to be sold as rugs.

“Times have changed and we have quality control which helps us get quality items even though the bales are more expensive,” she says.

The failure to radically reduce second-hand clothing waste by reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling has contributed to an increase in textile waste.

Ann McCreath, the founder of Kikoromeo, a Kenyan fashion heritage brand, says when it comes to the impact of the fashion industry on the environment everything is about fibre.

Natural fibres such as cotton, hemp, wool and linen, as well as artificial fibres made from materials such as viscose, made from wood pulp, are biodegradable.

However, what is mostly used in the textile industry is not biodegradable.

“A significant amount of what is sold in mitumba is polyester and so it is not biodegradable. Polyester and similar fibres are cheap and so a lot of fast fashion uses textiles of such fibres,” said Ms McCreath.

15 percent

Textile waste is classified as pre-consumer and post-consumer. Pre-consumer or production waste is generated in textile manufacturing from spinning, weaving, dyeing, finishing, and even at the consumer end.

On average, about 15 percent of the fabric used in garment production is cut, discarded, and wasted resulting in landfills and choking up rivers.

A McKinsey report indicates that making one kilogramme of fabric generates an average of 23 kilos of greenhouse gases.

Post-consumer textile waste is generated by households when the owner discards it the garment. In Europe, it can be used as mitumba in other countries while in Kenya, it will find itself in water drainages or dumps.

Mitumba importers are pushing for even more volumes that can be sorted and sold to other countries at a higher price, arguing that besides the sector creating more jobs, the reused apparel reduces environmental harm.

According to a report by the Mitumba Institute and Research Centre of Kenya, 100 cotton T-shirts reused decrease global warming by 14 percent and if they are polyester/cotton trousers, it is 45 percent toxic emissions saved.

The mitumba association argues it takes 10,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of cotton. “This is approximately 3,000 litres of water for one cotton shirt, which is enough drinking water for one person for more than two years,” it said in a report.

But the Kenya Association of Manufacturers argues that a boost to the local textile industry will boost manufacturing, consequently “creating jobs and wealth for many.”

“Kenya’s textile industry is at its infant stages. Local manufacturers have embraced green growth and sustainability in their operations since they recognise the importance of environmental restoration and conservation,” outgoing KAM chief executive Phyllis Wakiaga said.

She added that Kenya is the largest exporter in sub-Saharan Africa of garments to the US under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) and that manufacturers are turning to solar, cutting and recycling use of water and embracing a circular economy.

Ms McCreath adds that there are different processes in the textile industry, which cause harm to the environment. The major environmental effects of the textile industry are the discharge of huge amounts of chemical loads. Then there is the associated water and pollution, and the high energy consumption.

“As soon as you use an electrical machine, dyeing uses a lot of water and chemicals, stitching and ironing use energy,” she added.

During the spinning process, a lot of fluff is produced which is harmful to workers. Furthermore, textile dyeing requires chemicals that subsequently end up in the oceans.

Greenhouse gas

“However, if you take handloom weaving of a natural organically grown, un-dyed fibre and hand-spin it, the emissions are practically zero as the process uses no electricity or chemicals,” says Ms McCreath.

Every year, millions of garments are produced and excesses are sold at a discount or resorting to a landfill if they are never sold.

According to the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, it is estimated the clothing and textiles industry is responsible for between two and eight percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions — more than all international flights and global shipping combined.

“A problematic area in international fashion production has been MOQs (minimum order quantity). For factories to streamline their production they have obliged designers and retailers to order a specific number,” said Ms McCreath.

“Often this number has been too high for the specific consumer markets to absorb, leading to oversupply and finally ‘dumping’ of new clothing (this often comes into Kenya with mitumba),” she added.

Kenya’s second-hand clothing imports keep rising, from Sh10 billion to Sh18 billion in the last six years. A majority of households buy second-hand clothes on fair pricing, buying only new school or workplace uniforms.

Most of the secondhand clothing imports came from the US and Europe but in recent years China has overtaken them followed by Poland, Germany and UAE.

To ensure a sustainable textile industry, the recycling of second-hand clothing is crucial.

Stronger regulation

“If it were possible to sort what comes into Kenya before shipping, there could be a reduction in environmental damage. Some things in the bundles are completely unsellable and are not taken to the market stalls,” said Ms McCreath.

Also, to make the fashion industry more sustainable, there needs to be stronger “governance” of the sector, more financing for planet-friendly innovations, and a concerted effort to change consumption habits of consumers, a United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) study recently noted.

“Only a fifth of post-consumer garments are collected for either reuse or recycling. Of these, approximately 40 percent end up in the second-hand clothing market — either being sold in a charity shop in the same country as the donation was made or more often sold on the international second-hand clothing market,” the mitumba association added in the report.

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