The weak moral and economic arguments against trade in used clothes

Friday April 20 2018

Three weeks ago, the president of the United States announced the suspension of duty-free imports of Rwandese textiles under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).

The reason for this strong trade measure is that Kigali had banned imports of used clothes and footwear from the US. While Washington’s response is allowable under the Agoa treaty, it remains a poorly dispatched signal that was bound to generate unnecessary tension in the overall agreement.

The busy patriots of the African continent who see persecution in every such measure took to making some fantastic claims, forgetting that the Agoa initiative is a unilateral concession by the US. Overall, it’s a bad response that Washington could have handled much better without enabling the momentum against trade liberalisation.

The US statement animated responses from the “posh and serious” patriots of Africa. In their reckoning, Rwanda is being bullied for trying to build a domestic apparel industry by taking the informed decision that cowardly nations of the continent wouldn’t take. Implied in this assertion is that African nations are not able to emulate selected Asian countries with a sizeable textile manufacturing industry. The summary of the economics argument is that the “flood of used clothes” is part of an active conspiracy to keep the nations of Africa from developing textile industries and climbing the manufactured-exports ladder.


The moral argument is even more serious and is partly about pride, resistance to neocolonialism and the injunction of tired old African nationalism. This argument states that the Rwandese nation, and by extension all Africans, should reject the imports and trade in used clothes because it is an affront to dignity for proud people to wear used clothing and shoes. In its crudest form, the question is, “Why should Africans wear clothes from dead Americans or Europeans?"


Both arguments are widely stated but are demonstrably wrong. To begin with, my estimate from the United Nations trade data reveals that the entire East African region imported less than $200 million in used clothes and shoes from the US in 2016. Granted, $200 million per year is not loose change but it comes to $1 of apparel and footwear imports per East African citizen. This number tells me two important things and the first one is that the claim that there is a flood of used clothes being pushed into the East African to prevent the development of the apparel industry is not supported by this data.

That conspiracy is very weak when subjected to this simplest of data tests, especially since the US is itself an importer of vast amounts of apparel and footwear from nations in Asia. It is weaker still when examined against the most successful exporters of textiles and footwear. Africa’s competition in developing the desired apparel industry is further to the east, with countries such as Cambodia, Bangladesh and Vietnam as the new kids on the block. It will not benefit the US to stifle the growth of the textile industries in Africa unless the conspiracy theory is adjusted to imply that President Trump wishes to confer export advantage on Cambodia instead.


Building home-grown clothing industries is desirable for many African countries but it is constrained mostly by the income levels of citizens. People do not buy used clothes and footwear because they are unaware that local industries produce alternatives. They do so because they wish to buy clothes that are affordable to them.

The moral argument claims that African dignity is erased for wearing clothes that have been worn and discarded by another. It is sensible to make that argument, except that it assumes that the owners of the clothes who hand them or sell them onwards do so with a condescending attitude to African people. There may be people who do so. I question this because there is a very strong tradition of respectfully donating used goods to one’s relatives and friends in the African continent too. For instance, many religious congregations and college associations in Kenya run clothes drives to hand over used material whether for charity or for sale without the intention to insult recipients.

If an African nation chooses to limit imports of clothes and footwear to substitute imports for local production, then that should be respected even if it is demonstrably inefficient. The idea that low-income people are being insulted when they buy used clothes is condescension made at home, and not imported with the used clothes. African dignity should be strong enough to allow for its citizens to make their own choice in this matter.

Kwame Owino is the chief executive officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Kenya), a public policy think tank based in Nairobi. Twitter: @IEAKwame