The Sustainability Dilemma

Sustainability in fashion is geared towards ensuring clothes and other products are made ethically and in consideration of the environment. It also includes general accountability of the entire process of production of garments. This begins right from the sourcing to the labour all the way to the finished product.1 

Simon Schiller-Merkens writes that fashion is a glamourous world and for eons the idea that morality plays a role in it was unthinkable.2 He states that despite being the norm before, those days are over and the public keeps their eyes on the fashion supply chain to ensure that there is accountability.3

The fashion industry is directly responsible for about 10% of all carbon emissions and is the second largest consumer of the world’s water supply.4 The total opposite of sustainability. 

In Kenya, sustainable fashion is the modus operandi, with most of the country purchasing mitumba, commonly known as secondhand clothes. They are cheap, easily accessible and most of the purchasers don’t know that they are sustainable. 

Second hand clothes could be the solution to deal with the fast fashion crisis. These clothes can be worn more than once in lieu of producing entirely new clothes, which cuts back on emissions and other forms of pollution, mitigating the damage on the environment. 

On the flip side, second hand clothes kill off local designers; the designers’ collections cannot compete favourably with mitumba because Kenyans would choose to buy a mitumba shirt for Ksh 10 rather than buy a similar shirt manufactured in Kenya for about 100 times the price (Ksh 1000). 

This presents a dilemma; can mitumba imports be scrapped in a bid to promote local designers? A hard question indeed. Kenyan traders spend around Ksh. 17.7 billion to import these clothes annually.5 This shows the magnitude of the industry and its contribution to the livelihoods of countless traders. 

Doing away with the industry altogether will render people jobless, and the government will not necessarily find other jobs for these traders. Killing the ‘problem’ will lead to a larger problem that is harder to solve. 

On the other hand, the production costs in the textile sector in Kenya are very high, coupled with lack of policies, lack of market readiness, built in systemic inefficiencies and importation of second-hand clothing.6

Banning mitumba is not the solution. Yes, it has been enforced in countries like Rwanda, where the tariff on importing second hand clothes was raised so high that traders weren’t able to bring the bales in. But in Kenya, there needs to be a delicate balance between weaning the populace off second hand clothes and onto manufactured clothes to a point where if they were given the choice, they would choose to buy and wear Kenyan because they could afford it and the clothes are of good quality. 

The local textile industry in Kenya is already struggling enough and needs raging reforms before anyone can assume that it can even fully replace second hand clothes. The textile industry needs to be able to access credit, government incentives and the costs of production should also come down so that it is viable to manufacture clothes in Kenya. 

There is still a catch; sustainability must be practiced when manufacturing clothes locally, from good working conditions for tailors, to proper disposal of toxic waste and recycling of extra materials so that the solution of manufacturing clothes does not open a Pandora’s box of sustainability issues. 

Mitumba and local production of clothes can co-exist but their raison d’etre should be sustainability, the means should justify the end products. This way, everyone wins. The customers, the business owners, the government and most importantly, Mother Earth.

Footnotes
  1. Amanda Cotler, “Why Sustainable Fashion Matters,” Forbes, October 7, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellevate/2019/10/07/why-sustainable-fashion-matters/?sh=7622cc5771b8.
  2. Simone Schiller-Merkens, “Will Green Remain the New Black? Dynamics in the Self-Categorization of Ethical Fashion Designers,” Historical Social Research 42, no. 1 (2017): 211–37.
  3. Ibid
  4. Morgan McFall-Johnsen, “The Fashion Industry Emits More Carbon than International Flights and Maritime Shipping Combined. Here Are the Biggest Ways It Impacts the Planet.,” Business Insider, January 21, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/fast-fashion-environmental-impact-pollution-emissions-waste-water-2019-10?IR=T#clothing-production-has-roughly-doubled-since-2000-1.
  5. Mohammed, Awal. “Once Bustling Gikomba Now Trades in Dead Mitumba Stock.” The Standard, September 20, 2020. https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/the-standard-insider/article/2001387027/once-bustling-gikomba-now-trades-in-dead-mitumba-stock.
  6. Hivos East Africa, “Fashionomics Report 2016: The Kenyan Textile and Fashion Industry,” Cotton Africa, 2016, http://www.cottonafrica.com/documents/Fashionomics_report_Kenya_2016.pdf.