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Hidden cost of textile, mitumba industries that threaten environment

 A customer shop for mitumba cloth at Toi Market in Kibra, Nairobi on June 09, 2022. [File, Standard]

A walk through any market or small enterprise centre in Nairobi reveals the number of people who earn a livelihood through the sale of clothing and other fashion accessories whether new or gently used.

Hundreds of shirts and dresses hang from rails, trousers are folded on wooden tables and thousands of other clothing items are jumbled on cotton sheets on the ground.

Bales of mitumba garments are ferried by trucks daily from Nairobi, Mombasa and Uganda to places like Kibuye Market in Kisumu County, which hosts more than 3,000 traders, a majority of them mitumba dealers.

“When bales are offloaded, we sort them carefully into categories and that is what determines the price,” says John Omollo, a 10-year veteran of the business.

Linet Akinyi, also a trader, says other mitumba garments include thousands of underwear, T-shirts and stocks piled carts and tables, some spilling onto the ground.

“It’s a thriving business where everyone makes reasonable profits,” says Akinyi.

Omollo and Akinyi are among thousands of small-scale traders in mitumba (second-hand clothing), a business which has taken root in Kenya.

According to a report by the Mitumba Institute and Research Centre (MIRC), Kenya is one of the largest importers of second-hand clothing in sub-Saharan Africa.

The report by MIRC titled, ‘The global production networks of the second-hand clothing industry’, reveals that in the last six years, Kenya imported mitumba clothes with a nominal value of Sh18 billion, up from 10 billion, an 80 per cent increase.

It is also a huge source of employment: about two million Kenyans work in the mitumba market, making it a critical contributor of employment besides being a source of government revenue. This means it’s a critical sector for Kenya’s economy, and the negative impact when Covid-19 pandemic came calling was huge.   

Second-hand clothing and textile production are two distinct sectors of the fashion and textile industry. Any discussions around the industry are undeniably captivating, as it lies at the heart of providing a livelihood for over two million Kenyans employed in this sector.

Amid these discussions, one critical aspect often goes unmentioned — the detrimental impact of fashion production on the environment, particularly through extensive dumping practices.

Beyond its economic and social ramifications, the textile industry also plays a significant role in escalating carbon emissions, exacerbating the effects of climate change.

Furthermore, it poses a threat to our precious water sources, contributing to their depletion and polluting our rivers and streams.

Environmentalists have raised concerns about the impact of the industry on the environment, considering that the fashion and textile industry is the second-largest polluter in the world, after the oil industry.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in a report, says the environmental damage created by textile manufacturing is increasing as the industry expands.

According to the report, fashion production makes up 10 per cent of humanity’s carbon emissions, dries up water sources, and pollutes rivers and streams. What is more, 85 per cent of all textiles are dumped each year.

Dr Isaac Ndede, an environmental health expert at Moi University, explains that the global fashion industry is a major polluter as it generates greenhouse gases during production, manufacturing and transportation of millions of garments bought annually.

Dr Ndede says the carbon footprint of a garment largely depends on the material. While synthetic fibres like polyester have less impact on water and land than grown materials like cotton, they emit more greenhouse gases per kilogramme.

Ndede said a majority of clothing used in first-world countries is not recycled, harming the environment, as the amount recycled cannot be absorbed by countries like Kenya, which import mitumba.

Prof Raphael Kapiyo, an environmental scientist at Maseno University, says mitumba can damage the environment “when people throw away clothes, thus adding to poorly managed solid waste,” as most mitumba clothes are left to accumulate, piling into landfills.  

Prof Kapiyo says Kenya is experiencing more textile waste from mitumba, yet less than 15 per cent of the clothes are recycled after wearing out while the rest go directly to the landfill sites or are incinerated.

Scientific studies show that when textile products hit landfill sites, they take up to 200 years to decompose.

But recycling of clothes through the mitumba sector, argues Prof Kapiyo, can benefit the environment and achieve improved outcomes in Kenya if there is a policy to support regulation of supply chains through the creation of local sorting houses.

Evans Nyabuto, the corporate communications manager at National Environment Management Authority, acknowledges the environmental policies in place to manage waste, including those generated from mitumba.

“Mechanisms are in place to ensure that mitumba wastes are converted into organic wastes that are biodegradable,” said Nyabuto.

As the debate around second-hand clothes continues to unfold, it is crucial to broaden the conversation beyond economic and social considerations.

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