A ban on used clothing imports isn’t the answer – Uganda mu…

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“Stop buying secondhand clothes, these clothes are for dead people.” At the opening ceremony of the Sino-Uganda Mbale industrial park in late August, our president announced an unexpected ban on imported secondhand clothes. The audience responded to Yoweri Museveni’s rhetoric with laughter. A dead white person’s clothes being packed and shipped to Uganda is a compelling image with which to galvanise the masses.

But secondhand clothes don’t come from the dead. That’s not how fast-fashion systems work. People don’t die quickly enough for fast fashion, only trends do.

The announcement is a harsh slap in the face for the communities across Uganda whose livelihoods rely on the secondhand trade. Importers, market vendors, upcyclers, fashion designers, artists and waste managers have for decades found creative ways to make a living out of fast-fashion waste.

Seven years have passed since the last ban on secondhand clothes was proposed by the East African Community. During that time, Chinese interests in the region have been consolidated, with new highways, airports, railways and seaports built in strategic locations under China’s belt and road initiative.

At the same time, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which offers preferential trade treatment to Ugandan products entering the US market, is nearing its 2025 expiry date. While Rwanda implemented a secondhand clothing ban in 2016, Uganda backed out under pressure from the US, which is – unsurprisingly – one of the top suppliers of secondhand clothing to the country.

I don’t believe a ban is the answer. The supply chain can’t be dismantled within the president’s now-expired seven-day deadline. According to the Uganda Dealers in Used Clothing and Shoes Association, there are more than 4 million Ugandans directly and indirectly active in the used-clothing and textiles supply chain. Orders for secondhand clothes from suppliers in China, the US, Canada, the UK, Turkey, Australia and the UAE have already been placed before the end-of-year holiday season. Under the proposed ruling, would the containers en route to Uganda be sent back? Will the 50,000 vendors at Owino Market in Kampala be compensated, or sent home? What happens to all the small businesses upcycling secondhand clothes?

Painful as it is to acknowledge, secondhand textiles are a valuable source of tax revenue for our country. A ban is a vote for economic suicide.

Independent reports and studies over the years have suggested that a gradual phase-out scheme is the only feasible long-term solution, and I agree. If only we could ban the importation of torn and stained clothing. Only in an unjust, waste-colonial world are Ugandan importers blindly forced to purchase bales of white shirts with yellow-green armpits.

A ban can only work if the affected communities are consulted and alternatives and timelines are collectively designed. Communities know what they need – let’s listen and co-create with them.

Large foreign investment is a national priority. Chinese companies are given land by the Ugandan government to build industrial parks. With tax exemptions and preferential treatment for importing machinery and raw materials, Uganda is lucrative for them, while local startups struggle to break even under the weight of bureaucracy and taxes. I’m reminded of the preferential treatment the British protectorate offered Asian people during colonial rule.

New textile facilities such as Rong Sheng Garments and Kyoga Textile Company at the industrial park look impressive on paper, but how sustainable are they in practice? Are they breeding grounds for exploitation?

As a nation, our capacity to redesign, reuse, upcycle and remake has developed into a culture and a visual language – why not develop smaller industries around these circular ideas as opposed to replicating unprogressive models of production and working environments.

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There are local alternatives which may not create 2,000 jobs at once, but are replicable in eco-friendly settings in rural areas. Support Ugandan silk farmers; reintroduce hand-weaving to rural women’s groups; restructure and empower the cotton industry so it can rebound to its former glory; invest in hemp and bamboo fibre production. Raw material production should always be at the core of any textile industry, and with the abundance of resources in Uganda, we have the potential to excel at sustainable fibre production.

Before my company Buzigahill launched its Return to Sender line in 2021, our mission was to produce clothes for the local population using Ugandan cotton. After years of research, we conceded: Uganda’s textile industry lacks the capacity to substitute secondhand clothes. Instead, we now redesign secondhand clothes and redistribute them to the global north.

Waste is already a commodity. If the global north is exploiting our ecosystems by selling us low-quality clothing, sometimes damaged and unwearable, their investments should focus on creating the capacity to transform the waste where they have suffocated local markets over the past five decades. We strongly support the Ghana-based Or Foundation’s campaign, Stop Waste Colonialism, to “to support a justice-led transition from a linear to a circular economy” by making the global north accountable for its fast-fashion waste through the extended producer responsibility fund.

For too long, Ugandans have looked outwards for role models. We have been coerced into an inferiority complex. Yet the solutions are already within. They are at Owino Market and at Buzigahill. They are in the soil and the rains. They must be supported and nurtured, not threatened by our government and imported ideas.

Bobby Kolade is a Ugandan fashion designer, founder of Buzigahill and co-host of the Vintage or Violence podcast

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