Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have at some stage come across conversations or articles about the environmental effects of fashion. According to statistics published by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than the aviation sector and shipping combined.
Now a huge part of the conversation about the environmental effects of the fashion industry has been a call for solutions, one of which includes the alternative that is second-hand or preloved clothing. Preloved fashion has widely been regarded as one of the fastest growing trends in sustainable fashion, and by 2028 the used-fashion market is set to skyrocket in value to $64 billion in the U.S. alone, with fast-fashion only reaching about $44 billion.
All that said, when you think of preloved fashion in the white-dominated sustainable fashion community, I bet you think more of platforms like Thredup and Vinted. This is hardly surprising when it comes to issues of sustainability, the narrative –as far as progress goes– almost always tilts to the Western nations. Nothing comes to mind about bustling outdoor markets in developing nations where buyers haggle aggressively with sellers and other traders scream at the top of their lungs, calling passers-by to upgrade their wardrobes with the discounted deals they offer on preloved wears. Fortunately, that is exactly the narrative I bring you here, because the African preloved clothing market has stood regally for many long years.
Now for some background on this issue, African nations have found virtue, sustenance and safety in wearing preloved clothes long before they became recognized as a viable alternative to fast fashion by developed nations. In crowded markets and on sidewalks of African towns and cities, shoppers can turn up Tommy Hilfiger jeans or a Burberry jacket for a fraction of the price in London’s Regent Street or New York’s Fifth Avenue. I know it’s unbelievable, but it really is true.
In Ghana, this industry is captured in the Akan expression ‘Obroni Wawu’. This loosely translates as ‘Dead White Man’s Clothes’, with the central idea here being that since the concept of excessive accumulation is alien to the locals, they imagine that someone would surely have to die to give up so much of their stuff. In Senegal, the preloved clothing trade is referred to as ‘friperie’ and here in Nigeria; we refer to the industry as ‘Okirika’, which is how I’m going to refer to second-hand clothes for the rest of this article.
When I was younger, except for our Christmas clothes that had to be somewhat special, most of the other clothes we wore in my home were Okirika. This was neither out of consideration for the environment nor a function of poverty as we were an average middle-class family. It was just how we lived. And so on assignment for EWP, I embarked on an exploration of the Okirika industry in my homeland with childlike fondness and a bit of nostalgia. Armed with my camera and a truckload of questions, I visited Ahia Ohuru, a major Okirika market in Nigeria, located in Aba. My goal was to understand the industry as an adult and also draw some wisdom from its longevity; in a certain serendipitous twist, I realized halfway there that I had worn an Okirika shirt for the trip. Imagine that!
The scene I came upon was not strange to me; it was a perfect blend of heaps of clothes, scorching heat and choking dust, and hawkers chanting prices as they competed amongst themselves for the attention of shoppers, who haggled to get as many clothes as they could at the lowest possible cost. Now like most things that end up as second-hand in Africa, the Okirika industry starts its journey as the waste of the well-intentioned Western consumer. The average American throws away about 81 pounds (37 kilograms) of clothing each year and this state of affairs worsens in spring as people update their wardrobes for warmer weather.
After the much needed decluttering, clothes– old and new alike– land in the trash where they begin their journey to landfill. This is also sometimes the case where a person in a developed nation decides to donate to the local charity. Most of these get transferred to companies for onward export to Africa, even through charities such as Oxfam that sort the clothes for sale in their shops.
Various other charities transfer the donated clothes to collection companies where they are sorted and graded depending on type and quality. One such textile reclaimer is JP Wilcox which boasts that their clothes are in high demand in Africa. At this point, some of the clothes are channeled for direct sale in the Middle East, while the rest are packaged in bales for onward shipment to countries like mine. The traders patiently explained that this value chain is essentially the same as they import their wares from the United States, China, Australia and South Korea. However, they were quick to point out that clothes imported from the UK are usually of better quality and when I pledged to favor them in future, a few of the women chuckled approvingly.
These clothes are imported by the likes of “Okey London”, a wholesaler of unimpeachable repute, who is so named because his high quality Okirika wears are imported solely from a credible London channel. He told me with no small measure of pride that he sells about 100 bales of Okirika each week, having been in the business for well over 15 years. But the road does not end at Ahia Ohuru, large though it may be. Local residents generally buy their preloved wears directly from retailers in the market but what about non-residents like me?
The solution here is simple; we need only wait for the retailers in our own cities to purchase from wholesalers like ‘Okey London’ because afterwards, they will return to their clothing stands in our city markets to await us with open arms. I spoke to one such retailer, Madam Oluchi, who was assisted by her two teenage boys. I learned that she has been in the Okirika business for the past six years and that it enables her school her kids and provide for her family. She chose the Okirika business, she says, because the tricks of the trade were relatively easy to learn; and because starting her own retail business afterwards required very little capital.
Whole ecosystems of businesses have been built around the Okirika clothing market in my homeland and beyond. The first and most obvious are the transporters and movers who ferry tons of bales of cloth all around the market on wooden carts. These classes of persons are followed closely by the traders and retailers themselves. And then finally, the tailors enter the picture. Their job is to stitch, mend, and sharpen or completely upcycle clothes as decided by the traders or customers. Denim trousers can be converted to skirts and a plaid trouser can be upcycled into fashionable shorts in the blink of an eye.
Now, this next stage is where it gets interesting; all these activities are carried out amidst an air of smuggling and bootlegging because for some reason, the Nigerian government decided a while ago that the import and sale of second-hand clothes within the polity is illegal. Nigeria is not alone in this; many African countries have banned the importation of preloved clothes from the West. Traders have been protesting the ban for months now and so far, the government is yet to budge. It’s no matter though; the industry is very much in business as these clothes are still being smuggled into Nigeria in the guise of legal goods. If anything, the wholly unnecessary and unconscionable ban has made trading conditions tougher on the traders because, all through their transportation, Okey London tells me, they now have to pay off customs officials alongside the police.
The stated reason for the ill-advised ban is that flooding the country with cheap clothes undermines the development of the country’s textile and fashion industries. But like most government policies in nations like mine, many agree that the ban is akin to putting the cart before the horse, especially in light of the fact that no concrete effort is being made by the government to develop said country’s textile industry. The reality remains that the issues of micro and macroeconomics are for talking heads and seminars. The average man on the street needs affordable but good quality clothes for his family and since the local alternatives are either cheap but poorly-made or well-made but expensive, people continue to buy Okirika, and they probably always will.
The real problem is that these countries have failed to provide the necessary facilities and infrastructures to enable local businesses compete with the rest of the world and Okirika in particular. Aba is a renowned manufacturing hub, popular for its production of leather and plastic goods but most of all for its cloth manufacturing. In fact, clothes made in Aba are so popular and widespread that they are referred to as “Aba-made”. Still, these ventures are powered by small scale enterprises and in some cases, literally one guy with a sewing machine. I spoke with some of these entrepreneurs powering fashion from their tiny shops and they had a litany of woes about infrastructure. From power supply to the security of the goods they make, they have to provide for everything themselves.
With these realities, you can understand the difficulty they experience as far as optimizing their productions go. But in typical political fashion, the governments would rather take the easy way out and blame the Okirika rather than embark on the important work of making the textile industry work. The governments themselves understand this, which is why even though Okirika is technically contraband, it is sold openly in markets spanning several blocks. Indeed, I only noticed the contraband element here in the reluctance of the traders to speak about their trade or have their pictures taken.
Now I generally harbor certain sentiments about my country being the dumping ground for Western clothing ‘waste’, but the case of preloved clothes is different because it’s not just another form of waste. These clothes are put to good use here, money gotten from their sales puts food on many tables and we do not take this lightly. With a population of nearly 200 million, Nigeria is one of the most populous countries in Africa and in light of the myriad of economic issues we grapple with; we need all the help we can get. Since my foray into sustainability, I have come to see the Okirika trade not just as the preloved clothes industry but also as a most effective system of reducing fashion waste.
Buying preloved clothes assists immensely in keeping the recycling system in place because, people who can otherwise not afford these garments are able to wear them. And at the end of my trip, I realized that if the sustainable fashion community expands its vision by looking beyond its Western preloved platforms, then perhaps we could utilize this eco-friendly alternative much better than we currently are.
All images taken and supplied by author.
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