Second-hand clothes are everywhere in Africa, with Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Benin, Uganda and Kenya among the biggest markets for them. These cheap, fast fashion clothes often end up in the sea and landfills, causing major problems to the environment.
In some African countries, second-hand clothes have been found to collapse the local textile industry, thereby rendering many unemployed. The few local fashion brands that have survived the second-hand clothes crisis find it hard to make sales.
However, one Ugandan designer and entrepreneur, Bobby Kolade, is upcycling second-hand clothes into new items, and trying to sell them back under a project called “Return To Sender.”
“It’s very difficult for a designer like myself, and like my peers, to produce clothing in Uganda that is competitive because the second-hand clothes that flood our markets are so cheap,” Kolade told CBC. “It’s not just that we’re importing second-hand clothes [from] the global north. We’ve also imported a culture of overconsumption and a culture of cheapness.”
According to him, many of the clothes shipped to Uganda and the rest of the continent usually don’t fit the weather while some are simply not usable. Under Return To Sender, Kolade gives clothes that have been sent to Uganda a new identity, he said to CBC.
One of his designs is a four-panel T-shirt where he cuts up to four different shirts and combines them in amazing ways. He has a website where he puts them up for sale to people around the world. He also embosses his designs with a “clothes passport,” which explains the origin of the items used for the piece.
“Hopefully it’s a way of communicating with … people who see this item of clothing, so they ask, ‘you know, what is it? Where is it from?’ And the wearer can just show the passport,” said Kolade.
Kolade hopes that as people continue to donate their clothes, they would also help businesses by buying back his designs.
“We’re trying to say, ‘hey, listen, we are able to create something fun, something new, something very creative and resourceful. We can build smaller industries here. Look at what we’ve done with your waste. Please buy it back if you want to support industry in our country,’” said Kolade.