Page last updated at 03:10 GMT, Friday, 20 February 2009

Fast fashion from UK to Uganda


Scene at a busy Ugandan clothes market

By Jack Garland
BBC News

The dirty pile of clothes lies nestled in a heap of hypodermic needles, empty water bottles and mangled cardboard.

Prising a black blouse from the rest of the mix reveals a popular British brand name on the collar.

It would be an unremarkable sight on any rubbish tip in Britain, but instead of being surrounded by seagulls, giant Marabou storks are picking their way over the hills of waste.

Welcome to one of Uganda's largest landfill dumps, an artificial hill built by some of the 1,500 tonnes of rubbish thrown away by the inhabitants of the capital city Kampala every day.

To find British High Street brands among all this is not only a sign of the impact of globalisation but also a symptom of the UK's growing addiction to throwaway fashion.


Throwaway society

Friday sees the launch of London Fashion Week, a time for shoppers and designers to compare the latest trendy gear.

But this year Defra, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is taking the opportunity to launch a campaign to try and limit the environmental impact of so-called "fast fashion" - a shopping trend spurred on by rapidly changing styles and the ready availability of extremely cheap brands.

Britain throws away around two million tonnes of clothes a year and our consumption is up 34% from 1996 to 2005.

Non-biodegradable clothes tamper with the soil's productivity - they stop water from entering and the run-off hampers food production
Joshua Zake, Environmental Alert Uganda

Defra says this is contributing to a range of environmental problems, including a growth in chemical waste output and the UK's carbon footprint, and yet more rubbish heading for landfill.

The increasing prevalence of man-made fibres such as polyester or nylon means many clothes may never biodegrade.

But convincing consumers to buy less clothing is extremely difficult, and despite the recession, it seems our hunger for cheap clothes continues unabated.

Even the common tradition of hand-me-downs has been all but killed off by supermarket back-to-school bargains.

Sold overseas

Shaida Lane, from London, is a prime example of the fast fashion shopper. She invests in her wardrobe every week and tends to throw clothes away after wearing them just five or six times.

The 23-year-old personal assistant said: "It's just really important to me to keep as up-to-date as possible with the latest fashion trends.

LMB Supplies Ltd
These workers in London are sorting out unwanted clothes for shipment

"It's to compete with my friends but I need to on a professional basis as well."

Recycling is one way to combat the waste but today just 16% of the apparel thrown out in the UK ends up being re-used.

Most of that is exported for resale overseas, and only a tiny proportion is broken down and made into new products such as mattresses and carpets or sold off in charity shops.

One of the companies involved in this industry is LMB Supplies Ltd in east London, which buys around 10,000 tonnes of clothes from local authorities and charities every year.

The business used to be based on breaking down and re-using the cloth, but the rise of synthetic fabrics has meant 70% of the garments are shipped abroad, mostly to Africa, in large vacuum-packed bales.

They are passed on to local salesmen and end up in places such as Uwino Market in southern Kampala, one of the bazaars scattered all over the region.

From these stalls, crammed into narrow alleys, the West's old garments are sold off to clothe East Africa.

Synthetic problems

There are hardly any new clothes shops in Kampala and instead the people go to work in second-hand shirts and suits from Asda, River Island and H&M.

But unlike in Britain, these clothes will have a long life and will probably be worn by several generations of the same family.

Market vendor Joseph says his stall takes second-hand garments shipped not only from Britain, but also South Korea, Germany and Canada.

Why do they end up in landfill? I lived in Africa for many years and there's millions of people literally living in rags
Paul, UK

"We like these clothes because they're good quality, they're not duplicated, and they're very popular," he said.

But even in Africa some of these clothes still end up in landfill, where environmentalists say they can cause long-lasting problems.

Joshua Zake, from Environmental Alert Uganda, said synthetic textiles are a particular culprit.

"Non-biodegradable clothes tamper with the soil's productivity - they stop water from entering and the run-off hampers food production," he said.

"The stagnant water it creates helps the spread of diseases like malaria."

From the catwalks of London to the rubbish heaps of Kampala the impact of fast fashion is wide and deep.

And if the trend continues, the West's wardrobes will be feeding landfill tips around the world for many years to come.


Howard Johnson speaks to environmental campaigner Joseph Zake at a tip

Print Sponsor

Fast fashion nation
18 Apr 08 |  Business
UK clothes chains 'abuse workers'
05 Dec 08 |  Business
How ethical is your fashion?
07 Feb 08 |  Newsnight

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific