While clothes shopping was once an occasional treat, it’s now a hobby for many people – largely driven by the growth of fast fashion.
Now, shocking images from Kenya have revealed the real price of your throwaway fast fashion.
The UK is dumping 12 million items of ‘junk plastic’ clothing in Nairobi every year that are too dirty or damaged to be reused, an investigation has found.
Researchers looked at what happened to clothes exported to Kenya – including many that were originally collected by big name charities in the UK.
Exporting junk clothes to poorer countries has become an ‘escape valve’ for ‘systemic overproduction’ and a stealth waste stream that should be illegal, the investigators say.
Millions of items of cheap clothing are being dumped in Nairobi that are too dirty or damaged to be reused, creating serious health and environmental problems for vulnerable communities
An investigation launched on the eve of London Fashion Week reveals how the fashion business is dependent on cheap plastic fabrics such as polyester to make clothes that are not designed for repair or recycling and are increasingly seen as disposable
Exporting junk clothes to poorer countries has become an ‘escape valve’ for ‘systemic overproduction’ and a stealth waste stream that should be illegal, the investigators say
The probe by Clean Up Kenya and Wildlight for the Changing Markets Foundation recorded shocking images of a sprawling Nairobi dump, located near several primary schools, showing clothing waste in some places piled as high as a four storey building and spilling into a river.
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion refers to ‘cheaply produced and priced garments that copy the latest catwalk styles and get pumped quickly through stores in order to maximise on current trends’, according to Earth.org.
Studies have shown that the practice of quickly producing cheap clothes en-masse has several devastating impacts.
‘From the growth of water-intensive cotton, to the release of untreated dyes into local water sources, to worker’s low wages and poor working conditions; the environmental and social costs involved in textile manufacturing are widespread,’ researchers from Washington University explained in a 2018 study.
A report on the investigation, Trashion, the stealth export of waste plastic clothes to Kenya, was published the day before the start of London Fashion Week.
The investigation estimated that of the 36,640,890 items of used clothing shipped directly from the UK to Kenya each year, up to one in three contain plastic and are of such a low quality that they are immediately dumped or burned to heat water, for cooking and even allegedly to fuel a power station.
Trashion concludes that the used clothing trade is an obvious loophole in a 2019 legal agreement stopping richer countries dumping non-recyclable plastic waste in less wealthy ones.
More than two thirds (69 per cent) of textiles are now made of plastic, such as nylon and polyester, which are difficult to recycle.
Among items of clothing abandoned found by the investigators were items made by M&S, Nike and Yves Saint Laurent.
Kenyan traders report clothing soiled by vomit, heavy stains and animal hair.
A McDonald’s uniform was found still with the name badge attached. An M&S item with the label ‘recycle with Oxfam’ was photographed being burnt to roast peanuts.
The investigators found that recycling firms listed as partnering with charity shops including Sue Ryder, Cancer Research, Barnardos, Marie Curie, the British Heart Foundation and British Red Cross were exporting their clothes to Kenya.
The true scale of the problem is likely much larger because the investigation focuses only on direct exports to Kenya.
Many items of used clothing exported by European countries pass through a web of countries in and outside Europe that mix and sort clothing, making it impossible to track.
The probe by Clean Up Kenya and Wildlight for the Changing Markets Foundation recorded shocking images of a sprawling Nairobi dump, located near several primary schools, showing waste in some places piled as high as a four storey building and spilling into a river
Kenyan traders report clothing soiled by vomit, heavy stains and animal hair, while a McDonald’s uniform was found with the name badge still attached
The amount of junk clothing flowing to Kenya from global sources has grown significantly in recent years, a torrent that amounts to 17 items of clothing every year for each Kenyan, up to eight of which are useless
Many items of used clothing exported by European countries pass through a web of countries in and outside Europe that mix and sort clothing, making it impossible to track
Transparency should be improved to crack down on waste clothes ‘laundering’, Changing Markets said.
Customs records show that the largest direct exporters to Kenya of used clothing in Europe in 2021 were Germany, Poland and the UK.
Betterman Simidi Musasia, founder and patron of Clean Up Kenya, said: ‘We went to the Ground Zero of the fast fashion world to unmask an ugly truth – that the trade of used clothing from Europe is, to a large and growing extent, a trade in hidden waste.
‘This is known as waste colonialism and it is supposed to be illegal. A large proportion of clothing donated to charity by well-meaning people ends up this way.
‘Why? Because the backbone of the fast fashion industry is plastic, and plastic clothing is essentially junk. Countries like Kenya are fast fashion’s escape valve.
Brands should be obliged to pay for their waste, Trashion says, and clothing must be made sustainable by design. The EU is due to propose such measures by the summer
Trashion concludes that the used clothing trade is an obvious loophole in a 2019 legal agreement stopping richer countries dumping non-recyclable plastic waste in less wealthy ones
More than two thirds (69 per cent) of textiles are now made of plastic, such as nylon and polyester, which are impossible to recycle
Customs records show that the largest direct exporters to Kenya of used clothing in Europe in 2021 were Germany, Poland and the UK
‘Traders buy bundled clothing blind and understandably dump the growing percentage that turns out to be useless. In truth, our addiction to fast fashion is saddling poorer countries like Kenya with polluted soil, air and water.’
George Harding-Rolls, Campaign Manager, Changing Markets Foundation, said: ‘Unless the fashion industry is fundamentally changed, what we have seen in Kenya and around the world will be just the beginning.
‘The solution is not to shut down the used clothing trade, but to reform it. We can’t recycle our way out of this problem. Instead, this hedonistic industry needs boundaries and rules.
‘As such, we welcome the vision proposed by the EU. This should be comprehensive and include strict recycling and reuse targets, as well as plastic taxes to shift fashion towards more high quality, sustainable fabrics.
‘Recycling companies can not be allowed to hide behind their empty promises and should be banned from exporting junk clothing.’
All the charities mentioned were approached for comment.
How does Britain’s addiction to clothes affect the environment?
MPs on the environmental audit select committee are probing how the ‘fast fashion’ industry is harming nature.
Their latest report warned that pollution caused by synthetic fibres being machine washed and finding their way into the world’s oceans.
While an eye-watering 400,000 tonnes of clothes are estimated to be d umped in landfill sites in the UK every year.
The MPs have voiced their alarm at the environmental fall-out and its chairwoman Mary Creagh has written to leading retailers demanding to know what they are doing to improve sustainability.
The global fashion industry produced more CO2 emissions than international flights and maritime shipping combined in 2015, according to a submission to the MPs’ inquiry from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.
The select committee say they want to protect the lucrative fashion industry in Britain, but tackle the environmental problems it fuels.
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