Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, recently surprised many by announcing a ban on imported secondhand clothes during the opening ceremony of the Sino-Uganda Mbale industrial park. While this declaration evoked laughter from the audience with its vivid imagery of dead people’s clothing arriving in Uganda, it raises essential questions about the nation’s reliance on the secondhand clothing trade.
Contrary to the morbid image presented, secondhand clothes don’t originate from deceased individuals. They are a product of the fast-fashion system, which is driven by changing trends, not mortality rates.
The ban, however, has significant implications for the communities in Uganda dependent on the secondhand clothing trade. Importers, market vendors, upcyclers, fashion designers, artists, and waste managers have long found innovative ways to sustain their livelihoods from fast-fashion waste.
Although the East African Community proposed a similar ban seven years ago, it was not enforced. Meanwhile, China has strengthened its presence in the region through infrastructure projects like highways, airports, railways, and seaports under the Belt and Road Initiative. Additionally, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which benefits Ugandan exports to the US, is set to expire in 2025.
Nonetheless, imposing a ban within a seven-day deadline is unlikely to dismantle the supply chain. Over four million Ugandans are directly and indirectly involved in the used-clothing and textiles supply chain. Orders from various countries have already been placed for the upcoming holiday season. Questions arise about the fate of containers en route to Uganda and the livelihoods of 50,000 vendors at Owino Market in Kampala. Furthermore, what will happen to the small businesses upcycling secondhand clothes?
It’s worth noting that secondhand textiles also contribute significantly to the country’s tax revenue. A sudden ban would risk economic hardship.
To address these challenges, a gradual phase-out scheme, rather than an immediate ban, seems a more feasible long-term solution. Specific restrictions could be imposed, such as prohibiting the importation of torn or stained clothing. Crucially, any measures should involve consultation with affected communities to collaboratively design alternatives and timelines.
While foreign investment is essential, the preferential treatment given to large Chinese companies raises concerns. Local startups struggle under bureaucratic and tax burdens. Developing smaller industries based on circular economy principles, like redesigning, reusing, upcycling, and remaking, could offer a more progressive path than replicating outdated production models.
A comprehensive approach that considers the livelihoods of those involved in the secondhand clothing trade, as well as the economic and environmental factors at play, is necessary to address the challenges posed by a ban on used clothing imports in Uganda.