Used clothing has become big business and businesses in the North are reaping the benefits. With Buzigahill, the Ugandan designer hijacks second-hand clothes from the West and sends them back to the countries they came from in order to reinvent the system.
Buzigahill’s debut collection, artfully crafted from recycled second-hand clothes, took designer Bobby Kolade four years to launch after what he describes as a “series of disappointments”.
Buzigahill’s story begins in 2018 when Kolade moved from Berlin to Kampala with the intention of founding a brand that could help rebuild Uganda’s cotton industry by reopening factories and employing local labor. But the sector was so badly damaged by the political and economic turmoil of the 1970s – which saw annual cotton production drop from 78,000 tonnes in 1972 to 2,000 tonnes in 1987 – that Kolade’s hopes of reopening factories dwindled. were forced to stop. This was the first hurdle.
Kolade’s response was as responsive as it was innovative. “I realize that if I’m going to do something, then I might as well use what’s readily available,” Kolade told Atmos. “It means using second-hand clothing to generate work within a community, develop skills, create a brand and build an industry. It’s not a grand design dream or anything. It’s a necessity. »
To say that repurposing used clothing isn’t Kolade’s design dream is an understatement. On the contrary, Kolade has long been a strong supporter of banning the booming second-hand clothing trade. In 2015, Oxfam estimated that 70% of clothing donated in Europe ended up in Africa. It’s a number that’s steadily rising with the pace of consumption, which has seen the number of times Westerners wore an item of clothing drop by 36% from 15 years ago. The repercussions are manifold. Imports of second-hand garments from the Global North to countries in Africa have played a vital role in the degradation of the continent’s textile industry. Not all clothing is recycled, reused and resold to local communities, those that do not end up in landfills with disturbing environmental and social repercussions.
For charities, however, the incentive to sell bales of used clothing to for-profit companies called “textile recyclers” remains strong. The global second-hand clothing trade is currently valued at over £2.8 billion ($3.2 billion).
It’s a system that forces designers like Kolade, who is trained in both fashion design and couture, to build cohesive collections from disparate piles of unsold fabrics. This, in turn, makes quality control a second major hurdle. “We are led by what we receive,” Kolade said. “Before, I had control over the materials I used. But in Uganda, we buy bales without knowing the quality of the clothes. Kolade said that only 50% of the clothes included in a typical used clothing bale can be used for a new collection. Additionally, the contents of bullets are inconsistently labeled, meaning that an “oversized hoodie” may include children’s clothing or stained, unusable sweaters.
“Right now, our design approach is to use existing garments without completely disassembling them,” Kolade said. “But there’s definitely potential for us to regain more control as we build our team to include modelers.”
“The clothes are produced at very low prices in Southeast Asia, consumed in Europe and dumped in Africa. What we are fighting against is a culture.
Buzigahill’s second collection, released at the end of August, is as experimental and raw as the first. The collection features patchwork hoodies made from strips of multicolored fabrics, and hybrid pants made up of jeans and tracksuits. The result seems harmonious without effort, but the reality of the creative process is far from it. “We start by washing all the clothes before doing anything to them; we just throw things in the washing machine to better understand the extent of their damage,” Kolade said. The next step is to classify the garments by materials, sizes, place of origin and levels of damage in a spreadsheet. “It’s a very long and tedious process that is completely different from anything I’ve learned to do before,” he adds.
Kolade operates a business model he describes as “return to sender” in which redesigned second-hand clothing is “redistributed to the Global North where it was originally discarded before being shipped back to Uganda.” But neo-colonial trade deals driven by the World Trade Organization and punitive tax systems imposed by the North on sub-Saharan Africa are making it disproportionately difficult for business owners based on the continent. These agreements, like Everything But Arms or AGOA, offer preferential treatment for the export of locally produced raw materials such as coffee or chocolate with duty-free and quota-free access to Europe or the United States. United. However, these agreements prohibit companies from working with used clothing. to benefit from the same tax reductions supposed to offer fair compensation to sub-Saharan exporters, specifying that second-hand clothes cannot be re-exported to Europe or the United States
The costs for owners of brands like Kolade are stifling. Not only does Buzigahill pay “textile recyclers” to acquire used clothing from northern countries, but the brand is also liable for VAT and import taxes when shipping goods to those same countries. The total of these costs absorbs up to 40% of the brand’s revenue.
“A company like ours, we are punished twice. We reuse clothes from a country like the UK. We pay all these taxes to operate. But businesses in the UK are making money because someone in Uganda is ordering bales of clothes. It’s money that stays in the UK,” Kolade said. “These are colonial dynamics. Where does wealth accumulate? Where is the money going? You begin to ask yourself: is it possible to build a sustainable business that offers a finished product – and not a raw material – on the African continent if your market is in the North?
Kolade is clear that the responsibility lies with governments, institutions and policy makers. But he urges northern consumers to be careful where they spend their money. Supporting and investing in black-owned brands based in the Global South is a direct form of resource redistribution. “If you order from an African brand, you are helping,” Kolade said. “The more people I can hire and the more African brands can build sustainable businesses, the more leverage we have against big business and second-hand clothing on the continent.” Buzigahill’s end goal is to set up facilities, factories and production lines while creating hundreds of jobs in Uganda. This is the only way to shift the country’s consumer habits from a reliance on second-hand clothes to ones made from local materials and fiber-to-fiber textiles.
But there is still a long way to go. “Even if we were to reopen a few factories, how long would it take for us to actually start producing clothes that can compete with second-hand clothes in terms of price and diversity?” Kolade said. “As things stand, clothes are produced very cheaply in Southeast Asia, consumed in Europe and dumped in Africa. In other words, what we are fighting against is a system, a culture. And it’s so hard to eradicate a culture, especially when that culture has the power and the money — to put it bluntly. How can an institution like the European Union put a brake on the production of fast fashion? I don’t know how it’s possible, but it’s what has to happen.